Serving as an elected official requires many more skills than just listening to your constituents, which in and of itself can be considered a rather easy task given all the other demands of the job. The far more daunting endeavor is to lead, making difficult decisions that benefit constituents when they may not know how it benefits them.
When it comes to Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, as with any elected official, criticism comes with the territory, but what one cannot argue is the impact of her policies, projects and visions for our city.
Those impacts will be felt July 12, the day her decade-long tenure serving the Second District ends with her final council meeting. “Tenure” is a light way of identifying her work as a councilmember; a 10-year plan is probably what Suja would prefer. After all, she owns a doctorate as an urban planner and she has demonstrated that planning for the smallest of public spaces to the grandest area as the entirety of the Downtown will always help create a sense of community.
One of her earliest accomplishment was no small feat. She assembled a Downtown Visioning Task Force that lead to the Downtown Plan, an over-arching land use policy that has altered DTLB development, while welcoming projects like Downtown’s first high-rise in over a decade (The Current). The ultimate achievement will be its influence in the coming years, as the Downtown Plan streamlines the approval process to create more of those types of projects. It will alter our skyline and economy while bringing more people together in the name of livability.
Speaking of livability, Suja led Long Beach in becoming environmental and sustainability warriors—to the extent of drawing envy from far larger metropolises.
Her plastic bag ban that, despite spiking the ire of some, now seems like basic logic and its influence has been felt statewide: 108 jurisdictions now have similar ordinances in place and a statewide referendum to ban single-use plastic bags hits the ballot this November—the first time such a measure has ever been introduced in the nation.
Following in the steps of Mark Bixby—a dear friend of ours—Suja took his love of bicycling and brought it to the public sector on a level that made long pro-bike cities like San Francisco and Austin take note. The protected bike lanes that line 3rd Street and Broadway today were the first of their kind west of New York City. This isn’t to mention Suja leading the implementation of the nation’s second green sharrow lanes, Southern California’s first green bike boxes, and the county’s first bicycle boulevard and first bike corral. Surely it may not have been popular at the time, or even perhaps in some circles today, but Suja’s approach has always been to look at innovative solutions with patience and thought. She has embedded biking culture (and tangentially, a walking and transit paradigm) into the DNA of our city.
Perhaps her single biggest contribution will be something that she and Long Beach are anxious to see: an entirely new Civic Center. Suja long touted that the Civic Center should be the city’s living room, where everyone congregates, where the ideals of democracy can be enacted, and where people can come eye-to-eye with their government. This vision will finally become a reality.
Suja recently shared with me when reflecting on the site of the future Civic Center, “We now have the public installing its footprint on the skyline. It’s going to be amazing—especially since money follows good public investment…I have this vision, sitting on a park bench in my senior years, looking at the Civic Center, as this old lady that will be able to look around and say, ‘Not bad.’”
Definitely not bad, Suja.
This isn’t to say that Suja’s relationship with her partners was akin to a constant slew of agreements and endorsements. Not in the least. A number of disagreements from her closest colleagues, myself included, appeared throughout her career. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on the moratorium of Type 48 alcohol licenses (bars), and her level of support on the minimum wage issue. With this, I can only imagine the things we did that didn’t settle well with her.
No, things weren’t always perfect, but then again, a leader with no critics is no leader at all.
If there was one way to sum up this woman’s legacy, it is that she gave a resounding “No” to the pundits who consistently said that Long Beach “isn’t ready”, and for far too long “suffered from a self-imposed inferiority complex.” She proved that Long Beach is ready. It’s ready for livability. For density. For a healthier community. For a new Civic Center. For the future.
And she did it through partnerships with the community, alliances with fellow councilmembers, and sometimes, on her own.
This is just a snapshot in the evolution of this public servant, a woman whose life spans from one of the largest cities in India to a trek to the United States when she was just seven years old. It is a life that so easily points and ask, “Why can’t you just do this and that?” when it is never fully understood that leading is a delicate balance between listening and establishing a voice that is reasonable enough to be respected but definitive enough to evoke change. One hopes that this is the type of leadership we will continue to see throughout our great city.
Suja, as both a friend and colleague, I sincerely wish you the best in your future endeavors and there’s no question you will continue to make your mark as you’ve always done, and for that, we remain eternally grateful.
Thank you and talk soon.
-Kraig Kojian, President & CEO