Former Seal Beach director of development looks at his past and the city’s future

Former Seal Beach Director of Development Services Lee Whittenberg’s retirement party was held Friday, Oct. 9. That was also his last day on the job. The city has already appointed an interim director of Development Services.

A few hours before he went off to celebrate nearly 20 years in Seal Beach government, the Sun Newspaper interviewed him about his career, his job and his thoughts about the future development of Seal Beach.

“The reason I went into planning was because I wanted to be an architect,” Whittenberg said.

However, there was an obstacle. To become an architect, he would have to pass calculus. Unfortunately, calculus was not his strength. One day, in calculus class, a professor announced the school was launching a planning program. Whittenberg said he knew he wasn’t getting out of the calculus class, so he changed his major to planning.

He said it was interesting to figure out what people want in their communities.

In Seal Beach, he said there was always a fairly concerted effort to keep the city as it is. As examples, he cited the issues of whether there were too many restaurants on Main Street and the political battle in 2008 over residential height limits.

The controversy in the 1990s over how to develop the Hellman property was another issue he cited. “Hellman was a tough battle,” he said.

During that controversy, Whittenberg remembered Planning Commission meetings that started at 7 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. At his last Seal Beach City Council meeting, on Monday, Whittenberg said he remembered being told that all he would have to deal with were the building permits for the Hellman development. The audience laughed.

Whittenberg told the Sun that, at present, there are 150 acres of undeveloped land on the Hellman property, but development of that land was restricted by the California Coastal Commission.

The continuing hostility toward covered roof access structures is another example of Seal Beach residents who want to keep Seal Beach from changing. When asked about recent opposition from residents towards exterior elevator shafts that extend above the 25-foot residential height limit, Whittenberg said people who wanted those elevator shafts would have to build shorter houses.

Whittenberg also said that technology was always changing and someone would eventually come up with a way to install elevators that remained within the 25-foot height limit.

Whittenberg predicted the next major development controversy in Seal Beach would be the so-called Department of Water and Power property, which is owned by Bay City Partners.

Whittenberg might have been right. At a recent City Council meeting, one woman asked how the property owners dared to submit plans for developing the property without changing the specific plan for the land. Another resident, who had opposed the height limit in 2008, said city officials had undervalued the land in offering $2.30 a square foot for two portions of the DWP property. City officials have said they made that offer based on a professional appraisal.

With all the controversies, Whittenberg said he has never dreaded coming to work. He said he will miss working with people to help them do what they want within the Municipal Code, state and federal law.

He’s also going to miss the people he worked with at City Hall, in and out of city government. He said said some of the people working in City Hall had been here longer than he had. Whittenberg said he always had good people around him and the work of director of Development Services had never been a one-man show. For that reason, Whittenberg did not think it would be difficult for Seal Beach to find someone to be his permanent replacement.

He said there were all kinds of people out there that can do his job. In a city like Long Beach, a development director would spend a lot of time delegating. “In Long Beach, you’re the top of the food chain. Here, you’re part of the food chain,” Whittenberg said.

To do his job, you have to write reports and deal with problems. He said you can’t just be a “director,” gesturing with his hands to indicate quotation marks, delegating tasks to people. In Seal Beach, a planning director must be a working director.

Whittenberg has left the office, but hasn’t left the city altogether. He will be working part time as a development consultant for the foreseeable future. In his free time, he and his wife plan to travel.