Down to Earth
In May of 1971 I had just graduated with a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan. I made my way west in the white 1964 Ford Fairlane my dad had given me to take to graduate school. He was happy to be rid of it because it was gutless and the lowest model in the line. It was perfect for me though, and it got me safely back and forth across the country. It was four-door but functioned as a two-door because the locks on the rear doors were permanently jammed. My fellow graduate students, being hard up for transportation, didn’t care and jumped over the front bench seat to fill up the rear, even for the formal graduate students ball.
By the time I got to Laguna to interview with Fred Lang, there was a clothes hanger for an aerial and quite a bit of rust along the lower body. Since I had no place to live, all my possessions, including a Magnavox hi-fi record player, were crammed into all the non-driver areas of the car. I must have made a very sophisticated impression as I came for my interview to his ocean front office in South Laguna.
There I was waiting in his office, nicknamed the “Train Wreck,” the Lamont Langworthy designed modular building near Aliso Beach, hearing the crashing waves, looking at the angular beams and rustic redwood siding, absorbing California. Fred, late as usual, breezed in, introduced himself and started with, “Well, I don’t know what our chances are of having you work with us…”
Then instead of asking me about my work, goals, experience, what motivates me…as all the other interviewers had done, he proceeded to show me the projects he and his partner were working on to impress me with the caliber of the firm. He finished the session by saying, “I won’t call you. You call me if you’re interested.”
But then the next day he called me after all and offered me a job at $4 per hour. Even though I had another offer of $4.50, I took the job with Fred. He made me feel appreciated and I was eager to implement the environmental planning and preservation ideas I had practiced at school. Fred wanted me to work on a South Laguna General Plan that he proposed to donate to the County of Orange. The other office wanted me to do calligraphy.
Fred and I started our work in mid-May when we went to the Orange County Planning Commission meeting. He was able to get a postponement of a decision on a high-rise condominium and trailer park plan above the hospital by offering to prepare the South Laguna General Plan pro bono for the county.
Little did I know that at that same time Laguna Beach residents were submitting their petitions to limit the height of buildings in the city to 36 feet. Fred knew and started to fill me in on local politics. South Laguna was not part of the city then, but the germinating environmental ideas were infectious and crossed the municipal boundaries. Open space preservation, habitat protection, limitations on density and height, citizen participation in government became common themes. The California Environmental Quality Act was passed; the Coastal Act was approved by voters. These were all regulations put in place to set the course of our state aright, to balance the damaging effect that minimally regulated development was having on our landscape and society.
Many people played a part in this effort locally, some making it their life’s work, others doing one very important thing just when it was needed.
The result for Laguna is a residential scale community, still with village character surrounded by 20,000 acres of greenbelt open space. People who were children in 1971 or not even born yet are carrying these ideas forward and going on to the next steps.
It’s worth celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the passage of the Laguna Beach height limit. There’s the Village Laguna potluck picnic at Aliso Beach, Monday, Aug. 29, 6 p.m., and there will be a reunion and presentation at the Laguna Canyon Conservancy dinner on Sept. 12. Please come.
It’s celebrating so much more than the initiative, which is mighty impressive. It’s celebrating the citizens taking charge, being willing to extend themselves, to devote part of their lives to their community. It’s celebrating the good we can do when our hearts are devoted and our sympathies are down to earth.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former council member.