As if braving shopping malls, wrapping gifts, preparing holiday meals and planning family gatherings weren’t enough, last month members of the Laguna Canyon Property Association found themselves scrambling to make time for another task.
They successfully organized a protest over a 30-unit artists’ work/live project proposed in their neighborhood by local sculptor Louis Longi and thronged the Planning Commission hearing on Jan. 8.
Despite diligently outlining a litany of concerns to air in public testimony, the group held little hope of changing minds, said John Albritton, the association’s president. He likened his neighborhood cohort to the biblical epic, their David taking on the city’s Goliath.
And last week’s 3-2 decision in favor of the project proved them right. Commissioners Ken Sadler, Linda Dietrich and Anne Johnson approved Longi’s plan, while commissioner Norm Grossman and chair Robert Zur Schmiede voted against it.
“It seemed like this was going to pass no matter what we said,” said Albritton, who with his neighbors will now attempt to reverse the decision by filing an appeal before that option expires on Jan. 23.
If the City Council hears the appeal, they will review the application in its entirety.
Proponents and opponents have diverged little from their positions since last September when the Planning Commission initially considered granting permits for the 16,192-square-foot structure spanning two adjacent lots at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road.
Most of the opponents live along the largely hidden Sun Valley Drive, which parallels Laguna Canyon Road. They hold that the project is too large and violates the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan, which was adopted in 1991 after that section of Laguna Canyon Road was annexed in 1989. Moreover, they say it raises numerous safety, traffic, parking and flood concerns.
“This building threatens our way of life, which is semi-rural, quiet and mostly made up of homeowners,” said Paulette Cullen, adding that even considering the fires, floods and freezes canyon residents have endured over the years, there was “nothing quite as scary as this multiple unit apartment building.”
In in interview this week, Longi dismissed the argument that the mass and scale of the project violates the specific plan, which includes a light industrial zone where his project is proposed. And two other properties within a half-mile are of similar or greater scale, he said: a storage rental business and Laguna Canyon Artists’ studios. As proposed, his project is envisioned as two buildings of 11,000 and 7,000 square feet.
His proposal and most other commercial properties in the area have Canyon Road frontage, which borders the residential neighborhood, but aren’t in it, he pointed out. As for maintaining neighborhood character, “we’re protecting our identity and our cultural heritage,” said the sculptor.
Those in favor of the project cite the dire need of affordable housing for local artists and believe the project not only suits the surroundings but will be an asset to the canyon.
Since the concept review hearing over a year ago, and subsequent hearings this fall, commissioners asked Longi and the project’s designer, local architect Horst Noppenberger, to consider a number of alterations.
“Our principal focus was to reduce the appearance of mass and scale and also help our building to sort of reconcile itself into the intent of the Laguna Canyon Annexation plan,” said Noppenberger, describing recent design efforts to address the concerns of the commissioners.
The applicant had, indeed, revised the project to comply with the commission’s requests, the city’s principal planner Carolyn Martin said in a summary. The project complies with the height and development standards set forth in the Laguna Canyon Annexation Specific Plan and the municipal code, as well as the city’s general plan and local coastal program, she said.
Opponents, numbering 22 out of the 32 speakers at last week’s hearing, disagreed and also pointed out that the building’s footprint remains the same.
Village Laguna’s Barbara Metzger voiced their strong concern over the violation of the area’s specific plan. “I know you are eager to do something for the artists, but this isn’t the place,” she said.
“We consider our specific plan to be a contract, and we cannot tolerate this betrayal,” agreed Sun Valley Drive resident John Hamil, adding, “We intend to fight this abominable 30-unit intrusion at every level available.”
If an appeal goes before the City Council, Longi believes he should prevail, whether council member vote according to the code or by their campaign pledges to support housing for artists in last November’s election.
The recently adopted artists live-work ordinance was intended to help property owners and landlords provide artists with such facilities. “I did just that,” said Longi. “I took it upon myself to help build something not only to maintain the artists here in Laguna, but also possibly to bring in young artists.”
Albritton insists that besides 17 neighborhood homeowners who recently signed a letter opposing the project others in town also disagree with the project.
Proponents used the same argument as a reason to allow the project to go forward.
“This is what the city’s about,” said Patrick Fetzer, who lives at the intersection of Glenneyre and Thalia streets and moved to Laguna Beach because of its support for the arts. “I hope that you see this project in the light of the good it can provide for future generations,” he said.
Commissioners Grossman and Zur Schmiede opposed the project largely because they believe it doesn’t jive with the area’s specific plan.
Commissioner Dietrich saw no violation of the plan, instead finding that “this architecture echoes the feel of the canyon.” Johnson believed Noppenberger’s changes aptly addressed earlier concerns, finding the project to be “certainly a lot less intrusive than what we had before.”
Though longtime neighborhood resident Ralph Haun spoke for many when he lamented that the project would “make changes that will be regretted in the future…it’s just too big, it doesn’t fit,” commissioner Sadler found the opposite to be true.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that if this is approved and built, I’m going to be proud of it and I’m going to be pleased that I was part of the process,” Sadler said. “I feel this is going to be a positive project for the city as a whole.”