If you paid attention to the Laguna Beach City Council and Planning Commission regarding the artist work-live project in the Canyon, you’d swear you stumbled down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland,” where up is down, large is small and wrong is right.
In a sharply divided 3-2 vote, the City Council denied the appeal of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Association of the Planning Commission’s approval of a massive 30,000 sq. ft. apartment complex in the canyon.
At the packed Council meeting, presentations were made that the apartments were a solution to keep artists in Laguna who are priced out of the market, along with testimony by residents that the project violated the city’s general plan and Laguna Canyon Specific Plans, which reads: “Development shall be compatible with the existing development in the neighborhood and respect neighborhood character. . . . “Policies and appropriate implementing actions are necessary to preserve the rural character of Laguna Canyon and to encourage a small, rural scale of development.”
Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman called it “a bunch of apartments” and said, “I don’t think that meets the intent of the specific plan. I honestly believe if a commercial building of this size were built, we’d reject it.”
Commissioner Rob Zur Schmiede agreed, “If we don’t want to do what is in the specific plan, we should amend the specific plan.”
But in Wonderland fashion, City Hall has twisted and turned logic and common understanding of language to fit a seemingly pre-disposed political agenda. Commissioner Ken Sadler said, “Small scale; that’s a hard one to say that this is in any way small. It isn’t. It’s not. . . . But does that one part of the specific plan override all these other goals and policies?” At Council, Bob Whalen (a former Planning Commissioner himself) was deeply troubled by this, “What is proposed is not consistent with the language in the [specific] plan. I think the project is too big.” Whalen suggested that it didn’t make sense that the project needed to quadruple from the original eight units to 30 just so the developers could pencil it out at risk to the neighborhood. In almost Solomonesque fashion, he suggested using city money in similar fashion that was done for Hagen Place to subsidize developers and artists alike. Toni Iseman concurred challenging whether the project would accomplish its raison d’etre of retaining artists priced out of the market, especially if only eight of the 30 units were priced at “affordable” and the remainder “market-priced,” questioning artists would even rent at up to $4.75 sq. ft. (the equivalent of $9,500 on a 2,000 sq. ft. home) for a dingy 500 sq. ft. cramped apartment along with 29 other artists, co-inhabitants and visitors all sharing in toxic fumes, dust, noise, lights, debris, etc.
In his journey to Wonderland, Steve Dicterow didn’t even bother to address Bob Whalen’s suggestion or whether the project was too big. Dicterow said, “We can’t look at what [the neighborhood] is zoned for anymore; it’s not zoned for housing. It’s zoned for light industrial.” He completely ignores the code that light industrial must be “compatible with adjacent residential” and misses the obvious because a 30 unit apartment building by definition is housing.
Is Steve saying that a two-bedroom house is not acceptable but a 30-unit apartment building is? It just defies any sense.
Kelly Boyd minimized the size issue, “I think they’ve redesigned it enough and made some different articulations in it that it makes it a lot more pleasant to me and to the eye.”
Both Steve and Kelly said this was about “change.” But is this really a change for the better? Are artists actually being served here or are they being used as unwitting pawns for the benefit of developers?
We get a sense that this Council has been marching in lockstep in support of developers ever since Steve came back to Council. It is noteworthy that since Steve and Bob’s election, there have been 32 contested votes (non-unanimous), of which, Steve and Elizabeth have never formed a majority with Toni, and Bob and Kelly has only opposed Elizabeth one time in two years. One wonders about the need to rush this project through at the expense of a divided community. While appearing to agree with Bob’s reasoned approach, Pearson said, “Let’s put our money where our mouth is. If that means we create a fund . . . so if we have to do that to help make it viable for the developer and not have to build so big, I get that. That’s probably the next step. Let’s develop a plan to do it. But for tonight, I support the project.” Which underscores Elizabeth in Wonderland. If something makes sense for tomorrow, why do it today?
Alan Boinus, a 25-year resident and marketing entrepreneur, hosts Sunday’s “Clashing Heads” talk show on radio station KX 93.5.