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Debating Downtown’s Make-Up

Merchants, shoppers, property owners and residents interested in the regulatory blueprint of Laguna’s downtown might do well to attend special Planning Commission workshops welcoming public ideas.

The workshops aim to look at specific topics affecting the downtown from a “philosophical point of view” before making policy decisions, said Commission chairman Norm Grossman. What emerges will shape revisions to zoning, remodeling and development rules contained in the Downtown Specific Plan, adopted in 1989, for the area bordered by Cliff Drive and Legion Street, policies. The plan is to finalize revisions next year.

At the most recent meeting last week, only a few new faces joined a core group of regulars to discuss desirable commercial and residential uses.

How much importance should be placed on maintaining a mix of resident- and tourist-serving businesses in the area led to a dialogue about Ocean Avenue, the downtown street designated a resident-serving zone. The discussion raised questions about whether “resident serving” remains appropriate as a planning device.

To property owner Sam Goldstein, tourist interests seem ignored in favor of resident interests. Resident and Design Review Board member Michael Wilkes noted that Ocean Avenue does not appear to be thriving under its resident-serving designation and wondered how to help it become more exciting without turning it into a tourist-oriented street.

Questions elicited more questions as often as answers.

If zoning stopped encouraging resident-serving businesses on Ocean, “what would we have?” resident Barbara Metzger asked.

Planning Commission member Ken Sadler asked the foundational question. “What are resident serving businesses?”

One reply was pharmacies, dry cleaners and shoe stores. But what of the drinking establishments on Ocean? Are they resident serving?

“The way we shop has changed,” said resident Chris Prelitz, suggesting that planners should factor in trends that have drawn shoppers to satisfy basic needs on line or at big box stores rather than around the corner.

Perhaps labeling an area as resident-serving or visitor-serving misses the mark in creating a destination, said Allan Simon, owner of Firebrand Media and publisher of the Indy. Why not consider zones for art or entertainment zones, he asked?

This begged the question of whether a true need exists for resident-serving businesses such as dry cleaners and pharmacies at the town’s center. Some said yes, citing the importance of maintaining a sense of community. Others suggested that such businesses up and down Coast Highway have already proven their convenience to locals, minimizing the need for their presence in the heart of downtown.

Goldstein suggested allowing second-story development for residential use on Ocean to improve vibrancy, and Wilkes added that more residents would in turn support more resident-serving businesses. Bonnie Hano voiced opposition to allowing any new second levels, regardless of use, because that would open another “can of worms.”

“The $800 gorilla in the room is rent,” said resident Arnold Hano. “Who can pay the rent?”

Principal planner Carolyn Martin admitted that median rent in Laguna Beach comes in at $1,800 a month, compared to the Orange County median of $1,400.

Current guidelines favor merchants with distinctive inventory. Goldstein said the policy effectively creates a barrier to open shop. “You have to really fight to be here, and I’m not sure that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

Commission member Linda Dietrich countered out that the commission had turned down only three businesses seeking entry in the past five years.

Commission member Robert Zur Schmeide defended the practice of monitoring store product lines by requiring merchants to obtain conditional use permits, which are not required elsewhere in town. The policy helps avoid saturation of stores with similar inventory in the downtown area, he said.

But the practice may inadvertently dampen competition, where existing business owners oppose new ones simply to protect their own market share, Grossman said.

Parking presents the greatest barrier to filling vacancies, according to Simon. Eliminating overly strict parking requirements can go a long way to luring in new businesses, he said.

Relaxed parking restrictions are one of the recommendations under consideration in a parking management plan scheduled for review by the commission this week, Grossman said.

Other topics broached included the limited success of second-story retail, regulations requiring chain stores to customize their storefronts locally and establishing an entertainment zone, perhaps at the western end of Ocean Avenue, where noisier uses and even outdoor entertainment might be permitted.

The next workshop in the City Council chambers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 will address Laguna’s identity as an art colony, the civic arts district, including its possible expansion, and the central bluffs.

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