Historic Cottages on Chopping Block

Laguna Beach, Laguna Canyon

A City Council member will seek support for demolition of historic cottages that have deteriorated since they were banished to Laguna Canyon in 2007. Photo by Ted Reckas

Saying his opponents “shot themselves in the foot,” Laguna Beach resident and developer Ken Fischbeck rescinded a proposal made earlier this month to move and renovate two historic cottages sequestered to an empty lot in Laguna Canyon four years ago.

Fischbeck, vice-president of Tresor Construction, was planning on moving the cottages back to town on an Arch Street lot occupied by the former home of renowned plein air artist William Wendt, envisioning it as a mini residential historic complex.

He decided to cut his losses because of opposition from Village Laguna, a group dedicated to “preserve and enhance the unique village character.” He said opponents raised issues that would make the project economically untenable.

“It is a waste of the cottages. I think Village Laguna shot themselves in the foot,” Fischbeck said.

“If he wanted our unconditional support,” responded Ginger Osborne, president of the Village Laguna board, “that we can’t give until we see what the final product would be.”

The residential developer offered to take two of the three dilapidated historic cottages stored on Laguna Canyon Road off the city’s hands and move them onto the Wendt house property at 229 Arch Street.  Fischbeck planned to incorporate the two canyon cottages as the second floors to two new condominiums next to the Wendt house.

“If Village Laguna had just worked with me and said, ‘Let’s do whatever we can to help this guy to try to get this thing slammed through as soon as we can,'” he said, “then I would’ve marched forward. The opposition was more concerned about no growth than to save the cottages.”

In a letter to the council dated March 14, Osborne noted that changes for the Arch Street property, which called for the addition of the two new condominiums at 1,877 and 2,221 square feet, might threaten the Wendt cottage’s historic “E” rating for exceptional significance. Incorporating the cottages as the second floor of the condos, however, seemed like an ideal solution, she said. “We certainly supported the idea of incorporating the cottages into the plan,” Osborne stated, adding that Village Laguna also agreed with Fischbeck’s desire to expedite the process.

Her concern, she said, was adding two more residences plus garage space on a 0.3-acre lot. Fischbeck also planned to add 848 square feet to the existing 1,676-square-foot Wendt house. “There’s not enough room,” Osborne commented.

Councilmembers Verna Rollinger and Jane Egly echoed Village Laguna’s space apprehensions.  “It’s too much changing of the configuration and too much square footage to fit into that little space,” commented Egly.

Earlier in the month, the council unanimously added new conditions to Fischbeck’s plans, requiring that he relocate the cottages within two years, limit living space of the condo-cottages to no more than 1,500 square feet each, not including garages, and maintain the Wendt house as an E-rated structure. Fischbeck reconfirmed his promise to utilize the canyon cottages and maintain the E-rating.

But the stipulations on top of the “dog-and-pony show about losing the E-rating and everybody going up there and talking about William Wendt and how significant he was and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” proved more trouble than the offer to save the cottages was worth, Fischbeck commented.  “Because of Village Laguna’s opposition, it poisoned the whole process.”

Councilman Kelly Boyd, who’s opposed saving the cottages for a hoped-for future use since they were moved from Third Street to make way for the Susi Q Community Center, will ask the City Council at its May 5 meeting to demolish the nearly 100-year-old structures.

Some question whether the canyon cottages still hold value. They are moldy and deteriorated beyond economic use, according to Tex Haines, whose Victoria Skimboards factory is adjacent to the lot where the cottages currently stand.

Fischbeck said he now plans on doing nothing with the property but a little fixing up before he puts the Wendt house sans historic companions back on the market.

The house was recently listed for $1.75 million when Fischbeck thought he would be adding two more residences that would potentially increase profits.  He bought the historic Wendt cottage, which Wendt built as his studio in 1918 and lived in until he died in 1946, for $2.2 million more that two years ago.

Fischbeck said he has spent $80,000 to date on architectural drawings and historical reviews “to see if we could move the cottages,” as well as $15,000 a month to pay for the Wendt property.  He predicted the price of the Wendt house will now go up.

The concerns from historic preservationists about subdividing the lot “threw a monkey-wrench in the whole thing,” commented the builder, who said he’s not a novice in dealing with the city’s building application process. “It put us in a situation where we were locked in. We had to take the cottages within this two-year period.  And if the city dragged their feet, it just didn’t give us enough time.”


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