Laguna Beach’s City Council is protesting Irvine’s plan to double the size of a housing development near the Great Park, which could bring more cars to already jammed downtown streets. The council held a special closed session this past Tuesday to discuss possible litigation concerning the development, known as Heritage Fields.
City Manager John Pietig said the city hired a law firm and a traffic engineer to evaluate potential traffic impact and legal options involving the Heritage Fields development by Aliso Viejo’s FivePoint Communities, a developer of master-planned communities. The city retained outside counsel since its own city attorney, Phil Kohn, also serves in the same capacity for the city of Irvine and as general counsel to the Great Park.
The deadline to file complaints on the project in response to a draft environmental impact report is next Thursday, Aug. 23. The city has requested an extension until Sept. 7.
Irvine’s spokesman Craig Reem was unaware of any concerns expressed by Laguna’s city officials, but noted that Irvine’s elected officials cannot comment on responses to the EIR until after they are officially received.
Laguna officials are lodging a protest because the Heritage Fields developer has doubled the number of proposed homes to 10,700 from the nearly 5,000 approved last year. This, according to national traffic standards, could create more than 100,000 car trips daily, some of them likely destined for Laguna’s beaches, shops and restaurants.
But former Great Park board member and Laguna resident Michael Ray said changing land use to homes rather than commerce should not generate more vehicle trips. The traffic impact on Laguna, he said, “is essentially a wash.”
FivePoint revised plans for 1 million square feet of commercial space to accommodate new housing, which will not increase traffic beyond what was already approved, said spokeswoman Carol Wold. Breaking up the commercial space will also prevent large industrial users from moving in, she said. The shift to residential, traditionally a more lucrative market than commercial property, was made to help fund and develop the $1-billion-plus Great Park, she said. The park is twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
Laguna city officials are discussing requesting Irvine provide a parking lot or garage and shuttle service to reduce the number of vehicles originating from their town. Ray said the city of Irvine has already approved enough housing to increase its population by 100,000 people in the next 15 to 20 years and believes adding infrastructure for public transit is a legitimate request. “Now’s the time to do it,” he stated.
Ray added that, once completed, the Great Park should be as big a destination as the beach, which could alleviate concerns about added congestion.
Part of Irvine’s Great Park was designated as public space 10 years ago with other surrounding acreage earmarked for commercial and residential development. The Heritage Fields development is a planned community within a larger residential area known as the Great Park Neighborhoods.
The park sits on what was once the 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, a WWII base and military training facility that was closed in 1999. Lennar Housing purchased the land under an agreement with Irvine to designate 1,347-plus acres as cultural and recreational space and to contribute $200 million toward the park’s development, which has been paid, Wold said. Future land purchasers will contribute an additional $200 million.
The depressed economy, said Ray, has set Great Park development back by 10 years, especially since some park funding was anticipated through a redevelopment agency, abolished due to the state’s fiscal crises.
Earlier this year, Laguna council member Elizabeth Pearson expressed similar congestion concerns about Irvine Co.’s completed Laguna Altura development of 753 home sites and a potential population of 2,000 people at the periphery of Laguna’s greenbelt. According to traffic standards, that’s about 16,000 car trips a day in and out of that community.
Pearson said she’s now concerned by increased traffic from both developments. “The folks who live out there would be coming to Laguna Beach to go to the beach and entertainment and that would create a lot more traffic for the community,” she said. The nearby developments add urgency to recent city hearings exploring ways to more efficiently use Laguna’s existing parking spaces. Plans for a parking garage at the village entrance were abandoned over anticipated costs.
The city’s Business Assistance Task Force asked the Irvine Co. to consider a shuttle service in their plans for Laguna Altura, Pearson said, and was advised to talk with the homeowners’ association after all the homes are sold.
With the additional units planned at Heritage Fields near Irvine’s Great Park, Village Laguna, a group dedicated to keeping Laguna Beach’s character intact, is also pushing the city to intervene.
“We all slept through the development of Laguna Altura at the far end of Laguna Canyon,” said Village Laguna president Ginger Osborne, who at last week’s council meeting urged elected officials to stand up. “Can we afford to sleep through this?”
Irvine’s draft EIR can be accessed at http://www.cityofirvine.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=20588.