A professional urban design team will soon take a role in shaping Laguna Beach’s development policies in downtown and along Laguna Canyon.
Which one isn’t yet clear. Three teams of top-notch professionals presented their credentials and their visions to the public and city staff last week. City Council member Bob Whalen said this week a decision isn’t likely before June or July, pending a check of their references.
Tasked with updating the city’s existing Downtown Specific Plan, which guides development standards between Cliff Drive and Legion Street, city planners spent the last year collecting information and holding workshops. An urban planner will assist the effort by integrating findings from past and ongoing studies, gathering input from residents and businesses and helping city planners devise a strategy to preserve and enhance Laguna’s distinctive character.
A group of city staff, elected and appointed officials narrowed the candidates to three firms, which presented their teams and strategies and took questions from among about 50 people last week.
All teams promised their recommendations would emerge from public consensus through intense outreach in various forms and understood the imperative of maintaining local character amid change. All assembled teams harnessed some impressive specialists. Even so, some differences in approach, methodology and philosophy emerged.
San Diego-based MIG promised high-tech resources, such as a 3-D computer-modeling program, to help the public visualize alternate solutions. As an example, they demonstrated how the intersection of Broadway Street and Coast Highway might look with buildings rather than gas stations that now occupy both inland corners. Retail expert Mike Berne talked about the value of maintaining a thriving downtown, where filling vacancies may hinge on better understanding shopper’s aspirations and existing merchants whose success lures new shopkeepers.
MIG’s team included transit experts Bob Matson and Rick Williams, who both worked on the city’s parking management plan. They see shared parking as one solution to congestion. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come up with a land use plan that might intensify land use, but reduce parking demand,” said Matson.
With the advantage of a local Glenneyre Street office, Sausolito-based SWA’s Sean O’Malley suggested locals might stop in to look at plans and proposals as ideas progress. And team member Tom Low of Civic by Design in Charlotte, N.C., offered expertise in promoting public participation.
Low spoke of integrating sustainability into community design and implementing the kind of development that “lays lightly on the land.” He described towns that succeed with smaller parking structures at the periphery, and redesigned surface parking, attractive enough to double as civic spaces for markets and events.
Mat Shannon, SWA’s real estate expert, said that Laguna’s downtown is “underperforming,” and saw single-story structures on the beach as a missed opportunity, where most towns, he said, would allow higher density.
Both SWA and MIG team members talked about balancing Laguna’s heritage with progress and the delicate process of deciding what elements deserved preservation and where there was room for incremental change.
David Sargent, of Los Angeles-based Sargent Town Planning, spoke about enacting codes that will safeguard the community’s vision. To visualize streets as more pedestrian- and bike-friendly requires visualizing how buildings and open space also evolve and enacting development standards and design guidelines to shape that incremental change, he said. First, though, he said it requires an understanding of existing conditions.
Team partner Andres Duany, principal of the planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, earned applause by saying that most planning should center on avoiding actions that could erode Laguna’s character. Planners must figure out “what can go wrong with a place like this and vaccinate it” against those possibilities, he said.
As an example, Duany pointed to the challenge presented by Laguna’s built environment, much of it developed prior to the application of municipal and state codes. The challenge is to shield against state regulations that naturally lean toward bringing everything up to code. “I know very well what destroys this kind of place, and that has an important role here,” he said.
Duany won more applause for articulating his transit philosophy. “You are lost,” he said, if city plans try to accommodate every anticipated visitor with a parking space.
Sargent said his team is exploring a partnership with One Laguna, a private tourism center on Forest Avenue operated by the Indy’s owner, Firebrand Media, as a potential center for their project and a place of connection for the community.
Let Laguna Vote members support the Sargent group, chair Rita Conn informed the council this week.
A video of the public forum is available on the city’s web site.