After years of talks and studies, Laguna Beach’s City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to proceed with a $42 million village entrance park and parking structure, partly financed by an estimated $29 million revenue bond measure.
Mayor Kelly Boyd and council member Toni Iseman dissented. Boyd objected to proceeding without putting the measure before voters because of the amount of debt involved; Iseman said she objected to the cost and the debt altogether.
More than 40 people voiced their opinion at the special meeting, 17 in support of the project and 15 objecting and calling for a public ballot. Another five opposed the project altogether; two others called for different financing.
Most opponents of the project objected to its scale or price tag or questioned if the proposed parking structure would curb congestion. Those who wanted the issue decided by ballot generally disapproved of taxpayers footing the bill for a 25-year debt issue.
The debt repayment plan, however, assumes that revenue from the parking structure and higher parking meter rates around town will cover the cost and not be borne by taxpayers, noted City Manager John Pietig and council members Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow.
Designer Allan Pullman of Long Beach’s Studio One Eleven provided a “conceptual” description of the project, which includes a four-story garage with 500 parking spaces to be built around the sewage lift station, and what he described as Creekside Park, a landscaped pedestrian park west of the flood control channel along the canyon, linking the art festivals to downtown.
The plan allows for about 80 spaces in a surface lot that Pullman said will be “made more beautiful” with landscaping and live oaks. And it calls for the renovation of the historic digester building, which could be repurposed as a visitor’s information center or a bike rental spot.
Currently, the corner of Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road accommodates 397 parking spaces, 168 for public use, 145 for city employees or vehicles, and 85 for use by the Festival of Arts in summer.
The completed entrance project should yield a net increase of 200 parking spaces, said Pullman.
Pietig outlined the project’s projected $42 million cost, which is based on a $36 million construction estimate that allows a 20 percent contingency. He also described cost saving measures that reduced the price tag by about $7 million from the previous estimate.
“At this point the project is extremely conceptual, so the estimates are very broad,” cautioned Pietig.
Iseman and Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson collaborated on the project intermittently over the last 10 years. They presented diverging plans in March. In a 4-1 vote with Iseman dissenting, the council favored Pearson’s option, largely the same as that presented Tuesday.
Pearson and Whalen came up with the financing plan presented Tuesday that taps the city budget for $13.3 million and raises the remaining $29 million with a 25-year bond. The city portion includes $7.8 million from a parking fund, $5 million from a capital improvement fund and $500,000 from the sewer fund.
The proposed bond would be sold to investors and would require $2.1 million in annual debt service, based on 4.9 percent interest, with repayments generated from parking revenues. As a precaution, the financing strategy approved calls for raising $2.3 million a year.
About $2 million annually would be generated by meter rate-hikes of $1, and another $300,000 a year could be gleaned from the new parking structure, said Pietig. The latter figure assumes each of the 200 new parking spaces generate $1,500 a year, the same per-space revenue earned by the existing surface spaces in the Forest and Laguna Canyon lot, he said.
Revenue bonds don’t need voter approval, Pietig said.
Bonds paid off with property taxes, such as the 2001 school bond measure, require voter approval, but the same is not true of debts paid off by a designated revenue source, Whalen said.
Still, many residents agreed with Audrey Prosser that elected officials serving four-year terms should not decide on such an expensive project imposing long-term debt with lasting consequences.
“I hope you don’t disenfranchise us,” implored Bonnie Hano, who questioned if “optimistic” revenue projections would cover debt repayments.
“I don’t think five people should make decisions for 25,000 people,” agreed Mayor Boyd, adding that he’d like to see the project move forward, “but not under these circumstances.”
Representatives for the Festival of Arts, Laguna Playhouse and the Chamber of Commerce all expressed support for beautifying the gateway intersection.
Resident Kathleen Jepson-Bernier asked how a “monstrosity of a parking garage” serves as an attractive welcome mat or serves parking concerns in other parts of town.
Former Mayor Kathleen Blackburn, who ran on a plank to build the village entrance in 1989 and supported the findings of a task force report in 1995, couldn’t be there Tuesday night, but a letter was read on her behalf. “Please, get the darn thing built,” the letter concluded, a sentiment echoed by numerous proponents.
Resident Pat Kollenda, who was present, coincidentally dusted off a copy of the report cited by Blackburn. The rationale is the same now as then, she said, solving a need for more parking and beautifying the town’s gateway intersection.
Iseman balked at the city taking on debt and interest payments that will tally $81 million and that will consume parking revenues that could fund other services, such as undergrounding utilities, senior assisted living projects and adding an outbound lane to Laguna Canyon Road, among other suggestions. She said city funds already set aside could create a smaller park and provide more parking by adopting measures proposed in the parking management plan.
Dicterow supported the project, admitting that it won’t solve all congestion problems, but will help “chip away at them” and is a long overdue start to a solution.
Pearson insisted that the plan differs little from the one she and Iseman first agreed on 10 years ago. Yet, now, with new housing developments at the town’s border with Irvine, the matter is more pressing than ever, she said.
As part of the plan, city workers will begin to replace 1,178 coin-operated parking meters with credit card versions, said Pietig. The meters themselves will foot the $650,000 bill for their installation with revenues from rate increases within 18 months, he said.