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Village Entrance Moves Ahead, Finally

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.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Dana LaRose says:

    I hope that no matter what the decision ends up being, that the construction does NOT begin in the summer! The traffic is horrendous and our town is known for doing road construction when its “high season” around here! Its not like we live back east and the work can’t be done in the winter!!!

  2. Les Miklosy says:

    Thank you Mayor Boyd and Councilwoman Iseman for your votes, may a public referendum someday be realized.

  3. Roger E. Bütow says:

    When we wanted to decide whether or not to tax ourselves for a $20 million open space expenditure last year, it was placed on the ballot as an initiative. And it required a 2/3 majority for passage.
    This is double that expenditure, and as per usual, these capital improvement projects ALWAYS end up costing more. ALWAYS.
    So why isn’t this placed before the voters like the open space one?
    And shouldn’t it have required a 2/3 or more CC majority, meaning 4 votes to pass NOT 3?
    Each City Council member is only elected by about 20-25% of the electorate maximum, so those seated CC members represent that proportion.
    They do NOT represent nor speak for 2/3 of the residents.

  4. Roger E. Bütow says:

    3 CC members elected by only 20–25% of the registered voters should NOT be making this decision. Many of those votes that elected them are redundant because voters are cast for multiple persons.
    I think that it was the French politician Clemenceau who said that war is too important to be left to the generals: This is too important to be left to our special interest politicians—–what might actually be a minority of our voters.
    A special election, an initiative would probably get a higher turnout than a regular one anyway.
    To those who voted for it: What’s wrong with listening to the voice of the larger demographic, not your constituents and voting base? What are you afraid of?
    If anyone files a legal challenge, count me in as an enviro-consultant who is offering his services gratis.
    I’ll gladly file an amicus brief.
    Vic Opincar & others were correct: This is a fiscal black hole, comes at a time when our infrastructure (streets, sewers & storm system) needs serious $$$. This is a frivolous, imprudent and reckless expenditure that has NOT been proven to be the will of the people.

  5. Dr. Ari Grayson says:

    We the citizens of Laguna Beach need to remember with our votes that “fiscal conservatives” Steve Dicterow, former Festival of Arts Board, Elizabeth Pearson, former Playhouse Employee, and Bob Whalen voted to put us in debt for 25 years to add just 200 parking spaces. It’s insulting for these people to put our money where their mouth is – without allowing us to actually cast a vote and voice our opinion. Councilwoman Iseman previously presented a proposal that was far less costly (-$17 million) and far more pragmatic. If the proposal approved by Pearson, Dicterow, and Whalen is so good, why do they lack the confidence to put it to a public vote?!

  6. Roger E. Bütow says:

    Dana:
    Great point!
    As a 40 year South OC builder plus knowing the difficulties regarding compliance with the new, much stricter storm water Permit (NPDES) ratified by the San Diego Regional Board (Cal/EPA) on May 8th, major excavation will need to be focused on dry weather periods to avoid surface water quality impairments, violations that result in significant fines. Cal/EPA can, in some instances, stop construction completely while more permanent remedies are negotiated.
    I was asked, and joined for a 1 year period, the inner circle of the task force that created this new permit which will be in effect soon. Wet weather is not only more problematic for installation of the VERY deep footings necessary to support such a monolithic structure, but they will be drilling down and probably piercing the envelop of the aquifer which isn’t far from the street level.
    It is “perched” close to the surface, is basically a subterranean stream….And if we get back into an El Niño cycle, it could stretch the project timeline out tremendously. This protraction will not only cost more money but the permit requires extensive and expensive logistics/devices to protect the fragile receiving waters of the Pacific. They’re called Best Management Practices (BMPs), and new Hydro-modification requirements in the Permit will restrict off-site migration of not only runoff volumes but pollutants too.
    Also, the Point of Discharge (POD) zone is immediately adjacent to Heisler Park, which is listed as an Area of Special Biological Significance (ASBS) by the same State Water Resources Control Board. That is the highest level of protection enjoyed by any coastal zone because of its fragility, its species vulnerability regarding toxic runoff.
    Unaddressed by this project’s supporters is the incredible gamut of hydrology and water quality protection hurdles it must overcome without becoming a veritable Laguna version of the movie “The Money Pit.” (Pun intended).
    I’m a professional land use and regulatory compliance advisor—-I can’t envision how or why Cost Benefit & Risk Assessment metrics haven’t been integrated in the planning, in cost projections. It’s a crap shoot, a pig in a poke. The eventual cost over-runs could be in the millions. And during rainy periods the excavation work could be delayed or halted altogether—Creating a traffic nightmare for Canyon drivers.
    As happened at the Lifeguard HQ, and also down at The Montage Resort, subterranean rock formations might hold things up, require blasting or more aggressive, VERY noisy drilling techniques. All of these things take time hence money.
    Then what about the increase in air pollution? Heavy duty, belching construction diesels during the building phase added to visitors vehicles which will be slowed or halted, thus the prevailing air currents will drop increased contaminants onto Canyon businesses, Art-A-Affair, Sawdust Festival and other Canyon residents at least as far as the Boys & Girls Club, probably further.
    It’s a fiscal and environmental house of cards, predicated upon ideal, pollyanna building and funding terms/conditions. Rolling the dice using other people’s money isn’t sound, prudent governance.

  7. Ron Rieser says:

    If the three council members who voted for the Village Entrance Project are unwilling to submit the project to a referendum vote, perhaps the solution is a recall of those council members.

  8. Laury Detrick says:

    glad this finally made it !! It will not be as bad as the works the city did in the canyon to prevent a lot of the flooding. We lived through that and are now happy with the results. We will also survive this construction! i also very much would like to see all the utilities under grounded!! The alleys are the worst.! Kind of funny that money always gets the works done first. Remember the highway under grounding utilities?? Emerald bay got it FIRST. The alleys are not even close to receive under grounding and those lines are overstocked with all kinds of lines. It looks very bad. Maybe we can get a drunk hitting one of those poles??? that is a good excuse to remove them. ( sounds familiar?)

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