Formulas Don’t Fit Laguna
“It will ruin the views of the hills from the parking lot,” my friend said when he saw the stakes outlining the new roofs and walls at the Aliso Creek shopping center (CVS and Albertson’s.) A management company in Baltimore has decided that what our shopping center really needs is some pseudo-craftsman false fronts scattered here and there along the façades. So there stakes are protruding up representing walls that have no purpose but to create surfaces for more signs and image-making.
Yes, the improvers are at work again, trying to work their magic to mould quirky and beautiful Laguna into the image and likeness of every other shopping center in California and block views to hills and ocean in the process.
The center was built in the 1950s, and when I first moved to Laguna it included an Alpha Beta Market where CVS is now, Aloha Rexall Drugs, a laundromat, and Moore Hardware. Security Pacific Bank occupied the present Prudential Real Estate building. The rest of the area was a huge parking lot; all asphalt, no trees and with a tiny Fotomat booth out in the middle. A huge Alpha Beta sign loomed on the slope above the highway depicting Alphy, a cartoonish man hailing passersby to come on in. They sold Christmas trees on the vacant lot where Albertson’s is now. The only area available for landscaping, the slope along the highway, was pretty much weeds. The center was low on style and there was no attempt to have continuity of architecture. The place had somewhat of a desolate air.
Then in the 1980s came Santa Anita Development Company with their plans for renovation and additions to the center. We were in the county then, and the South Laguna Board of Review was only advisory. Still we tried.
We had issues with the site plan. “The best view you have is from the southwest corner, yet you’re putting the solid wall of the market there,” we chimed. “No one will be able to see that coastal view.” We suggested that the stores be on the west side so that there could be restaurants with their patios overlooking the ocean, instead of cars in the parking lot having all the view. These comments were to no avail because there were formulas for designing shopping centers. Apparently these could not be altered. What we got for our efforts was trees in the parking lot, the staircase on the corner of Wesley and Coast Highway, the walkway along the oceanward edge of the parking lot, and the path that goes from La Serena to the market.
Bruce Green of San Diego was the architect and he designed a simple scheme with natural concrete columns, dark stained wood siding, split face block, and shingled roofs. I called him and told him what changes were being proposed. “That’s too bad,” he sighed, “It wasn’t great design, but it was substantial.”
Over the years the columns and siding have been painted beige, neutralizing the original concept. Now the new architects are proposing to apply fake rock at the base of the columns, to add arches and false fronts with out-of-scale Craftsman details, and aspiring-to-be-quaint lighting fixtures. Take a look at the shopping center on Crown Valley Parkway near Alicia or Gelson’s for a preview. The corporate world thinks it has a formula that works for commercial success nationwide.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have great architecture with an innovative plan that truly takes advantage of this spectacular location? But since keeping our resident-serving businesses is critical for our community, we wouldn’t want the tenants to be phased out and costs to be increased.
The answer? Take a cue from the original architecture and make it the best it can be. Remove the paint from the columns and the red brick, restore or replace the wood siding. Rethink the signing. Subdue the lighting and install high quality but inconspicuous fixtures. Let the trees in the parking lot that have been dwarfed by over-pruning grow to shade and complement the buildings.
We all visit that center for our daily needs. Let’s have it represent Laguna sensitivity to its surroundings. Look up to the views of Aliso Peak and the preserved natural open spaces. Look out to the ocean and coast. Be comfortable with the landscaping, layout, and buildings that are sensible, attractive and fit their setting.
We don’t need a nationwide formula here.
Ann Christoph, a former mayor, is a landscape architect.