renaissance

What Gives Laguna Its Character?

Does Laguna Beach’s charm arise from its architecture? Its geography? Its people? Does it matter what views pedestrians have as they make their way around town? What kind of trees should line the streets? Should policies be set to make improvements?

Ideas on Laguna’s “village character” and how best to define and preserve the views of the downtown area surfaced during a Planning Commission workshop last week as a prelude to contemplated revisions of the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, the commercial area bounded by Cliff Drive and Legion Street.

Participants discussed these and other questions, and achieved some consensus, but a few sticking points emerged in the details. Most agreed some storefronts could use a little TLC, a goal some suggested could be achieved with incentives, while others suggested higher-end tenants. And while many see that mixing residential and commercial use in the area can add vibrancy, not everyone agrees with allowing construction of second-level housing.

Finalized in 1989, the 133-page Downtown Specific Plan, serves as a growth and development guideline to “preserve and enhance the unique character of the downtown.” An amendment in 2000 expanded the area to include the Civic Art District, which extends the western boundary to the Boys & Girls Club on Laguna Canyon Road. It has been suggested that the next amendment enlarge the canyon boundary to take in the ACT V parking lot and the Laguna College of Art and Design.

Directed last July to overhaul the plan, the Planning Commission set to information gathering and analysis and expects to finalize a plan by in March 2014, which would require subsequent certification by the Coastal Commission. Principal planner Carolyn Martin leads the project.

Participants at a walking tour workshop in January scrutinized the town, considering building heights, signage, sidewalk size, pedestrian amenities and parking requirements, among other details. They followed up with a subsequent workshop to go over the observations and summarize their conclusions.

Last week’s workshop delved in more depth into specific topics, village character and view preservation.

“We’re talking about appearance and feeling,” said planning commissioner Norm Grossman, soliciting comments on what makes up the character that sets Laguna Beach apart.

Peggy Trott, general manager of the Inn at Laguna Beach, noted that in on-line reviews visitors often highlighted their ability to walk everywhere, the great shops and restaurants, the people-watching, the beach and the “picturesque” nature of the city.

Asked by Grossman to define picturesque, participants responded with answers that ran the gamut from the uniformity of the downtown’s village character to its lack of uniformity, evidenced by its eclectic architecture.

Heads nodded when Ginger Osborne described the “sense of community” that permeates the town and again when and Visitor’s Bureau chair Karyn Philippsen pointed out the prominence of the beach and natural wonders visitors encounter in the town’s hidden coves.

Laguna’s charm comes from the density created by downtown’s topography, sandwiched between the ocean and coastal foothills, giving it the aspect of a village, local architect Morris Skenderian pointed out. “To me, that’s what we have that nobody else has and that’s why they come here.”

Room for improvement abounds in the form of poorly maintained buildings and neglected storefronts, said Allan Simon, owner of Firebrand Media and publisher of the Indy.

Sam Goldstein, owner of the meticulously restored Tommy Bahama building, agreed and suggested that higher-end merchants might take better care of their properties.

Heritage Committee member Bonnie Hano countered that quality should not be equated with high-end merchants. Others pointed out that diversity adds charm.

Some suggested incentives to landlords such as annual beautification awards or business improvement districts that imposed standards, among others.

Building height limits, restricted for decades, was also debated. Some adamantly opposed allowing second story construction in any form and cited view obstruction and potential erosion of village character due to density. Proponents saw merit in selectively allowing another story, preferably for residential purposes, but perhaps not on Forest Avenue.

Additional concerns raised included the permitting and design review process for renovating old buildings, heavy traffic on Broadway and improving its appeal to pedestrians, the relaxation of parking requirements for conditional use permits and the prohibition against power cleaning sidewalks.

Participants also discussed greenery issues such as tree sizes and types, whether some areas might be better served by hanging flowers than trees, and improving some areas with pocket parks.

“We are all sitting here trying to figure out what’s wrong with this town, and yet we all live here because of what’s right with it,” Skenderian pointed out.

Another workshop is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17, in the City Council chambers. The topics discussed will be downtown commercial uses, re-use and intensification and housing. View here the current  plan; also available at the city’s website.

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