City Council OKs $930k to Preserve Historic Digester Building

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Barbara and Greg MacGillivray previously offered to contribute $500,000 to help preserve the 88-year-old sewage digester building at the Village Entrance. Photo by Dondee Quincena

By Bradley Zint, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach’s historic sewer digester building will receive extensive restoration work, thanks to a unanimous City Council motion Tuesday that elicited applause from the audience.

The council approved spending $930,000 to preserve the New Deal-era structure, with $101,000 coming from Village Entrance coffers and another $629,000 from parking funds. The remaining $200,000 is a promised donation from filmmakers Barbara and Greg MacGillivray, who were among many who have wanted to see the building saved for future generations.

The restoration will include measures to weatherproof the 88-year-old plant from rain and wind. It will also be repainted and see its stairs restored.

As it stands now, the red-tile roof structure will continue its current use as storage for Laguna Beach police. It has no plumbing, only electricity, city officials noted.

Council members also approved an additional $130,000 on Tuesday to remove toxic sludge from the building, compiling that effort’s total to $175,000. City staffers said the cost of this work was underestimated last year.

“I think this has evolved to a good place,” Mayor Bob Whalen said, reflecting on the many years of debate regarding the building that has long served as a civic icon for motorists entering the city. The structure closed as a working sewage processing plant in 1983.

Councilman Peter Blake, while wanting to see the building preserved, did not see the point of repurposing it for restrooms, as some have suggested.

City officials floated a proposal to more extensively renovate the building and transform it into a cafe, gallery or retail store — a pricey vision totaling as much as $4.8 million, according to city estimates. For that kind of effort, the MacGillivrays had promised to chip in $500,000 and were interested in securing a 99-year lease on the property.

Blake, however, scoffed at such figures.

“I’m not willing to spend millions of dollars to restore this building,” he said, clarifying that he’d rather spend some money to “make it look good.”

Councilman Steve Dicterow noted that the sewer digester is one of the few Works Progress Administration-era buildings remaining in Laguna. It symbolizes American resilience, he added.

“This is not just local,” Dicterow said. “This is federal in nature.”

Resident Merrill Anderson said President Franklin Roosevelt was photographed visiting the site.

“Let’s do it right,” he said of the restoration. “Let’s do it for posterity.”

Donna Ballard, a local architect, was more skeptical.

“Why spend a lot of money to have it just sit there?” she said.

She said its spot at the cross-section of Laguna Canyon Road and Forest Avenue might be too busy with passing cars for a cafe.

Mark Christy, owner of the Ranch, said his first field trip as a child was to the digester building. He wanted to see it stay put.

Christy added that any business there may never be an “economic windfall,” but having the historic site intact would be just another “cool thing” for Laguna Beach.

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