Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the plan’s cost.
By Bradley Zint, Special to the Independent
Will the forest of Forest Avenue be cut down?
That has been the suspicion and spreading fear toward changing Laguna Beach’s tree-filled historic downtown, and it came to the fore during Tuesday’s Planning Commission hearing.
The five-member panel was tasked with examining the comprehensive Downtown Action Plan, a blueprint outlining a series of streetscape changes for Laguna’s core, including planting new trees, removing trees, displacing trees, and installing new green spaces and crosswalks.
All in all, the plan’s 24 proposed projects — prepared by SWA Group, a Laguna Beach landscape architecture and urban design firm — would cost $14 million.
However, city officials noted that only $2 million is currently available, and moving forward with the two dozen plans would require more planning, reviews, and funding sources, as well as a more in-depth assessment of the trees’ health. Plans that would involve streets under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Transportation could take years, they added.
Keeping all this in mind, the Planning Commission only provided general opinions on the Downtown Action Plan on Tuesday, after hearing an emotional series of public comments that generally opposed changing the downtown, particularly at the trees’ expense. Commissioners agreed that at a future meeting, they will more deeply dive into the 24 projects and give their input.
“Let’s slow down a little bit,” Commissioner Anne Johnson said. “Let’s think things through.”
Commissioner Steven Goldman called SWA’s document “exceptional,” saying he could embrace change for Laguna. However, like his colleagues and many members of the public, he balked at the idea of needlessly removing any trees that have long played their part in Laguna’s charming allure.
Commissioner Jorg Dubin worried about “overplanning” the downtown, whose current state developed organically over years and includes seemingly random placements of pavers.
But he didn’t want to see the vision take forever to happen, as was the case with the Village Entrance.
“It’ll be like fish,” Dubin said. “It’s not going to get better in time.”
Commission Chairman Ken Sadler said downtown improvement wouldn’t be “for the big bucks.”
“It’s a matter of civic pride and civic improvement that we should do these things,” he added.
Sadler noted that SWA’s vision — which would affect Ocean Avenue, Forest Avenue, Broadway Street, and Coast Highway, among other streets — calls for 151 new trees downtown, bringing the total from 587 to 738.
“I don’t see how anybody could be against that,” he said.
The city plans to remove and replace 115 street trees, according to a city staff report. A city-sponsored arborist survey reported 74 trees are in poor health and another 5 trees are in very poor health.
Public comment took up the bulk of Tuesday’s discussion, with about two-thirds against the plans, primarily on the suspicion that they would ruin Laguna’s beloved trees and the shady canopy they provide.
Even Dr. Seuss’ iconic lines from “The Lorax” about speaking “for the trees” were brought up.
In reaction to the idea that the downtown projects would help businesses there, resident Gene Felder said the difficulties of doing retail in today’s modern marketplace have nothing to do “with sidewalks or trees.”
“So I doubt very much that this is going to help the merchants,” he said
Tess Booth lamented the plans, saying the trees represent the Laguna Beach’s traditional vibe.
Bob Borthwick disagreed with any proposal to remove healthy trees from their downtown roots. Doing so may “transform our brand into something we don’t recognize. If we do, I think we’ll be sorry.”
Johanna Felder, president of the Village Laguna activist group, said the oldest and tallest of downtown’s trees “will be sorely missed” if they are uprooted.
Hasty Honarkar, whose family helms several Laguna Beach businesses ventures, said she saw positive changes ahead in the Downtown Action Plan. She called the document “a step in the right direction for a downtown that is starting to look tired.”
Honarkar also decried the “scare tactics” on social media that spread misinformation about the city’s intent.
Tyler Russell McCusker was also enthusiastic, noting that the plan would replace many trees, including ones that are deemed unhealthy.
“This is truly a comprehensive, aesthetic refresh of our downtown,” he said. “It’s not a tree removal plan, as it’s been called.”