By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
After more than two hours of testimony and discussion centering around lack of parking and neighborhood impacts, the Laguna Beach City Council postponed a decision Tuesday on whether to approve extensive renovation plans for the historic Coast Inn and adjacent liquor store.
“I have some concerns with the umbrellas and heaters up top,” said Mayor Kelly Boyd. “I think we have to be concerned about noise levels too.”
Ultimately the council decided to continue the project and create a subcommittee of members Rob Zur Schmeide and Bob Whalen to further discuss the project in a public setting with the developers to see if some common ground on the rooftop bar, parking requirements and neighborhood impacts can be addressed.
Located at 1401 S. Coast Highway, property owner Chris Dornin is seeking a conditional use permit to remodel the historic 1927 property and neighboring liquor store to include three restaurants, a rooftop bar, deck and pool, renovation of rooms, a convenience store, deli and added retail. In October, the Planning Commission recommended denial of the renovations over concerns about compounding the hotel’s use with new proposed amenities and potential neighborhood parking impacts that were not adequately addressed.
“This is a developer purchasing a property then exploiting historic preservation loopholes in order to maximize and intensify usage,” resident Randy Lewis told the council. “This is an attempt to pound a round peg into a square hole.”
Currently, the fire department set occupancy at the 24-room hotel and closed nightclub at about 600 while occupancy of the proposed renovation, with guests, a lobby bar, rooftop bar and deck and ocean-front restaurant, was capped at 329 seats. The 1930s-era hotel is considered an “E” rated historic structure. Dornin is hopeful the City Council will give greater weight to that historical rating, thus allowing for intensifying the land use and parking exemptions.
City policies allow “grandfathered” parking exemptions as a trade off to developers for restoring historic structures, and as an E-rated structure the project could be granted up to a 75% reduction in parking requirements. Dornin is seeking a historic parking reduction of 37% for the hotel and a 39% reduction for the liquor store, or a total of 86 spaces. If granted, those parking reductions would help Dornin satisfy the 197 spaces required for the project when used in combination with already grandfathered in 1958 parking exemptions for the property and the current 13 spaces available behind the liquor store.
“The city has the ability to incentivize people to make something nice and goes back to the past,” said attorney Larry Nokes, who is representing the Dornins. “To do that the city has developed these incentives.”
But project opponents have concerns that the lack of parking will create problems that bleed into nearby neighborhoods. Resident Sheri Morgan, who lives on Mountain Road, and though she is in support of a renovation to the blighted property, its lack of adequate parking worries her.
“To take historic advantage is not enough reason to allow all of these variances and a lack of parking,” Morgan said.
Councilmember Toni Iseman expressed similar concerns about the project’s potential parking impact amid the HIP District, a commercial area between Anita Street and Bluebird Canyon. “It is a vacuum cleaner that is going to suck up every parking place on the block and put a burden on the other businesses that are there,” Iseman said. “That neighborhood is currently saturated. We are really placing the burden on the residents of Laguna Beach.”
Others remain critical of the proposed rooftop bar and turret. The former deviates from the property’s historical integrity and the latter would need a variance due to exceeding height limits.
“There is no analysis of public or private views of the project’s additional height and the various rooftop elements requiring a variance,” said Tim Carlisle, an attorney representing residents of Gaviota Drive. “The tower is simply a basis for seeking fantasy parking credits and a pretense to introduce the non-historic rooftop bar.”
The rooftop improvements would require internal structural reinforcing throughout the building, and some questioned how the project can escape the status of a major remodel, which would trigger meeting new building-code construction standards.
An equal number of supporters saw the plan as an opportunity to restore a long neglected historic structure. Local business owners who spoke in support of the project said the proposed $25 million renovation could anchor what they describe as the town’s flailing business climate.
“This property has been like this for over 25 years. We have Hotel Laguna shuttered; it is affecting all of us,” said Chamber of Commerce President and Rubel’s Jewelry owner David Rubel. “If we don’t get some good projects going and keep putting things off, we are really going to have a calamity on our hands.”
Local interior designer John Wooden also voiced dissatisfaction with the lack of resolution on the project. “We have way too many vacancies in town because people are afraid to come into this community and build.”