By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
After almost 10 years, a landowner’s proposal to build an artist work/live space in Laguna Canyon has been approved.
At a meeting Wednesday in Calabasas, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a coastal permit sought by sculptor Louis Longi and Chris Dornin to demolish a single-family home and artist’s studio in order to build a 28-unit artists’ work/live compound on two lots that together make up just under an acre of land in Laguna Canyon.
“This project will serve as a model for other communities in the future,” said Coastal Commissioner Donne Brownsey. “This is a very difficult transition period from a community that had a certain flavor and texture of a rural sensibility to the evolution of this community to becoming different in its many ways.”
Longi has been trying to develop his property, located at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road, for a decade, finally winning city approval to do so in 2014. But since then his project encountered numerous legal roadblocks from groups alleging habitat infringement and lack of compliance with planning rules and hazard policy, halting Longi’s process until now.
“We are horrified the damage this project will do,” said Penelope Milne, president of the Canyon Alliance Neighborhoods Defense Organization. “Not just the project itself, but the precedent it would set. The standard is neighborhood compatible. There are no dense, tall projects in this neighborhood.”
Longi’s proposed project looks like this: a 17,000 square foot, two-story, 28-unit live/work complex built over a 45-stall parking garage. The plan will reserve eight units for low-income artists, and one for a moderate-income artist. It will also feature an exterior communal work area and a retail art gallery.
“I’m not a developer. I am not in it for money. I’m just trying to build my studio, and it has gotten so expensive I need to be able to have people rent from me and we can commune together in our studios to make it work,” Longi said.
Opponents of the project have challenged the project’s size, and say it will adversely impact the rural character of the canyon.
They have also questioned the project’s proximity to Laguna Canyon Creek, a protected riparian habitat watershed, which runs through the property.
“This project is urban. The specific plan calls for small-scale development and this project is massive. I know the applicant wants to do something useful here, but it is going to set a precedent,” said Charlotte Masarik, a board member of Village Laguna, a group that promotes village character.
An Orange County Superior Court judge deemed that the initial approval on the matter by the Coastal Commission in January 2015 was unfair because commissioners failed to show the project’s setback from the creek was adequate. Last December, the judge ordered the commission hear the proposal again.
To satisfy possible setback concerns, Longi worked with coastal development planners to provide a 25-foot buffer between the center of the creek and the building, remove rear balconies that would infringe on the creek setback, revise the project by reducing the total number of units to 28 from 30, eliminate two parking spaces, and restore native plants and trees to the property.
“I’m the only private property owner willing to give up a whole section of the land in the creek to restore it,” Longi told commissioners. “I am spending an incremental amount of money to restore it, and I am held to a higher standard than what it is for the neighbors surrounding me.”
San Diego attorney Julie Hamilton represents the Friends of the Canyon, who sued the Coastal Commission over its initial approval of Longhi’s project. Hamilton told commissioners approval of the project will dramatically change the character of Laguna Canyon and open a floodgate of development.
“At 28 units you are going to drive other properties that have smaller, less intense uses into wanting to do the same thing because it is just financially a benefit,” Hamilton said. “All those properties are going to try to do the same thing.”
Supporters told commissioners Longi’s concept is direly needed if Laguna Beach is to maintain its heritage and future as an artist community.
Jonathan Burke, president of Laguna College of Art and Design, testified in support of the project.
Longi’s daughter, Isabella, told commissioners her father’s goal will perpetuate Laguna’s future as an artists village. “I can’t afford to live here; no artist can. That’s why this project is so important; we are keeping the artists in Laguna,” she said.
Opponents recognize the town’s lack of affordable housing impacts artists and other people of moderately low-income. They suggested a better affordable housing solution in the city is already in the works: regulations under consideration to allow development of second units.
“We do understand that there is a housing issue, and that is part of your policy to be concerned with it,” said friends of the Canyon group leader Jackie Gallagher. “Instead of having a massive structure with 28 units, we can spread it through the canyon, you would get 100 more units as opposed to this apartment building on the road.”
After the commission’s unanimous vote approving the permit, Longi’s supporters applauded.
“I am not a developer, I never have been and I don’t want to be. I am an artist,” Longi said. “I’m so excited to start breaking ground in December.”