By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Planning Commission on Tuesday agreed with city staffers’ analysis that most public comments on the Downtown Specific Plan didn’t warrant changes to the document that will guide development in Downtown Laguna Beach for at least a decade.
Director of Community Development Greg Pfost clarified a controversial change to allow developers to merge lots for projects greater than 5,000 square feet on Broadway and the CBD Office Districts. Such development would need to include affordable housing and would not be permitted on Forest and Ocean avenues, he said.
“A lot of folks, I think, had a misunderstanding that you’d tear down all of Forest [Avenue] and get a major block-long development,” Pfost said. “No, that’s not going to happen.”
The current Downtown Specific Plan permits so-called planned integrated developments in the Central Bluffs District and Civic Arts District by obtaining a conditional use permit, he said.
Planning Commissioners Anne Johnson and Jorg Dubin recommended that artist work-live units be allowed in the CBD Office Districts to allow artists to open a gallery and build a living space above it.
After hearing concerns from community members, city staffers floated the idea of raising the parking requirements for downtown commercial uses from 3.6 to four spaces for every 1,000 square feet of gross floor area. Business owners claim this flexibility is key to attract new tenants to downtown Laguna Beach.
However, a majority of the Planning Commission felt that staff’s original suggestion of lowering the parking rate to three spaces for for every 1,000 square feet was appropriate based on a city-sponsored parking study that found actual demand during summer and non-summer month is even less than this.
Planning Commissioner Steve Goldman said the city will continue collecting data on traffic and parking over the next year that will be helpful in forming local policy. He also pointed out that driving habits are changing with the rise of ride-sharing services.
Planning Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin agreed with Goldman.
“Unless we’re building a parking structure in the middle of downtown or subterranean parking, we’re not going to be able add more parking,” she said. “Driving habits, as Commission Goldman just said, are changing. People are going to smaller cars, and as cars get smaller, parking spaces can get smaller.”
She added that the city has implemented policy to make streets more friendly to walkers and bicyclists.
Notably, the Planning Commission agreed with staff that it was not necessary to limit the size of second-story residential units to ensure they’re affordable to students and elderly residents. City staffers said that parking requirements are often seen as a bigger obstacle for developers looking to build units for low-income seniors and/or disabled residents. The Downtown Specific Plan would waive required parking as an incentive to affordable housing developers.
The Commission agreed to continue discussion of the Downtown Specific Plan at a special meeting on Nov. 20.
In other business, the Planning Commission unanimously vote to move forward with abandoning three unimproved pathways in the Temple Hills Drive neighborhood.
The impacted land includes the pathway between Temple Hills Drive and Bayview Place, the pathway between Bayview Place and Canyon View Drive, and the pathway between Buena Vista Way and Coast View Drive.
Pending an appeal to the City Council—which has already signaled it’s unwilling to improve the pathways or view them as viable evacuation routes—strips of open space extending to the center of the pathways would revert to the adjacent homeowners and be added to property tax rolls.
“Staff believes development of the pathways would not be in the public’s best interest because of construction, privacy, and trespassing concerns,” Drapkin said.
The cost benefit analysis for developing the open space as functional pathways didn’t add up for Commissioner Dubin.
“I have to question the people who spoke in favor of maintaining these. How many of you actually use those?” he said. “I see a lot of people who probably don’t use them for whatever reason.”
A big question looming over this discussion was who would be legally responsible if someone was injured while traversing the pathways. City Attorney Phil Kohn previously said case law supports the city’s stance that it has no liability for pathways because it never accepted their dedication when the neighborhood was developed decades ago.
“It’s assumed that if the city modifies a natural trail, the city becomes liable, but the liability of someone using that trail now is unclear,” Pfost said.
Goldman said he agreed moving forward with the the abandonment of the pathways will provide more clarity regarding their maintenance and liability.
Residents have 14 days from the Planning Commission hearing date to file an appeal to the City Council.