Loopholes for Changing Downtown
Property rights is one of my core beliefs. You should be able to do with your property what you wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the clear enjoyment of your neighbors to have the same right. That means if you can’t see my deck, you should not be able to block my building one if it doesn’t encroach on you. I am for development and am excited about upgrading our buildings around town and restoring historic grand old dames like the Hotel Laguna and hopefully the movie theatre.
But I draw the line with an owner’s right to do what he wants if it is going to dramatically change the neighborhood. I am quite concerned with what is potentially happening to our city’s “village feel” with the new Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) and a current loophole called a “Corporate Development Agreement.” This vehicle, legal under our General Plan, would allow a developer to create an “overlay zone” which then exempts them from General Plan guidelines and zoning regulations. The City Council needs only to approve a finding that there is some benefit to the general public, like public art, maintaining a park, beach access, or parking. Then the developer can pretty much do what they want. So, no Planning Commission, Design Review Board or city approval. Six current development projects are looking to be reviewed under this “CDA”—what are we going to get for a pass on regulations? City staff seemingly is directed to accommodate development—will they adequately consider the needs of the residents? Will our developer-friendly City Council listen to residents’ input?
There’s another loophole I find disturbing—the parking requirement. The new DSP has thrown out the current parking requirements for a business: four spaces per 1,000 square feet for retail, 10 per 1,000 square feet for restaurants. The new plan specifies a blended number of three per 1,000 square feet for any business. Do you see downtown turning into a food court under this? I do. So much for revitalizing and supporting the merchants. Laguna already has more bars and restaurants per capita than most OC cities. This further intensifies the use of the land—packing more people into our town.
Also, if you renovate an historic building (think Hotel Laguna) with few or no parking requirements, you get to grandfather them in. City Council can approve up to a 70 percent parking exemption for historic buildings. So potentially, there would be no parking requirements. What to do with the parking you have? You can, let’s say, “gift” them for the public benefit. And now you’re using the Corporate Development Agreement and get to do what you want. Before the Skyloft building was renovated, the requirement was 170 spots. That went away after it was renovated by using the 70 percent exemption and grandfathered spots. They are now required to have zero parking spots. So, where does everyone park? The Glenneyre structure no doubt, further decreasing the available parking for residents and other merchants. I love the Skyloft development and am happy it was done. But I think the parking issue should have been addressed. Did you know that if a merchant doesn’t have the spaces, they can pay a low “parking-in-lieu” fee of $20,000 per spot? Yet the city claimed in 2017, two years ago, that building a new parking spot in town would cost a minimum of $100,000.
The most troubling change to our DSP is the idea of combining lots and developing the space as one giant building. If this goes through, someone could buy up lots on Ocean Avenue and turn it into a huge building. That street is one of the most charming streets in Laguna, specifically because of its eclectic and different types of buildings created over years of different owners and styles. Yes, some need to be renovated and cleaned up, but to build a monolith there would certainly change the character of the street. Height restrictions are changed. They want to build three-story buildings in downtown. Will that be compatible with the current village feel?
After hearing this I am concerned. I want to echo Ann Christoph’s plea in her Sept. 13 column. We need to come together. What our town is going to look like in the future is a nonpartisan issue. We need to work together—the forward thinkers, the preservationists, the obstructionists. I think everyone is happy with revitalizing and “making better” what we have in Laguna. There doesn’t need to be a wholesale destruction of the very soul of what Laguna is and why we all moved here—a small town where you know your neighbors and feel a part of something really special.
Michèle Monda has lived in Laguna Beach for 15 years with her husband, Emil, and three sons. She is secretary of Laguna Beach Republicans and treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities.