Digester Is Worth Saving
Some things are indeed worth saving. My great grandmother’s carved armchair, my grandmother’s china souvenir box from Frankfurt dated 1918, my great grandfather’s pocket watch. Maybe not so useful, but they are a piece of my history and should be celebrated. So too with Laguna Beach’s digester.
It was built in 1935 as part of the Work Projects Administration to get the unemployed working again after the Great Depression. Originally conceived to build the U.S. infrastructure, the focus expanded to include public facilities such as public buildings, utilities and parks. Our digester is in good company—Santa Ana City Hall, Griffith Observatory, Camp David, LaGuardia Airport and Dealey Plaza in Dallas are but a few of the other projects. The digester was identified in the Downtown Specific Plan as one of Laguna’s 10 significant buildings, even gracing the plan’s cover. Laguna’s General Plan says we should keep historic buildings and adapt them (section 5.1.3). Section 3.3 clearly states, “Encourage the preservation of historically significant buildings and protect the character-defining components of Laguna Beach’s commercial neighborhoods.” Why are we not following our own guidelines?
Despite this history and heritage, not to mention that this quaint and unique building at the Village Entrance tells visitors, “Laguna is a special place in Orange County,” the City Council, backed by city staff and manager, voted to begin an EIR to demolish it unless a lease agreement could be made with a private party. Residents were not happy with this vote.
Enter Greg and Barbara MacGillivray. They wrote a letter to the city manager pledging $500,000 of their own money to saving our iconic, historic building. They envision the digester as a café, art gallery or retail space combined with public restrooms. It could cost the city approximately $2 million to demolish the digester, build badly needed public restrooms at the site and gain seven parking spots. The MacGillivrays estimate that it could cost them $2.5 million to give the public a beautiful, restored landmark building, public bathrooms that they will maintain and a café run by Mark Christy of the Ranch. They are willing to do this for Laguna, for our children, to preserve our heritage.
You would think that the city would embrace this incredibly generous proposal for the benefit of all Laguna residents. Why tear something down if it can be restored? Instead of saying, “How can we help you make this happen?” City Manager John Pietig gave the MacGillivrays two weeks to answer five points of clarification.
He asked for a parking analysis—how are they going to fulfill parking requirements? The digester is in a parking lot, and there is plenty of street parking on Laguna Canyon Road. So how about giving that one a pass like we do for all historic buildings downtown?
He wanted to know details on a timeline for an Environmental Impact Analysis, Coastal Development permitting, Environmental Abatement, Historic Building Modification, Conditional Use Permit, etc. How about the city helps the MacGillivrays with all this? The city would have to do this anyway to demolish the building. Why put this all on them? Pietig also requested details on the 99-year lease that the MacGillivrays are proposing. Again, how about approaching this from the angle of helping them to make this happen.
I’m sure the city manager is concerned about money. But $2 million or even $3 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what the city spends on what I believe to be useless pursuits, like spending $10 million to spruce up Main Beach, or another $10 million on the Downtown Action Plan, or the hiring of more consultants.
This is not the time to worry about money. This is our history, our uniqueness, the reason we moved to Laguna and not Newport Beach. I’m willing to spend whatever it takes to preserve this building and make it a functioning alive space.
I urge the City Council to allocate to the MacGillivrays the $2 million that they would have spent to demolish the building and be supportive of this public/private partnership that is so successful in other cities. I have spoken to many residents who are willing to donate money to save this building. It belongs to all of us. City management—please work to help make it happen, not throw roadblocks in the way.
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.