Common Sense


Digester Is Worth Saving

By Michèle Monda

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.




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  1. Weren’t you a fiscally conservative Republican, Michele? You want to give someone $2 million in tax payer dollars to fund a project that includes a 99-year lease of the building and the surrounding land, which is in essence our “Village Entrance”? As someone in real estate and construction I can assure you it will cost much more than a combined $2.5 million to restore that structure. This is not some altruistic donation, the MacGillivray’s are trying to make money off of all of us. They would be the ones collecting rent from the property for 99 years. Calculate a lowball rent of about $13,000 per month off of the two spaces they are proposing within the structure, and even that is below local comps in the area. Multiply that by 12 = $156,000 year x 99 years = $15,444,000. Subtract their initial down-payment (call it what it really is) of $500,000 and they are netting close to $15,000,000. Does that seem like a gift to the residents of Laguna or a cash cow for their descendants?

    If the Honarkers were the ones doing this you and the rest of your crew would be having the opposite reaction claiming the sky is falling and the city is in bed with developers. Greg and family must still be upset they didn’t get the Hotel Laguna. I saw the plans they along with Joe and Walkie had created, it included 2 additional hotels on the Bluffs and was way more than the 12 ft they now claim everything else should be in the downtown. Bunch of hypocrites if you ask me. Funny that now Greg and Barbara are spearheading the anti-development movement in town.

    When the lease at Tivoli Terrace was up there was an RFP and dozens of people presented their plans to the FOAPOM Board to revitalize the venue that is on city owned land. The Honarkers ended up getting it and spent millions of their own money restoring the structure to its original 1950s aesthetic, PLUS they pay hundreds of thousands in rent a year to the Festival. Fair is fair, if they didn’t get special treatment the MacGillivray’s and their “gift” shouldn’t either.

    Michele, you are sounding more and more like Councilmember Steve. Blowing in whatever direction will give you the most attention. Get a hold of yourself and stop being Village Laguna and LRF’s puppet.

    Just make the digester connected to a new parking structure and be done with this mess.

    Cory, 50+ year resident of North Laguna

  2. You make many incorrect assumptions. I won’t do the same with you as to who you are allied with in town although you make it pretty clear. I still am a fiscally responsible Republican. But I am also a lover of Laguna history and that is not incompatible. There is an agenda in town to knock this quaint piece of our history down and build a cultural arts center there. THEN who will benefit financially? I am behind anyone who wants to preserve our heritage and am willing to put up my own dollars to help. You should read the MacGillvray’s proposal before you tear it down. I’m sorry for you that you have such a narrow view of our beautiful town and are willing to get in bed with those who want to destroy it.

  3. Is there any question as to why the mean spirited, small minded author of the letter responding to Michelle Monda’s column does not provide their full name. I am also a conservative but respect the history and cultural treasures of Laguna Beach. The idea that the digester, a historic landmark, which has been part of Laguna’s identity for as long as I can remember, should be replaced by a “Cultural Arts Center”, an idea currently in play, is about as shallow an idea as giant artificial mushrooms at the city entrance.

  4. I agree that “Cory” has made incorrect statements about the Digester and the MacGillivrays. The building, including the former “office” [current police storage] and the round silo portion, is approximately 1,200 square feet. Subtracting area for the proposed public restrooms leaves approximately 1,000 sf of interior rentable area. The market-rate value for that space would be more like $3,000 / month. In his letter Cory states that a “lowball” estimate of rental for the Digester would be $13,000 a month. Wild exaggerations make a more hard-hitting protest letter, I guess. [If the Digester would actually bring in $13,000 a month rent, then why would the City demolish such a cash-cow?] I know for a fact that profit was never a motivation for the MacGillivrays to lease the building. It was strictly to save this historic landmark from being demolished. The sidewalk café use was one idea, and there were others such as a gallery space or art center. They said in their letter to the City that the use of the building was “not yet determined”, and even offered to let the public weigh-in on the ultimate use. This is not the type of offer that a greedy developer makes. The MacGillivrays are filmmakers and philanthropists, and we are all lucky to have them in our town. As a nearly “50+” Laguna resident myself, I am saddened that such mean-spirted protest has now become part of our community dialog.


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