By Allison Jarrell | LB Indy
Plans for the highly anticipated Village Entrance project are finally nearing fruition, as the Laguna Beach City Council is slated to award a construction contract for the development on Tuesday, Aug. 7. If action is taken, construction could begin as soon as Sept. 4., with the goal of completion before the summer of 2020.
But the next phase of the project, which could cost over $6 million to complete, comes amid some backlash from residents who say city leaders have reneged on their plan to fully restore the outside of the historic sewer digester building at the site.
Contract bids were due July 13 for the construction of the entrance, which officials estimate will take about two and a half years to complete. The site, near the intersection of Broadway Street and Forest Avenue, is currently used by the city for parking, storage, facilities and a sewer lift station.
Sitting across from City Hall, the property has seen its share of proposals over the last several decades. The current project design, which was approved by the council on Jan. 23, includes adding landscaping, a pedestrian and bicycle path and an exterior “renovation” of the cylindrical sewer digester building that anchors the downtown parking lot.
But a committee of residents who have long been involved with the Village Entrance project say the city has pulled a bait-and-switch of sorts with the restoration of the sewer digester. A few residents called out city leaders at a council meeting last month for not including a full historic restoration of the 1920s building in the new plans, which they say had been agreed upon earlier this year.
“We attended meetings in December and January, at which we all heard that the council was committed to restoring the exterior of the digester building,” said Ann Christoph, a landscape architect who is planning a run for council this November. “And when we examined the plans that were made available to us at a meeting on July 2, we said, ‘This is not a restoration that’s in the drawings, it’s just painting.’ They’re leaving the plastic bubble window on, they’re leaving the windows as is, they’re leaving all the plywood panels in place, and they’re just painting, basically.”
Christoph said she and others were assured by director of public works Shohreh Dupuis that the city would require the contractor to prepare the restoration plan, but Christoph said that’s not an ideal situation.
“Then the contractor can’t really price it out,” Christoph said. “They could probably price out doing the restoration plan, but they won’t know what the restoration plan is going to say, so how do they bid on that?”
Christoph said most recently, she was told by Dupuis that the council’s direction earlier this year wasn’t to pursue a full restoration, but to make the building look “nicer.”
“Restoration has a specific definition under historic preservation, and that is very clear,” Christoph said. “It’s very disappointing to…hear you say we’re going to have a restoration, and then find out at the very end after three different excuses from public works that it’s not happening.”
Horticulturist Ruben Flores said it seems that the city is forgetting the importance of the town’s small historical landmarks.
“I urge you to take a good look at the new plan for the Village Entrance, to put the emphasis on that digester building so that we get to see it, because it is a beautiful piece of architecture,” Flores said.
City Manager John Pietig responded to the public comments, saying he agrees there’s been a misunderstanding, but he doesn’t think staff is in the wrong.
“My recollection is that the digester was included basically as a paint and repair project, not a formal restoration that would require special experts with historical building backgrounds,” Pietig said. “If that was the case, it also would require a different environmental process than has been done to date.
“If you decide as a council that you want to do something different to the digester, I believe you can do that without slowing down the rest of the project,” Pietig said, adding that more funds will be needed for any additional digester work.
Council member Toni Iseman also responded to the concerns voiced, saying she and council member Steve Dicterow both agree that a proper restoration of the outside of the building had consensus and commitment from the council earlier this year.
“We did agree. And the reason I know that we agreed is because I asked for more,” Iseman said. “I asked for a restoration of the building and the interior of the building, and that was turned down. But the compromise was that the exterior of the building would be back to how it appeared. If we’re going to go through the trouble of painting it, the least we can do is figure out what the original paint was and paint it the right color.”
Tuesday’s council meeting begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 505 Forest Avenue. To view the agenda or watch online, click here.