The Laguna Beach City Council ended an increasingly volatile standoff with opponents to a previously approved village entrance project when they voted unanimously Tuesday night (4-0, with Mayor Kelly Boyd absent) to pursue instead a much-scaled back concept that notably dispenses with a parking garage structure and will incur no debt. The move came at the end of a three and a half hour public workshop led by Delia Horwitz, hired for her expertise in instigating group collaboration.
A mixture of uncertainty and anticipation hung in the highly charged air of the standing-room-only Council chambers Tuesday night, as the gathering came on the heels of increasingly rancorous interactions between the City Council and the public, especially evident at last week’s Council meeting where verbal barbs flew thick and fast.
Thankfully residents and Council members rose to the occasion. “This was very positive,” said Council member Bob Whalen, noting the improvement over previous “ugly meetings.” Though not entirely devoid of disgruntled cat calls, the workshop predominately fostered constructive voices, and by the end Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, viewed by many as the proverbial torch carrier for the expensive larger parking structure, acknowledged the vocal majority and earned relieved cheers for announcing, “I’m not going to support debt and I’m not going to support a garage at this time.”
After nearly 30 years of deliberations on a plan to beautify the city’s canyon entry and build a parking structure between City Hall and the art festivals, many residents had given it up for dead when the Council made the project a priority in January. But heads turned when they approved a general concept in March and in June voted to finance a proposed $42 million park and four-story parking structure, using $13 million from city coffers and floating a 25-year $29 million revenue bond to cover the rest.
That’s when opposition began to mobilize in earnest, raising objections over the size, cost and potential environmental issues of the project, among myriad other concerns.
Proponents proved less vocal than opponents like Paul Merritt, who initiated a “We the People” ballot measure to stop work on the project, and Rita Conn, whose “Let Laguna Vote” campaign drew support across political divides and consistently pressured city officials to reverse their decision.
Seemingly intransigent at first, the Council recently began voicing a willingness to scale back the project, particularly after they voted at last week’s Council meeting to pursue the $5.3 million purchase of the undeveloped 3.8-acre parcel at 725 Laguna Canyon Road that abuts the village entrance site.
In order to create a pedestrian park on the site, a parking structure was deemed necessary to replace surface parking from the existing city to comply with a Coastal Commission policy, whose rigidity some residents now contest.
Council members reasoned last week that the purchased land could serve to replace parking spaces lost to landscaping without building a structure if the project is scaled back. Council member Steve Dicterow called the land purchase a “game changer” that put all options back on the table for Tuesday’s workshop.
Despite the Council’s seeming capitulation, opponents remained skeptical and Conn insisted that the Council rescind its vote approving the $42 million project as a show of good faith for the workshop to be a success.
Lingering bones of contention aside, Horwitz remained optimistic. “It seems to me, since you’ve been talking about this for 20 plus years, that there is a desire to make that geographic site prettier,” she said Tuesday night.
“I think we do need a very, very strong face lift to our city,” agreed Ruben Flores. And it was no surprise when resident Paul Barnard earned a round of applause for saying, “…we’re worried about parking and we’re not concerned about the spaces we create…please, have some soul about the design for this project.”
Horwitz asked participants “to identify common goals and align on the elements the community can coalesce around,” encouraging residents to “be curious” when listening to views other than their own, rather than dismiss them out of hand.
Providing a starting point for public comments, the city’s public works project director Wade Brown outlined a range of possible concepts for the village entrance, from the initially approved $42 million project with four-level garage and full park, to versions that scaled back the park and/or the structure, to a landscaped pathway and no structure (“Concept D”), to landscaping alone. These last two, noted City Manager John Pietig, could be conceived using only the $13.3 million already earmarked for the project and incurring no debt.
After 51 residents shared their visions for the project, Horwitz had participants suggest elements they thought the community might agree on, and the audience responded with thumbs up, down or sideways to indicate their reaction to suggested concepts.
Horwitz teased out sharee priorities, such as surface parking only with no structure; a landscaped pathway, not full-fledged park connecting the festivals to downtown; and no public debt. Everyone also agreed on the need to keep the farmer’s market and reduce the sewer lift smells.
Other ideas that drew wide support included hiring a world class urban planner to look at the entire city and find progressive solutions to parking and circulation issues, improving pedestrian and bicycle access, more peripheral parking combined with increased trolley service, a broader view of the city entrance to extend out the canyon to the art college and beyond, and the implementation of the recommendations in the parking management plan presented earlier in the year.
“I want to support what we’ve got here,” said Pearson who agreed to a rescission of the Council’s earlier approval of the $42 million project and the Council members unanimously approved her motion to proceed with a village entrance project based on concept D, with a landscaped pathway, no parking garage, incorporation of the new property at 725 Laguna Canyon Road, and no debt.
After conferring with City Attorney Phil Kohn, on the Council’s ability to rescind their earlier vote then and there, Dicterow then proposed a motion that received unanimous support to rescind those portions of their June 11 vote that were inconsistent with the concept they just approved.
“It sounds like we need new goals for the village entrance site that will work in conjunction with other community objectives,” said Pietig, who highlighted the need to “prioritze these other community desires and get some sense of order as we move forward.”
The mood in the room suddenly shifted from strained expectation to jubilation.
“I’m so thrilled,” said a visibly elated Conn after all was said and done.
Despite the fact that most participants Tuesday rallied around a scaled back project, some residents spoke to strong, if less vocal, support for the original plan and structure. Kristine Thalman, Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, noted that 70 percent of their members endorsed a parking structure but, fearing backlash, did not speak out.
And Susan Elliott, who spoke in favor of more parking at the meeting, sent a letter to the Indy, published in this edition, opining that the project’s opponents “got something even better for themselves than letting all 20,000 citizens of Laguna Beach vote on the project. Ultimately, the group of about 200 gathered opponents got to vote, instead of the whole city, deciding its fate.”
For his part, Paul Merritt also submitted a letter, published in these pages, indicating that We the People “is gratified” with the Council’s decision and “shall formally disband and celebrate that our seaside community will return to some political tranquility.”