Devising Live-Work Rules in Laguna Remains a Puzzle

Sculptor Louis Longi's home studio shortly after last year's flood. His planned live-work development is on the same site. .

Local artists, some of them still recouping from last December’s flood damage, started erecting new defenses this month against another threat: a proposal to eliminate future construction of artist live-work spaces in a light industrial zone in Laguna Canyon between Canyon Acres and El Toro Road.

“We have been at Big Bend for 27 years and are grandfathered in as live-work in our home and studio. But, if it burns down, what then?” asked glassblower John Barber during the Planning Commission’s Sept. 14 session, attended by more than 25 concerned artists.

Alerted by sculptor Louis Longi, whose live-work development project was setback by flood damage, they showed up either prepared for the worst or hoping that their fears would be allayed. “This is about all of us, the future and character of Laguna,” he said.

Artists such as metal sculptor Larry Gill or ceramicist Sally Wilde wondered whether they’d be permitted to rebuild on their own property if the proposed amendments were adopted.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission refused to impose such a prohibition on new live-work projects in the canyon. Instead, they directed city staff to continue to work with artists in drafting regulations that would ensure they would become the beneficiaries of such construction. Such solutions are to be presented later to the City Council, which would decide on the fate of an existing moratorium on live-work construction.

For more than a decade, various city officials have voiced concerns over escalating home and land costs permanently pricing artists out of town and devised policy incentives, such as the cultural zone downtown that permits exemptions from the city’s 36-foot height limit. Even so, few developers’ artist live-work plans have reached fruition. And in the last year, the Council approved and then extended a moratorium on live-work construction while artists’ living needs were surveyed. The unsurprising results showed they lived mostly in Laguna, worked where ever they could and that more legitimate live-work spaces are needed.

Several artists at the meeting even admitted to living illegally in their studios for lack of more affordable options. “Most artists can’t afford separate studios and outside housing,” agreed Commissioner Anne Johnson, whose husband sculpts stone. “If they want to live next door to a welder or a car repair shop, it should be their choice,” she said.

Zoning, nature and economics complicate the issue. Much of the disputed area lies in a flood plain, raising building costs for developers.

Allowing the conversion of light industrial buildings, used as studios for sculptors and glassblowers but not living space, appears off the table. The Planning Commission is intent on protecting such uses, which serve the community. “I don’t want to drive to Aliso Viejo to buy tires or new windows,” said commissioner Linda Dietrich.

The moratorium’s purpose is to sort out who qualifies as an artist and determine the building requirements for an artist live-work space compared to a condominium complex, explained city planner Ann Larson. At this time, the differences are significant enough that developers could exploit loopholes allowing less restrictive construction conditions for artist live-work units but later price them like high-end condos, she explained.

An artist live-work unit calls for only one parking spot per unit but condos require two, explained Longi, currently developing his own live-work units in Laguna Canyon. Setback, density and landscaping rules are more stringent for condos as well, he said.

“If we let in high-buck development into the canyon, where will our artists go?” Johnson asked.

At least one project filed before the moratorium took effect coincidentally received approval on Tuesday from the City Council. Architect Horst Noppenberger’s Sheds, at 2745 Laguna Canyon Road, includes three larger units and one smaller, low-income one. Developer Callander Laguna Canyon Partners LLC added the small unit in lieu of paying state-required low-income waiver fees.

“We presented our plans to the Planning Commission two years ago, which were unanimously approved after we added the lower-income unit,” said Noppenberger. “We definitely set things up as artists live-work units, designing them with writers, graphic designers and painters in mind,” he explained. The buildings feature ground level parking and upper level working and living areas and a feature that allows artists to bring supplies upstairs by crane.

“We are strongly opposed to tightening rules for such units. It’s already challenging enough to follow clients wishes and anticipate future needs,” he said.

“The Horst project meets all requirements by allowing 37 percent for work when only 30 are required and the mandatory 25 percent affordability factor,” said Carolyn Martin, a city planner in charge of the project.

Larson said that as many as five such projects had been proposed before the moratorium took affect, but that some were dropped due to economic constraints. “Permits had been given more than two years ago and developers have already invested large amounts of money into them, so it would not be fair to deny them permission now,” she said.

Commissioner Norm Grossman questioned the economic viability of suggested warehouse like artists studios that could be purchased cheaply and then customized by individual buyers. Yet art commissioner Mary Ferguson said that the canyon is the only logical place left for artists. “We should consider every option for them,” she said.

“We have until next year, so let’s work together and get it done,” said Dietrich.

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