Dialing in an Unfocused Big Picture

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If you have a hard time keeping up with the various plans, reports and studies that the city has initiated in recent months, get in line. City officials got there first.

Getting a sense for which plans govern which aspects of development is already no walk in the park. But you’re going to have to train for a marathon to understand how everything fits together with still evolving guidelines and proposed initiatives.

Even as staff and planners grapple with updating several of the city’s guideline policy documents, hired consultants are evaluating city practices and infrastructure in areas that overlap at the same time that the City Council considers new projects. You begin to wonder: Are there synergies? Are there redundancies? Is anyone keeping track of all this?

Such questions are why the council last April authorized a search for qualified urban planners to take a look at the big picture. Council members Steve Dicterow and Robert Whalen, Planning Commission chair Rob Zur Schmiede and commissioner Anne Johnson as well as city staff are leading the effort.

They settled on three firms as finalists. Last week, the Planning Commission wrestled with refining what they want the urban planning experts to tackle. The revised request for proposals may be considered by the City Council next Tuesday, Jan. 21.

The discussion by commission members revealed the complexity of the issues they will ask the urban designers to sort out.

While the draft asks for assistance in updating Laguna’s Downtown Specific Plan, that entails a laundry list of tangled issues. Evaluating the downtown plan, which defines development in the downtown village between Broadway and Legion streets, requires reviewing public comments generated at eight workshops, as well as evaluating and incorporating city goals, policies and visions from a host of other documents. These include the recently completed Downtown Parking Management Plan, the Village Entrance Plan, the Landscape and Scenic Highways Resource Document, the draft Mobility Element, the Laguna Canyon Road Analysis, and the Vision Laguna 2030 Final Report and Strategic Plan.

And, commenting on the draft last week, commissioner Norm Grossman noted an addendum, a soon-to-be-completed transit study, among others.

Before opening the discussion for public comments, Johnson clarified that their goal was to elicit ideas from the consultants. “We wanted them to earn their keep by giving us some broad-based ideas,” she explained.

Zur Schmiede put a finer point on it. “We don’t want to tell them what to do. We want them to give us their ideas, which is a completely different point of view,” he said. Afterwards, the community can decide whether and how to pursue them, he said.

The consultants will be expected to seek public input in various forms.

About a dozen people voiced concerns at the hearing.

Rita Conn, of Let Laguna Vote, which successfully lobbied to defeat a downtown parking structure, said members have a keen interest in transparency on city projects and submitted a list of concerns.

Local designer and contractor Greg Abel urged hiring an “extremely talented” firm. It might be more expensive that originally budgeted, but it would be worth it, he insisted.

According the City Manager John Pietig, “the City Council previously appropriated $40,000 for urban planning expertise and will consider augmenting that amount on Jan. 21 during the mid-year budget review.”

“I’d like to see a world class urban designer,” agreed architect Marshall Innins, who noted that whoever succeeds retiring John Montgomery as the city’s community development director needs urban planning expertise to oversee the process.

As commissioners discussed how deeply the consultants should examine various city policies and documents, the complexity of the issues became more apparent. Grossman suggested including more on the landscape element update, which led Zur Schmiede to caution against getting too specific since landscaping figures in other issues, such as a proposed view ordinance, a downtown tree master plan, and a proposed defensible space ordinance, to name a few. The policies overlap.

Underscoring Conn’s point, Zur Schmiede noted that the modest public input experienced when the Planning Commission began the process of amending the downtown plan might skyrocket. “Now this has taken a higher level of interest” since the “whole village entrance thing blew up” last fall, he said.

If that’s true, the issue, if included on the City Council agenda as planned, may mean a packed house come Tuesday.

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