Flashy overhead “gateways,” metal banners, painted crosswalks and second stories all hit the fan as a plan intended to enliven downtown fell flat at the Planning Commission meeting last Wednesday.
The first run at updating the city’s plans for downtown by MIG, an urban design firm out of Berkeley, proposed five “gateways” of archways or street-side banners to provide a “sense of place” at significant intersections, said MIG urban designer Jenny An.
But commissioners were having none of it. Tacky, Disneyesque, generic and unwanted branding were some of their criticisms.
The Downtown Specific Plan, as it’s known, was adopted in 1989 to “preserve and enhance the unique character of the downtown,” according to the city’s description. Since then, the plan has been amended nine times and revised in 2000 to include businesses and festivals in Laguna Canyon.
“Five gateways make my head spin,” said commissioner Susan Whitin. “We don’t need it. We have a great program of artists’ palettes and artists’ banners that serve as gateways. Laguna Canyon’s the gateway.”
The report and discussion, which lasted more than two hours, was more a long learning curve for MIG, hired for its public outreach program and participation in other city projects, than a presentation of possible solutions.
“We want to improve what we have without destroying it. In general, I’m disappointed in the contents of the report,” said commissioner Roger McErlane.
Several ideas were favorably acknowledged, however, and likely to re-emerge as the plan evolves. Two scramble crosswalks on Coast Highway at Ocean Avenue and Forest Avenue, where pedestrians would cross in all directions at once to expedite traffic flow, received an all-around thumbs-up. Others on Coast Highway were mentioned as well.
The scramble at Ocean would take pressure off crosswalks at Broadway Street and Coast Highway, where a scramble was not recommended, said An.
Revitalizing Ocean Avenue as a pedestrian and bicycle boulevard, sprucing up downtown alleys as pedestrian passageways and planting more trees were ideas that also made the grade.
Other than adding more trees and “rustic” benches to complement the village feel, Forest Avenue was already sound, said Rick Barrett, who manages MIG’s San Diego office. “Forest Avenue is beautiful. We see a relatively light touch there,” he said.
The report included a building height analysis and suggested that several downtown buildings could add a second story without impeding views. MIG’s analysis showed that 82 percent of downtown is two stories or fewer. The city imposed a 36-foot height limit in 1972.
“The height limit ensured that Main Beach would not become a front yard for a multi-story hotel and preserved Laguna’s window to the sea,” said 40-year resident Sandi Kane.
Adding height to buildings was not flatly opposed by commissioners. While they questioned the need for more retailers and restaurants, some showed interest in allowing second-level additions for affordable housing.
“Brick and mortar retail is gone,” said Whitin. “We don’t need retail. Retail isn’t working. So what do we need? We need housing and we need affordable housing.”
Downtown housing adds vibrancy, added commission chair Sue Kempf. “Maybe I’d like to live downtown and walk to the coffee shop and get around and have a nice life without using my car,” she said.
A plaza replacing the surface parking lot at Las Brisas Restaurant next to the museum also got a group nod. The lot would go underground as a two-tiered garage for museum and restaurant patrons topped by a park-like plaza that would lead to Heisler Park and Main Beach, the report suggested.
Although favoring the underground garage, McErlane said, it’s not “financial reality.” The garage would add 50 parking spaces, bringing the total to 100. With the cost of the plaza construction and landscaping, that could double the estimated $35,000 cost per stall, he said. The lot is privately owned and would need the owner’s consent.
Commissioners also said MIG missed the bus on Broadway by not addressing the bus depot or the street’s nondescript, mixed-bag look. Broadway, commissioners said, presents Laguna’s “window to the sea,” and deserves attention. The bus depot, they concurred, needs to be moved out of downtown.
“Broadway is really short-changed in this study. It’s a nowheresville,” said Whitin.
Revamping Broadway was not the only missing link. A pedestrian connection between the canyon art festivals and downtown was also overlooked, said Whitin. “We need a safe, simple pedestrian connection,” she said. “That’s a basic link to pulling the downtown together.”
Resident Becky Jones said the plan lacked analysis and immediate improvements. “…we also need to address what we can do now, in the here and now, how to improve the aesthetic nature of what now exists,” she said.
An MIG report about parking and circulation in January was criticized for not understanding the particulars of Laguna Beach as well as California Coastal Commission regulations for beach towns. Several public workshops for input from residents were held prior to the presentation at the planning commission.
Greg Pfost, the city’s director of community development, emphasized that the report was the beginning of a process. “What we’re doing here tonight is not the end-all of urban design,” he said. “Be patient with us.” MIG is receiving $402,000 for the DSP update and Laguna Canyon planning projects, according to Wendy Jung, a city senior planner.
Sandi Cain’s name was misspelled in “First Try at Downtown Update Misses the Mark,” in the July 29 edition.