Guest column


Historical Renovation Process Is Broken

By Dennis J. Aigner
By Dennis J. Aigner

As was reported in the Indy on Oct. 6,  the Laguna Beach Planning Commission unanimously rejected the latest plan for renovating the historic Coast Inn and the adjacent Coast Liquor properties. The reasons were nicely summarized in the Village Matters column by Ann Christoph on Oct. 13. Christoph also pointed out the tensions inherent in such projects, especially as it relates to parking.

There is general agreement that renovating the Coast Inn is a great idea, especially if it can be done in a way to be faithful to its historic look. Doing something sensible with the vacant Coast Liquor property at the same time would be a big bonus. But at what cost?

The city is already struggling to cope with the parking and public safety issues associated with the estimated 6.3 million visitors who come here annually. Their overall impact is tantamount to a doubling of Laguna’s resident population. And as has been shown, the revenue derived from visitors is far less than the cost to the city of servicing them. Costs are even higher if we factor in the inconvenience to residents of a clogged town, especially in the summer. Therefore, any increase in visitor traffic must be considered carefully.

While one may argue whether the historic designations given to the latest proposed renovations of the Coast Inn and Coast Liquor properties were appropriate from a purely objective point-of-view, the Heritage Committee was clearly too cavalier in recommending that each be given up to a 75% reduction in parking requirements, especially since the Coast Inn property already had 98 “grandfathered” spaces compared to a total of 156 required. But the Planning Commission did its job and rejected the proposal on this and other grounds.

One issue is with the “grandfathered” parking spaces themselves, whereby a property built before 1958 is credited with the number of spaces that it would have had to provide according to the parking regulations in effect in 1958 less the number of on-site spaces already provided, if any. That is already a generous incentive for historical renovation and may not make much sense anymore. Yet on top of this, further (and very generous) incentives are available for properties that qualify to be listed on the Historic Register: up to 75% of the current parking requirement. In combination, situations can arise—as in the current case—where no additional parking whatsoever is required to be provided by the property owner. Fortunately, the Heritage Committee’s recommendations in this regard are only advisory. The exact amount of parking relief is recommended by the Planning Commission and ultimately approved by the City Council.

Laguna Beach is a completely fleshed-out project. We don’t really need any more bars, restaurants or hotels. We don’t need any more tourist attractions. What we do need is attention paid to keeping Village Laguna from morphing into Disneyland. (At least Disneyland provides plenty of parking at $18/day and makes money on every visitor by charging $97-124 for a one day pass.)

If this project is to go forward, as many would like to see, something more than the status quo must happen. The owner has said that he might just proceed to operate the Coast Inn as is, even to the extent of re-opening the Boom Boom Room. Alternatively, the city could agree to the current renovation plan with some additional stipulations by scrapping strict adherence to the word “historic,” which might allow the rooftop deck/bar/pool to proceed if objections to the added neighborhood noise it would create could be overcome. Without allowances due to the historic E-rating (which are optional in any case), the owner would be required to provide 58 new parking spaces just for the Coast Inn. Based on the 2014 project plan, the owner was willing to provide 40 subterranean spaces across the street at the Coast Liquor location. Why is that not feasible now? The city could participate by investing in a parking structure nearby and then leasing spaces to the Coast Inn. No doubt there are other ideas that could be brought to the table if the parties really wanted to make this happen.

To the owner’s credit, a serious attempt at renovating a Laguna Beach historical landmark has been made. Many hoops have been jumped through. And the Planning Commission and its staff have likewise been doing their job by insisting on the project’s integrity in various dimensions. The current impasse is the result of a system of encouraging historic development by forgiving the provision of adequate parking that is badly out-of-whack and does not serve the residents of Laguna Beach at all well. It would be irresponsible for the City Council to override the Planning Commission and let this project go forward as is or even as the Commission staff has recommended. While their long list of (mostly minor) stipulations moves the project in the right direction, it simply does not go far enough to address the elephant in the (boom boom) room: parking.


Dennis J. Aigner is emeritus professor of economics and management at UC Irvine. He has been a resident of Laguna Beach since 1988.

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  1. Agreed, we do not need more bars and restaurants. We have more than enough. And I was not aware that the total number of visitors annually, result in a net loss to the city, not a gain.

    When a place becomes too touristy, it loses its charm and authenticity. And from there, it tends to get worse, like Hollywood or Venice Beach.

    There was a time when Laguna was sort of an acquired taste. There was mostly nature between Laguna and Corona Del Mar. It was out of the way. It was a genuine artist colony. I can accept that change is part of life and now it’s largely thought of as “rich” in large part due to the reality show that bore it’s name years ago.

    Many people are moving here for that reason, it’s for “rich” people supposedly. This seems to be especially appealing to newly rich Chinese immigrants and Persian merchants who are very attracted to shiny things. Now I see a lot of women in the Islamic head dress down town (much worse at Newport Fashion Island). Speaking of which (and I know this is a First World problem) the Neiman Marcus and Fashion Island seems to be interested almost exclusively in their Persian and Arabic Muslim clientele. This is nearly 100 percent of the (very rude) staff as well. The food manager at the Laguna Montage often does not charge Muslim Persians who eat there. I speak from experience. Both merchants I just mentioned are not concerned with how they are changing the “character” of the surrounding community.

    Ever been to the Urth Cafe at night? Does not feel like America, much less Laguna Beach. My complaint does not have to do with race, but rather with culture. Immigration without assimilation is invasion.


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