By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council approved an agreement this week with Mo Honarkar’s Laguna Beach Co. that outlines the review of six major developments, including the renovation of Hotel Laguna and the proposed Cleo Hotel.
The 4-1 vote, Councilwoman Toni Iseman opposed, arrived after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, as the discussion was the last item on a lengthy agenda that drew dozens of residents to speak on unrelated items.
Honarkar, a Laguna Beach resident and developer, has so far submitted applications for the 112-room, three-story Cleo Hotel at Cleo Street and Pacific Coast Highway, and the Museum Hotel, which would redevelop the Royal Hawaiian and other properties south of Coast Highway between Jasmine Street and Cliff Drive, according to the city’s staff report.
City Manager John Pietig said it’s clear to city staffers that the community considers the reopening of Hotel Laguna a priority.
“My initial expectations for how quickly they might be able to reopen that hotel were way off, now that I’ve actually seen its condition,” Pietig said.
Laguna Beach Co. consultant Paul Freeman said in a statement there are no major structural issues with the building.
“This is a historic renovation of a jewel in our community that is currently in disrepair,” Freeman wrote. “We’re following the necessary assessments, legal processes and giving the property the care it deserves, in order to ensure its historic integrity and beauty is preserved. The reopening of Hotel Laguna is our number one priority and focus.”
In April, the City Council voted to appoint Mayor Bob Whalen and City Councilwoman Sue Kempf to an ad hoc subcommittee to analyze the developer fees needed for the city to recoup its expenditures from studying the projects’ impacts.
Over the last few months, residents have voiced concerns about Whalen and Kempf meeting behind closed doors with Laguna Beach Co. representatives, city staffers, and consultants.
“I think a lot of the testimony here was misdirected in terms of what this is and it isn’t,” Whalen said. “This is a non-binding outline of potential projects. There is nothing in this agreement that talks about simultaneous development.”
Iseman criticized her colleagues at the time for delegating the responsibility to a subcommittee rather than having the negotiations in public.
The Council revisited the subcommittee’s responsibilities this week after receiving a letter last month from Laguna Beach attorney Kurt Wiese claiming that the City Council did not authorize Whalen and Kempf to negotiate with Laguna Beach Co. representatives. Wiese also complained that the Council did not explicitly set a lifespan for the subcommittee.
“My letter expressed the view that such a committee would constitute a standing committee of the City Council and would need to comply with the Brown Act’s public notice and public participation requirements,” Weiss wrote in a letter to City Attorney Phil Kohn.
To avoid accusations of a Brown Act violation, the City Council gave the subcommittee the authority to negotiate until July 31, 2020.
In light of economists’ forecasts of an impending recession, Iseman wants the City Council to explore requiring these developments to obtain financial instruments that guarantee the projects’ completion regardless of who ends up building or owning them.
Iseman recalled building projects left unfinished in 2008 and 2009 with exposed rebar, massive holes in the ground, and an adjacent homeowner afraid their house was going to collapse because there was nothing to support the earth.
“Having gone through that and knowing we’re going into what is probably a shaky economy, I’m very interested in a surety bond and a completion bond and I’m also very interested in only having one project done at a time,” she said.
Bill Shopoff, president and CEO of Shopoff Realty Investments, praised Laguna Beach Co. for bringing six projects at the same time so the city’s consultants can produce an environmental impact report that studies their cumulative impacts on the community.
“The fact is that the Laguna Beach Co. is doing it the right away, which is bring everything in at one time so you know what those cumulative impacts are and your first EIR is actually accurate because it’s covered all five or six projects,” he said. “I applaud them for the way they’re doing it. Doing it all at once gives us a better vision on what our city is going to look like.”
Laguna Beach resident David Raber argued that city staffers’ suggestion to provide monthly negotiation updates to the entire City Council and public is great, but it would be better to give the public the opportunity to weigh in during this early stage.
“The proposal to tell the public what is happening once a month doesn’t take the place of actual involvement in the Planning Commission and the City Council process,” he said.
Whalen pointed out that there will be ample opportunity for comment at future meetings of the Planning Commission, City Council, and Coastal Commission.
Other Upcoming Projects
Here’s what’s known about the other Laguna Beach Co. projects outlined in the agreement approved Wednesday:
- Laguna College of Art & Design is exploring the benefits of abandoning its campus on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road and consolidating its operations at the property that’s currently home to the Hive at 856 Laguna Canyon Road. Laguna Beach Co. plans to request a concept review for the LCAD consolidation by the end of this year.
- By the end of July, Laguna Beach Co. will submit an application for the potential redevelopment of the Central Bluffs from Hotel Laguna to Legion Street. City staffers expect this project will include a public pathway that will connect Main Beach to Brown’s Park.
- Laguna Beach Co. plans to request a new conditional use permit and other approvals for the rehabilitation and reopening of Hotel Laguna by the end of this month. The developer is also trying to get the hotel placed on National Register of Historic Places and wants to get the project certified as sustainable under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
- Lastly, the proposal to build housing on a vacant property at Laguna Canyon Road and Canyon Acres Drive will be submitted for concept review by the end of this month.