Hurdles Remain for Artists Work/Live Project

Sculptor Louis Longi describing his methods to visitors in his outdoor studio last year; polls show the scale of his proposed project.
Sculptor Louis Longi describing his methods to visitors in his outdoor studio last year; polls show the scale of his proposed project.

Faced with a probable tie vote, Laguna Beach sculptor Louis Longi asked for a delay of a Planning Commission decision on his proposed 30-unit artists’ work/live project last week, one of the first of its kind since the City Council amended an ordinance governing such projects in May 2012.

With commission member Anne Johnson absent at the Sept. 25 hearing, a tie would have resulted in a denial of the project. Longi’s proposal, which aims to create affordable spaces for artists to live and work within the city, will return to the Planning Commission on Nov. 13.

Still, the hearing provided supporters and opponents ample opportunity to air their views. The former pointed to concerns over the town’s diminishing art-colony character if artists can’t afford to live here. The  latter, comprised mostly of Laguna Canyon neighbors, worried that the development’s size will threaten the rustic nature of their neighborhood.

Located on two adjacent lots, 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Rd., the proposal for the 36,750-square-foot site reflects

A rendering of the proposed project from Laguna Canyon Road.
A rendering of the proposed project from Laguna Canyon Road.

the area’s location in a flood zone. The planned 16,192-square-foot structure spreads living quarters and studio spaces across two levels over a parking garage for 47 spaces as well as bicycle parking.

The proposal, designed by local architect Horst Noppenberger, envisions 30 units ranging from 351 to 1,664 square feet, arranged around two exterior communal work spaces totaling 6,583 square feet, with eight of the units designated for low-income artists for the next 55 years. It also includes a 411-square-foot gallery space for the display and sale of artwork created on site.

The plan calls for landscaping with sycamores, weeping willows, artwork installations and gravel walkways along the 300 feet fronting on Laguna Canyon Road.

Longi’s project, delayed by December 2010’s flooding as well as a city moratorium on live-work projects, underwent a concept review hearing last November. At the time, commissioners suggested reducing the structure’s mass and scale, giving it a more “rustic” appearance and aesthetically improving its northern end.

Returning to the commission last Wednesday, Longi and Noppenberger presented a revised plan for the site in the hope of moving the project forward. Noppenberger said that he reconfigured the external appearance to fit better with the neighborhood’s specific plan by staggering the units, creating shed-style roofs, and varying materials by shape and color to “bring rustic tactility and warmth to mitigate the appearance of mass and scale.”

Like the commissioners, the public was equally divided on the proposal, with 10 speakers supporting it and 10 opposed.

Ralph Haun, a resident since 1973, said that though the plan was “a significant improvement” over the one presented in November, “there’s still a ways to go.”

John Albritton, president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners along Sun Valley Drive, complained that the project is too dense for the neighborhood and “does not maintain the rural character at all.” He said it should be limited to three instead of 30 units.

Likewise, John Hamil, owner of the animal hospital to the north of the site, called the project “a massive intrusion into our neighborhood” that he finds “incompatible with our specific plan and truly incompatible with the nature of our town.”

Others worried about increased traffic from the new residents, greater potential for flood damage and wear and tear on the local streets and bridges, even though the staff report indicates that the project complies with all of the development standards outlined in the city’s code for the district.

“Nobody wants change, but unless we go forward with this kind of project, we will continue to lose artists in this town,” countered Laguna Beach artist Jorg Dubin, who has lived and worked in the canyon since 1976. With artists at the mercy of landlords, “it’s getting harder and harder for us to exist here,” he said.

Laguna College of Art & Design president Jonathan Burke lamented that so many of the college’s talented graduates leave the community simply because they can’t find an affordable place to live and work.

“It’s about the most good for the most people,” summed up Nick Hernandez, adding that with so much “art-based” income in the city, “we need to protect our artists.”

“This is something we need to do as a community and really get behind,” said Longi, who has lived here for 16 years and first envisioned the project seven years ago when he began to seek out his own place to live and work.

Even so, at least two commissioners remained unconvinced.

“This is a substantial building mass against the road,” said commissioner Norm Grossman, who feared the project’s precedent-setting impact and pushed for a smaller scale. “We want affordability and that generally means more density, but it’s an area that puts constraints on that,” he argued. Questioning if gray was an appropriate color, whether the structure would block views and complaining that the prominent north end of the building “just jumps at you,” he called for more “tweaking” before approval.

“I’m not prepared to approve this,” said commission chair Robert Zur Schmiede. Like Grossman, he pushed for a smaller scale and found the prominent north end to be “problematic.”

“I disagree that this is precedent setting,” said commissioner Linda Dietrich, who argued that maintaining Laguna’s character isn’t “just about the trees” but also means keeping the artists here. She said that the spot, vacant for at least two decades, would eventually be developed “and this is a good use.”

Commissioner Ken Sadler agreed. He said that extensive meetings about how to better provide housing for artists all came up with the answer of smaller units and higher density and that “it doesn’t make sense” to have fewer units on a 36,000 square foot lot. “If not here, where?” he asked.

His comment echoed Chris Dornan, who is helping Longi with project financing. “If this doesn’t get approved, there isn’t going to be another artists work/live space in the canyon,” Dornan predicted.


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