Laguna Beach Planning Commission clears way for more underground parking, denser building

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Visitors choke downtown Laguna Beach during a March heatwave in 2017. Photo by Mitch Ridder

By Lou Ponsi, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach is a step closer to loosening rules for new buildings with underground parking garages, thus improving the city’s ability to attract the development of more two- and three-story buildings.

The Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously agreed to send the proposed city law to the City Council for final approval.

Most commercial zones already exempt underground parking garages from building height requirements as long as the access ramp to the garage begins its descent within the building’s ground-floor footprint.

If approved by council, developers could potentially build subterranean garages designed with an access ramp outside of the building footprint. These structures would be measured from the grade level rather than the lowest level of the underground garage.

A 36-foot tall building, for example, would be taller when measured from street level, compared to a 36-foot building measured from the lowest level of underground parking.

This flexibility would give developers the option of using below-grade parking as an alternative to more visually-unappealing, ground-level parking garages and lots.

Commercial and mixed-use zones affected by the proposed zoning code amendments include local business-professional, light industrial, commercial-neighborhood, institutional, commercial hotel-motel local business district, and South Laguna Village Commercial.

The Planning Commission on Oct. 6 directed staff to revise the guidelines to “strongly discourage” commercial uses raised above the sidewalk, so-called tuck-under parking unless it’s placed behind a storefront and parking access along the main streets, Senior Planner Anthony Viera said.

“There was also more emphasis placed on the City’s overall goal of minimizing the visibility of parking infrastructure along the main streets and really highlighting that that’s going to be a priority for the City,” Viera said.

Commissioner Susan Whitin opposed implementing the revised city law along Pacific Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.

“The view of the building is going to look more like three and a half stories,” Whitin said. “It’s not going to appear to be three stories. I think it’s fine on the side streets, but along the main Pacific Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road, I think we should adhere to the existing [zoning codes].”

Commissioner Jorg Dubin said future projects involving underground parking would be rare.

“We would be lucky in the next five years to see one project that wants to do a subterranean parking situation,” Dubin said. “To me, it comes down to kind of case-by-case thing. Let’s put [the rules] in place and if someone wants to do a commercial development with subterranean parking, they’ve got some guidelines to go by.”

The language of the proposed code revisions has been left purposely broad, Vierra said, and can be made more specific by the City Council.

Vierra said city staffers would work to fine-tune the rules for projects accessed by or have garage openings along primary streets.

“We can re-tool that section to be a little more forceful,” he said.

The issue of broadening height exemptions first came up almost three years ago after a downtown property owner expressed concerns related to the height standards for commercial buildings.

After visiting several commercial areas in town, a planning commission subcommittee decided the city’s regulations were too stringent and could be modified to attract projects with underground parking while maintaining quality building design.

In October 2020, the City Council delegated an in-depth study of potential solutions to the Planning Commission. A hearing date for the council’s review of the proposed underground parking law wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

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  1. Building parking garages to satisfy parking demand simply invites more visitor car traffic to Laguna Beach. Hellooooo nineteen-fifty (when our Commissioners were born).

    Like using honey-pots to discourage brown bears.

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