Laguna Beach zeroes in on affordable housing sites

Buses operated by Durham School Services parked at the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s bus yard at 2003 Laguna Canyon Road. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council greenlit staff on Tuesday to take a closer look at three publicly-owned properties for the development of affordable housing, juggling concerns over cost and location.

Planning Commissioner Steven Kellenberg presented a list of six sites, each including rough plan sketches and potential square footage. Councilmembers selected three for further consideration: a redevelopment of the existing Vista Aliso senior community, the Laguna Beach Unified School District bus yard in Laguna Canyon, and a public parking lot at 235 Ocean Ave.

While the decision does not guarantee the sites will be developed, it is a step forward on a track running parallel to the Housing Element update, which the council approved earlier in the evening. As with other Orange County cities, the State Dept. of Housing and Community Development is requiring Laguna Beach to provide 394 residential units over the next 10 years, with 198 allocated specifically for low- or very low-income households.

Building affordable housing on publicly-owned lots will allow for lower construction costs and circumvent the high price of real estate in the city. However, city officials decided not to include the three preferred sites in the Housing Element because they would require zoning changes, which is expected to slow down their development.

Conversation around the Vista Aliso property, which sits on school district-owned land, would redevelop three stories of higher-density buildings. The land is currently being leased through 2041 by National Church Residences, a national nonprofit that is interested in adding units to the property, according to the staff report.

The Vista Aliso site appeared to be a favorite among councilmembers, with Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen identifying it as one that most likely “will bear fruit” due to its pre-existing infrastructure.

A school district-owned bus yard lot sits on 1.4 acres and would allow for a mix of 68 residential one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, according to the staff report. The current bus yard, located at 2003 Laguna Canyon Road, would likely be relocated to the Act V Lot, which was considered for evaluation for housing but faced concerns over disrupting the greenbelt.

Penny Milne, president of Laguna Beach Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization, also expressed concern over what the location of the bus yard could mean for the city’s perceived hospitality.

“That we would say to people, ‘Welcome to Laguna, you have to live here in between the road and the creek, next to nobody, that’s how we value people who are poor.’ It’s awkward,” Milne said.

Downtown, talks of building up to 16 units on a quarter-acre parking lot west of Bushard’s Pharmacy received a positive reaction from Councilmember Peter Blake, who views the central location as a viable option for senior housing.

“Right within blocks you have a supermarket, you have all the shopping that someone could ever need, you have Hoag right there, you have Bushard’s,” Councilmember Blake said. “It’s just a really incredible situation.”

The Peppertree lot at 322 Forest Ave. was also discussed during the meeting, but was not chosen for further evaluation. Both downtown locations received concerns over the small lot size, parking complications, and height restrictions on buildings.

“I think it’s more appropriate for downtown for some of those office buildings to be converted to housing,” Mayor Sue Kempf said.

Jacquie Schaefgen, a member of the Housing and Human Services Committee, urged councilmembers to think of the opportunities as “just a starting point” in providing more affordable housing in Laguna Beach.

“It’s doable, and I think we should try,” said Schaefgen in a public comment.

City staff will conduct more in-depth evaluations of each selected site and return to the city council with the findings at a later date.

In other business, the council voted unanimously to conduct all upcoming public meetings virtually until at least Feb. 15, per state health officials’ guidance amid the current COVID-19 spike. This will include commission and committee meetings.

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