By Daniella Walsh/LBIndy
“They took paradise and made it a parking lot….” goes a line in Big Yellow Taxi, a song performed by Joni Mitchell, decrying shrinking natural environments.
The Laguna College of Art and Design has given the classic a contemporary twist by buying and thus preserving the parking lot adjacent to its visual communications building to protect the natural composition of the Big Bend area of Laguna Canyon.
It is neighbored by the Laguna Canyon Foundation, whose executive director Hallie Jones spoke in support of the acquisition.
“We have had no official interaction with LCAD but it is very important to the foundation to become partners with the college on projects that benefit both the canyon and its community,” she said.
Newport Beach developer Doug Simpson had proposed to buy the lot and build a 97,000-square foot self-storage facility. However, during the April 9 Planning Commission meeting the project was unanimously rejected after canyon residents, LCAD students and faculty and others argued against it.
Simpson contemplated a smaller project but ran out of time to secure funds.
Spurred on by students who protested the project with their “Stop the Box” and support from area residents, LCAD stepped in to buy the 1.5 acre parcel at 2851 Laguna Canyon Rd.
“The mass and scale of the storage project was simply overwhelming, threatening the character of the canyon,” said LCAD president Jonathan Burke. “We are buying the land to stave off further development of the site.”
Canyon development had already become a hot-button issue when Laguna Beach based sculptor Louis Longi proposed to build live-work housing for 30 artists in 2012. Following Planning Commission required modifications, the project received a green light but not necessarily the approval of resident groups such as The Laguna Canyon Property Owners Association and CANDO (Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization). The later was formed in the spring of this year to advocate against overdevelopment of Laguna Canyon.
“It would be useful to have conversations with Jonathan Burke of LCAD how we can support each other’s mission, where we overlap or where we digress,” said Penelope Milne, CANDO’s president and spokeswoman.
“The Longi project is the largest Laguna Beach project approved since the Montage and a self-storage facility of its size in the canyon would have been disastrous for the canyon environment and for the community,” she said. “We need to be involved and engaged in how specific plans are interpreted and executed to protect the canyon we love.”
LCPO vice president John Hamil is a veteran when it comes to attempted and failed canyon development: In 2005, he and business partner James Levin finally got approval to build an expanded animal hospital on what is now the site of the Longi project but economic conditions scotched their plans.
He and members of LCPO remain opposed to Longi’s vision, citing hazards to the environment and overcrowding.
“Large project development in the canyon diametrically opposes everything that Laguna Beach still stands for,” he said.
While he expressed approval of LCAD buying the Big Bend site, he said “I am hoping for greater transparency with regard to the school’s plans for future growth when it comes to preserving canyon neighborhoods as they are.”
Burke shed light on future plans by stating that while the school currently leases the building housing animation, digital media and game art classes and leases part of an adjacent structure for administrative spaces, the college would eventually like to purchase the buildings.
“It makes absolute economic sense for LCAD to purchase all of Big Bend which would allow for more classrooms and students to remain on campus,” he said. “All of this is contingent on raising funds from the community to secure a property that trustees determined to secure our future.”
Burke said that Cal Trans has slated Oct. 5 as the tentative date when the Hawk traffic light system, activated by pedestrians crossing between the main campus and the Suzanne Chonette senior studios, will be installed.