Local Couple Offers Funds to Save Historic Sewer Digester

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By Daniel Langhorne | LB Indy

A Laguna Beach couple has offered to contribute $500,000 this week to help preserve the 88-year-old sewage digester building at the Village Entrance.

Barbara and Greg MacGillivray have offered to contribute $500,000 this week to help preserve the 88-year-old sewage digester building at the Village Entrance. Photo by Dondee Quincena

The proposal from filmmakers Barbara and Greg MacGillivray provides the City Council with an alternative to city staffers’ recommendation of hiring a consultant to craft an environmental impact report, which could pave the way for the building’s demolition.

The MacGillivrays also donated $50,000 in 2018 to establish the Laguna Beach Urban Tree Fund, which supplements city expenditures on replacing street trees.

“The Digester Building is one of the few historical buildings that so many of us in Laguna love and hope will carry on the feeling of our charming art community,” Barbara MacGillivray wrote in an email. “In our opinion, to demolish it would compromise our civic image and community values that are committed to historic preservation, as stated in our General Plan.”

City Manager John Pietig removed the digester building discussion from Tuesday’s City Council agenda in the wake of the MacGillivrays’ offer. “We need some time to look into it,” he said.

Laguna Greenbelt board member Bob Borthwick contacted the MacGillivrays and Mark Christy, owner and principal of The Ranch at Laguna Beach, after the City Council directed city staffers in September 2019 to begin the environmental review process necessary to demolish the building.

Christy wrote in an email to the city’s leadership Monday that his company would be willing to operate the building as an aesthetically beautiful, fun and functional amenity for the town. He added that of one of his first field trips as a Top of the World Elementary School student was at the New Deal-era building.

“It is important locally and I feel that the history of its origins makes it essential to preserve for future generations,” Christy wrote. “Together we can take this decaying structure and make it a jewel to be proud of.”

Christy wrote to city leaders that he doesn’t anticipate the venture will generate significant revenue but promised the same high standards seen at The Ranch and Lost Pier café.

“We have not yet done a deep dive, but our initial concept would probably involve something similar to our Lost Pier café, which has been quickly become a fave of Laguna’s residents,” Christy said in a prepared statement.

Like any business on the periphery of a commercial zone, the project would need to create an experience that would draw customers to the site, Christy wrote.

In 1989, the City Council was considering a contract to demolish the entire digester building. Instead, the council voted to only remove half of the structure and placed the remaining half on Laguna Beach’s historic register, said Shohreh Dupuis, deputy city manager and director of public works. It’s since been used for police evidence storage.

A recent assessment of sludge at the bottom of a pit inside the building revealed elevated concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, and mercury that must be handled as California Hazardous Waste and transported out of state to a licensed disposal facility. It would cost about $60,000 to properly remove and dispose of the material and clean the building’s interior, according to a staff report.

City staff estimated the addition of public restrooms on the first floor of the building would cost about $300,000. A historic restoration of the entire digester building would cost at least $1.5 million, according to city documents.

In September 2018, the City Council directed staffers to look for grant funding to restore the digester building and remove the sludge. In coordination with consultant Townsend Public Affairs, city staffers did not find any potential sources of funding that could be applied to restore the digester building.

Townsend’s search for possible state and federal grants revealed no programs with sufficient funding that is needed for the restoration and renovation of the building, Dupuis wrote in an email.

A majority of the City Council said last September that they opposed investing significant dollars in the digester building.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow wanted to retain the building, but only through small repairs. “I’m not willing to spend money to refurbish it or put a restroom or restaurant there,” he said.

But Mayor Bob Whalen, Councilmember Peter Blake, and Councilmember Sue Kempf questioned if the building is worth the money needed to mitigate the environmental hazards and properly restore it.

“I think the cost of it is going to be so prohibitive, and I just can’t see a logical reuse for it,” Whalen said.

Blake chided historic preservation advocates who frequently oppose new retail and restaurants interested in opening downtown, and then changed course by arguing the digester building would be a good location for a café.

“It would be the equivalent of maybe putting a café at San Onofre,” Blake said.

Councilmember Toni Iseman disagreed, saying she hoped they would recognize the building’s historic value.

The city is accepting additional proposals for the lease and the reuse of the building, which need to be submitted to Dupuis by Feb. 1. The council will consider the MacGillivray’s proposal, and any other proposals submitted, at its Feb. 25 meeting.

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  1. The digester building should absolutely be preserved: it could be a wonderful way of showing visitors the history of our town, perhaps with a multimedia presentation. There is a richness in Laguna that cries out to be shown! Where better to do it than in the digester building as people come into town!

  2. CONTRIBUTE? That’s not a contribution! The proposal as is not some type of charitable act. This is an offer to invest a sum of money IN RETURN FOR a long term lease on the land and building. The proposal has $2,000,000 taxpayer dollars applied toward the renovation with the offer being for the small sum of $500,000. NOT A CONTRIBUTION OR GIFT. Nope.

  3. Thank you, Barbara and Greg MacGillivray, for your dedication and love of a city that is world famous for its beauty, artistic contributions and uniqueness. You are Laguna Beach heroes. Now, if the city council will only step up and join you in this wonderful effort. Bravo!

  4. James, You fail to take into account that about 2 mil of that MUST be spent by the city anyway! To eradicate the digester will cost that much, hard as that is to believe! (Where in the world does the city get these estimates anyway!) So to save this historic building, the McGillivrays are offering to just make up the difference—a bargain for the city, a great gift by dedicated Laguna lovers! And the long term lease business? Not a money maker from what I’ve heard. Another gift to the city by those willing to put themselves out there.

  5. The proponents of poop preservation cannot distinguish a sewage digester “building” from a medieval castle, so lets illustrate this “building” for what it is. Picture a very large toilet with a sugar-cone roof perched atop a concrete bunker in a earthquake zone.

    This “building” is the preserved remnant of a sewage treatment plant decommissioned in 1983 and demolished in 1989. The July 2014 digester estimates were Repurpose: $1.3M, Refurbish Exterior only: $300k, Demolish: $300k, Repair Roof Minimum: $50k. Do I hear a city-jobs program for $2.5M?

  6. We are spending 1+ million dollars on a “cookie cutter” piece of art (similar pieces can be found in many places in the US and in other countries”) that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that is Laguna. Yet some who have no sense of history are willing to destroy a structure that represents a time in our history that showed how a nation came together in trying times and became stronger for it. It is easy to make sophomoric adjectives about the structure but I see it as being ignorant of what that building represents and why its true place in history needs to be remembered.

  7. Remember the sheds that occupied the space where the Suzi-Q now stands? The three Bears used to live there. I know cuz in the Leary 60’s I saw ’em. Laguna’s dreamers moved the sheds to Big Bend for preservation until they realized there was no end-game, or maybe they ran out of money. Sold for scrap or demolished who misses the sheds now? Who opposes the Suzi-Q now? Between the two my bet is the Suzi-Q will make Laguna’s greater historical impression. Have faith dreamers.


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