The City Council selected the urban planning team assembled by San Diego-based MIG to help shape the guidelines for future development downtown and along Laguna Canyon Road, giving a pass to Los Angeles-based Sargent Town Planning.
Generally approved by the vocal public, the decision Tuesday did incur a few detractors.
When the two firms, along with one other, presented their proposals at a public forum in April, Sargent was the overwhelming crowd favorite. But after extensive research, follow-up interviews and reference checks, the selection committee ultimately went with MIG, and the Council endorsed their selection.
The selection committee, comprised of Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen, Council member Steve Dicterow, planning commissioners Robert Zur Schmiede and Anne Johnson, along with city staff, determined that both firms were equal to the task. But they favored MIG as “the best fit,” the staff report says, citing their visual presentations – such as a 3-D computer-modeling program to illustrate alternate planning scenarios, their public outreach program, and the involvement of key team members in previous and ongoing city projects.
Notably, MIG’s team includes transit experts Bob Matson and Rick Williams, who both worked with Irvine’s RBF to draft the city’s parking management plan. That plan informed recent decisions to raise meter rates, emphasize peripheral lots with trolley links and improve signage. RBF also leads a study underway to improve traffic circulation and bike and pedestrian access along Laguna Canyon Road, as well as a citywide project to address the mobility needs of pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and bus riders.
Meanwhile, Sargent’s ace in the hole at the forum in April was their team partner Andres Duany, principal of the planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, who earned applause by saying that most planning should center on avoiding actions that could erode Laguna’s character. Planners must figure out “what can go wrong with a place like this and vaccinate it” against those possibilities, he said.
Chief detractor Ann Christoph saw a downside with MIG’s ties to the city. “As a consultant I know that an ongoing relationship with a city can jeopardize the objectivity of a consultant, tending to make them act and recommend more like a mirror for what they are hearing from staff and public input rather than feeling free to give their own professional opinions,” she stated in a letter to the Council. This made Duany’s comments all the more refreshing. “He spoke from the heart and from his professional experience, not because he thought he was going to please someone,” she said. She suggested at the very least contracting with Duany in addition to MIG.
Ruben Flores echoed Christoph’s concerns. “Are we going to take away that large community voice that says this guy feels good for us?” he asked.
Chamber of Commerce President Larry Nokes endorsed the committee’s decision to go with MIG. Duany’s “one presentation by one fellow on one occasion,” may have wowed the audience, but Nokes said he was grateful that the selection committee had the foresight “to drill down a little deeper.”
Based on the subcommittee’s thorough review of the firms, resident John Thomas expressed support for their decision, though he also liked Christoph’s suggestion of adding Duany to the mix.
City Manager John Pietig felt it was unlikely that MIG would agree with that scenario.
Whoever is in charge, they need to consider Laguna’s 22,000 residents as the primary stakeholders in the outcome, said Thomas. “We need to treat the businesses and visitors well, but this is our home…” he said.
Resident Bob Chapman took another tack. He also endorsed MIG, but suggested that visitors carry more weight as stakeholders. “Visitors are, with the hospitality industry, the highest level of economic benefit to this town,” he said.
“We are simply here to offer our involvement,” said John Hamil on behalf of the nascent group, Canyon Alliance Neighborhoods Defense Organization. They are “delighted” with so many opportunities for public input and hope to “lend our voice to our vision of what needs to happen in the canyon,” he said.