Opinion: A Win-Win at the Rivian-South Coast Theater Project

A view of the original facade of the Laguna Theater from Coast Highway. Courtesy of Laguna Beach Historical Society

By Catherine Jurca

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition withdrew its appeal of the project to rehabilitate the South Coast Theater, a National Register-eligible landmark. Technically the appeal was limited to the City’s decision to exempt the project from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), because Laguna restricts the right to appeal design decisions to owners of property within 300 feet of the project. The problem with Laguna’s approach, apart from its unwarranted privileging of ownership over occupancy, is that it deprives Council of the flexibility to make design changes that would bring a project into compliance with CEQA.

Fortunately, the Rivian team was eager to preserve, restore, and reconstruct more of the property’s historic features and spaces. Rivian and the Coalition worked together. The “eleventh hour” agreement, which had all parties on tenterhooks, pertained to the language the City would use to announce it more than the details of the agreement itself. Otherwise, a process of conversation and compromise is the right way to resolve questions about the preservation of a historic property with this sort of historic and cultural significance to the community.

The Coalition’s goal was always to improve, not derail, the project. The worst thing for a historic building is to sit empty—its condition unmonitored, its unique qualities underappreciated and subject to deterioration. Historic buildings are adaptively reused—altered to accommodate a new use—all the time. But this project is particularly tricky, because Rivian’s need to create a showroom for its cars is so manifestly at odds with the primary features and spaces associated with a movie theater.

Historic preservation is controversial in Laguna, and the appeal was unsurprisingly subject to speculation. It was never the Coalition’s contention that the building “should be saved exactly as is” or had to continue to serve as a movie theater (Michael Ray, “Opinion,” Feb. 19, 2021). Rather, we believed that the project could be more sensitive to the historic character of the property while also meeting Rivian’s goals.

We are grateful to Rivian for agreeing to restore the primary (South Coast Highway-facing) façade and the courtyard-facing exterior to their original condition. Missing features to be reconstructed include the marquee, the Juliet balcony and French doors off the second-floor apartment, the basket weave-patterned brick courtyard surfacing, the retail storefront fenestration, and more. Repairs to existing features and materials shall be made as needed. There are numerous historic photographs to aid this work. Rivian will reconstruct the original front entry doors, but they shall be fully retractable so that cars can move in an out, an essential alteration for their project. Rivian also agreed to revise interior plans to make it possible for the property to be converted back into a theater someday, which is a principle goal under the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

Rivian also agreed to prepare, submit, and support the nomination of the property to the National Register of Historic Places. Despite Laguna’s remarkable historic built environment, the city only has two properties on the National Register. It will be wonderful to welcome a third.

Many residents believe the owner of such a marvelous property should be free to demolish it (though fewer, I believe, than is often claimed). I don’t know if this column has convinced the skeptical that historic buildings are worth a significant effort and that the City has a stake in ensuring their preservation. But I hope all can agree that this property will continue to be a wonderful community asset and one of which we all can be proud.

Catherine is a spokesperson for the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition and professor of English at the California Institute of Technology.

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