Opinion: Concerning the closing of Gelsons

Paul Freeman. Submitted photo

By Paul Freeman

What a great site for affordable housing. Naturally, it would help if there were a willing seller. Or a landlord offering a reasonable long-term lease. Or a tax-advantageous way to structure a transaction so the owner/ landlord is more likely to engage in positive and productive negotiations.

There may be an opportunity here for a broadly beneficial outcome. Ideally, the city could play an honest broker role, if not a more assertive role. It would help if, in addition to displays of support for affordable housing, there was now concerted, demonstrable support shown for developing the Gelsons space for low-cost housing.

City leaders can recognize that, in the life of a city, such options as this rarely materialize — after all, here’s a pre-developed site largely obscured from public view, yet sitting on the city’s main transit line, with no reasonable beef about views; and, a really big bonus, here’s a ready-made underground (i.e., unseen) parking structure. How many units? For what parts of the population? I don’t know.

Were only local or private funds used, the city could maximize its flexibility regarding preferences for locals or, seniors or artists or, teachers or hospitality workers or city employees. The critical path is to focus on the property and to argue about devils in the details later. Maybe this notion is prohibitive for plenty of good reasons of which I’m unaware. Or maybe this is a test: do Lagunans care about affordable housing? If so, how much? As a last resort, state law provides for eminent domain, whereby government can take private property only for public purposes and by paying fair market value.

If all else fails, if all earnest and good faith efforts are tried and exhausted, no court would deny the City’s acquisition of this sort of commercial property, even if by eminent domain, even if ultimately developed and/or operated by some private housing interest — provided it’s all done for a legitimate public purpose, such as below-market housing. Yes, there are numerous deserving projects chasing precious few public dollars. In making investments, a city necessarily must consider the compared-to-what of how dollars are spent, who benefits, and who pays.

On the other hand, I can’t be the only one weary of all the big talk about affordable housing, year after year, and with nothing, really zip, to show for it…hardly ever. Just sayin’. So, what say you, Laguna Beach?

Paul Freeman is a former Laguna Beach Mayor.

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  1. Thank you for advocating for affordable housing in Laguna Beach! Your suggestion got me thinking about resort towns such as Breckenridge and Mammoth that provide housing for service workers. Perhaps there could be a partnership with the City and the Montage and/or other hotels in town for such a thing at that property. Or something more permanent like senior housing. Instead of naysayers, we need outside the box solutions and for the City, business community, nonprofits and residents to come together to reach our state mandated goals for providing affordable housing that will only enhance the Laguna Beach vibe.

  2. Paul, you know I love ya, and im glad you got the conversation started around affordable housing, but in a commercial shopping center!? And a whole remake of the only grocery building that serves South Laguna? What about the sprawling campus at nearby St Catherine’s, where we actually own the property, there’s plenty of parking, and don’t have to assert eminent domain over the landlord and take down a perfectly functioning building?

  3. Ray Tang, that project used zero public funding, so good on you for supporting it, at least in spirit. Your tax dollars did not contribute one penny to it. To clear this up, the Art Lofts project consists of 29 units – 9 of them are affordable at $1,800 per month – this covers both workspace and a home. The process to become a tenant is somewhat rigorous. One must submit a portfolio to the Arts Commission and be approved, and make $70k or less per year. The place is home to many satisfied tenants, including at least five LCAD students and an artist who had long lived in his van. I call that a win.
    But looking ahead, our collective civic task is to plan for and build 198 low-income units by 2029. We need to get creative and work together.

  4. Mr. Tang:
    You’re spot on……those “digs” in the upper Canyon aren’t really affordable as being portrayed.
    Plus in the summer tenants are basically hostages due to the high season gridlock, not to mention peak commuters hours year round. One traffic accident away from being landlocked for odd hours throughout the day and night too.
    So transportation and easy mobility, including during inclement weather, make it dicey. See, there’s lots of reasons why it hasn’t been fully rented after all of these years of slick promotion.
    As for BM, she left out a critical point: Rentals of even a studio the size of a 480 sq. ft., 2 car garage (22′ x 22′) go for $3,600. They allow up to 2 tenants/studio.
    So the $1,800 mentioned is based upon DUAL occupancy.
    I’m single, live in an identically sized small unit in lower Victoria Beach, what my girlfriend sarcastically calls her “beach shack”—–it’s difficult to believe that 2 people in a unit wouldn’t be bumping into or falling all over each other in such cramped quarters.
    Gas-lie-ting isn’t “working together” but getting creative with reality seems the norm for that Canyon Catastrophe.
    Unless a couple was tiny in stature, plus tried to ride E-bicycles or scooters on that dangerous stretch of road, not really livable……or competitively affordable.
    What should happen is divert funds from the Visitors Bureau and Arts/Culture Commission, from TOT and/or BID to direct subsidies for those who qualify.
    With a $1200month subsidy, the artists can either afford to stay where they are or perhaps pool their $$$ subsidies for a communal studio. We have lots of empty commercial space that could be shared by multiple artists.
    This would be a form of re-purposing. Leaves artists comfy in their current neighborhoods/homes, not banished to upper Canyon adversities.
    In other words: We don’t need to build new monolithic apartment complexes: We need to use, recycle what’s already in inventory.


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