Re-opening The Town
By Michael Ray
The virus has disrupted everything. Laguna Beach is closed. All non-essential stores are closed. The restaurants have take-out only. Locals cannot even go to city parks or beaches.
The lockdown is bound to last months more. Even President Donald Trump, who has hesitated to act, announced that the social distancing policy will last until the end of April. My guesstimate is the end of May, maybe longer. June? Whatever that stretch maybe, every retail shop in Laguna is laying off employees, probably not paying rent, and struggling to stay viable.
This is on top of the already vacant storefronts in Laguna due to bureaucratic obstacles placed in front of anyone who wants to open a retail store. A city-commissioned study on Laguna Beach’s retail market environment found the following:
- “The built environment [of Laguna] is deteriorating with increasing vacancies, dimly lit streets, older infrastructure, and low street maintenance.”
- “Without a substantive change, Downtown will continue to decline and will require major repositioning and marketing… to attract sufficient sales to sustain its retail sales and sustain its retail and dining uses.”
- “Rather than have regulations drive the form of essential Downtown uses, the businesses should be free to operate in the most productive manner they can.”
- “The City should let the market ultimately dictate which stores survive and which ones fail. To place any artificial conditions on a store’s product mix or a restaurant’s menu is ultimately non-productive and furthers the City’s reputation as being hard to deal with.”
- “Parking requirements should be eased for new development, and be decoupled from use as not to act as a barrier for new investment.”
These suggestions have been reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission and forwarded to the City Council for action.
There they will be fought like crazy by Village Laguna.
Ahh, Village Laguna, such a sweet and innocent-sounding name, you have ruled us for 30 years and these restrictions are yours. You claim a membership of hundreds, but the same 20 or so people show up time and again and again at so many city meetings. You get your way.
I have my own proposal to get this city moving again after the lockdown ends. Here it is:
For the two years following the end of the lockdown, allow retail businesses to open without any regulatory approvals at all. I repeat, no approvals whatsoever except plan check.
Try this for two years. It is an experiment. Let’s see what happens.
I know Village Laguna would protest like locusts, claiming it will ruin Laguna’s inherent charm. This might be right, but it takes a good two years to get anything going anyway and any change would be minimal no matter what. And do not worry about Mo Honarkar jamming his projects through; the Coastal Commission will have its own multi-year approval process.
So let’s try it for two years. It will be an experiment; if it works, keep doing it. If not, rethink the rules.
In any case, our retailers desperately need the city’s help—and there is not much the city can do except relax its stifling bureaucracy.
What do we have to lose except vacant retail space, town vitality, the sense the City wants to help, and well, a bureaucracy so cumbersome as to be loathed.
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and lives in Laguna Beach. He is a real estate entrepreneur involved in many non-profits.