Opinion: Musings on the Coast 

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Saving the Remnants of Laguna’s Artist Colony

As you drive down Laguna Canyon Road from the 405 freeway, you run into what Laguna used to be: myriad funky uses that create their own ecosystem. Some of it is automotive, like the fix-a-dent shop. Some of them are utilitarian, like the lumber yard (the real lumber yard, not the restaurant, which I love). Some of it is retail, restaurants, antiques, the Boys & Girls facility, etc.

And an exceedingly small portion is where real artists really live and work. 

Unfortunately, two facilities that house 20 artists are now at risk. The reason? The owner, who quite deliberately built the facility to house and cultivate artists, is aging, and the two facilities will probably be sold for estate reasons.

As a collector of art created in Laguna, I know several of the inhabitants, and they are worried. If the two facilities are sold, what will happen? Surely, most potential new owners would not be so eleemosynary as the current owner; to them, making a (big) buck will be more important than preserving a way of life. That translates into big increases in rents, the substitution of non-artist (and higher paying) tenants, or the worst: demolishing all of it and building something—anything—more lucrative.

The issue will be discussed at a city council meeting on April 4. No one has a solution, but everyone seems determined to help.

Let me offer a few potential suggestions.

First, any sophisticated buyer will know that 20 artists would form their own lobbying group, which will oppose any change. Plus, each will have at least five friends who will join. What developer in their right mind would want to buy those facilities with such a built-in lobbying group opposing them? I ask this because if the seller is unsophisticated, the facilities’ asking price will likely be much higher than any economic return could justify. If the seller is represented by the typical broker, that broker will whisper sweet nothings into the buyer’s ears about the potential upside (and please, I do not demean brokers—that is their job). 

The city could buy the facilities. Hmmm, I don’t like this approach because it would put the city into the commercial landlord business, and it would face the unavoidable task of managing the properties. One must then ask, how would the city do it? Their first instinct would be to create a task force to “study” the issue….and it would fester from there. So, please, not the city, anything but that. 

I think the best answer is for a private developer(s) to buy the facilities, create a non-profit to manage it (or hire one), and otherwise let the facilities be; make no changes except professional maintenance. The city should contribute half the price to demonstrate its support of local artists. Finally, I believe the perfect local developers/landlords would be those who already own substantial properties in Laguna and manifestly have benefited from Laguna’s charm. My two picks would be Mark Christy, who owns The Ranch, Hobie and more; and Joe Hanauer, who owns the Sapphire restaurant shopping center and much more. Both Mark and Joe are of great character and would be wise owners.

Whatever, please do attend the April 4 council meeting or email staff or council members. This opportunity to help our artists should not be ignored. After all, this is the city of the arts. It says so on signs leading into the city. 

Michael is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer emeritus of Laguna Forward PAC.

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