Opinion: Outside In

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A Rose by Any Other Name

By David Weinstein

On a recent field trip to the Farmer’s Market in downtown Laguna, I parked next to this castle-like tower in the parking lot. Like so many things in our man-made environment, I’d paid little attention to this structure in the past. It was pleasing and always seemed to just be there, a prominent feature at one of the entries into the City. But now that I’m writing a column, I felt it my duty to do some research. Besides, I was curious.

I’m not going to tell you this is the City’s old wastewater treatment facility, that it’s an historic and iconic building, that the miniature lighthouse perched above it is actually its ventilator stack, or that it was built in 1935 during the Depression with money from the Public Works Administration. I’m not going to tell you because apparently everyone in the City already knows this except me. I found about 30 articles and Letters to the Editor written on it in the Independent in just over the last five years. After reading them, I felt much like my daughter’s college friend who took a summer job in Anchorage, Alaska as a tour guide despite the fact she’d never been to the city before. And that the name for my column, Outside In, seemed even more fitting then when I first coined it.

I know much more about the building now, though, especially after listening to hours of debate in recorded council meetings. I know that certain people prefer it be torn down to create a few more parking spaces, but that many more are in favor of saving it. I know that even the proposed limited repairs are a costly proposition. And I know that despite money spent on studies, and endless discussions, no one can agree on exactly what its ultimate reuse should be. I also know it is referred to as the “historic digester,” an unfortunate name choice given it always prompts the question, “Just what was being digested in there?’ And coincidentally, it is a name my wife has been known to refer to me after one of those monumental Las Vegas lunch buffets where I’ve eaten a pork chop, sushi, pizza, and a few bagels with cream cheese and lox.

For now, instead of an extensive renovation, the council has decided to perform only limited repairs to weatherproof and preserve the building and to remove and dispose of the accumulated sludge from its prior use. But standing in the parking lot on Saturday and looking up at this fanciful structure, I wonder what it might be with an added investment of money and imagination. And I can’t help but think this is an opportunity lost, or at best, delayed. I hope that the decision is revisited. Sure, it was probably the practical thing to do, but somehow, I don’t think of the citizenry of Laguna as being practical. I think of them as being bold and creative. They live in houses perched precariously on steep coastal hillsides to catch a glimpse of the beauty and vastness of the Pacific or tucked into verdant canyons with impassable roads to enjoy the visual bounties of nature. If these residents wanted practical, they would live in Irvine.

I have no helpful suggestions. But for sure some rebranding is in order, so Step One could be a city-wide contest to rename the building. But given its prior use, I think you can scratch any name that contains “chili parlor.” (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

David lives in Newport Beach with his wife Ann and dog Tucker. Lately, you might see him wandering around Laguna Beach with a notepad and pencil in his hand.

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