Knockout punch, or a great comeback?
By Jeffrey Redeker
Quarantine, work-from-home, shelter-in-place, lockdown and so many other phrases we hear daily are encapsulated by the closing of many businesses here in Laguna Beach. Our commercial districts in town are struggling. We all see the restaurants we love to patronize working very hard just to keep skeleton staffs employed while working through a myriad of federal programs intended to help them. This is so real in our town.
We all have a vested interest in thriving commercial districts in Laguna. The time to act is now, but it’s going to take more than federal loan programs to make a lasting difference. Many businesses are closing for good due to COVID-19, many others are still in doubt and welcoming any new businesses seems implausible.
Imagine, for example, I had a great idea to open up a deli on Beach Street. Can you see it? Right there between Hapi Sushi and the Copy and Print Center. Imagine I had the capital, the foresight and the ambition to step into the Laguna Beach market in the post COVID-19 era. We would serve sandwiches made with meats smoked all day, topped with bread baked fresh from an imported brick oven. Daily specials, gourmet toppings, reasonable prices – the exact kind of casual dining Laguna Beach residents want and need. Doesn’t that sound great?
Although I am sure this shop would be welcomed with fanfare, in order to open it, there are several hurdles to overcome before a single nail would be hammered. Many of these hurdles are solved in the proposed revisions to Laguna’s Downtown Specific Plan (DSP). There is one simple thing the City Council can do right now to speed up our economic recovery after this over: pass the revised DSP.
Currently, businesses that are located in the downtown specific plan area have to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). One requirement of a CUP is to identify and stay within a structured product mix. Recently, a local shop owner had to endure months of back and forth with the Planning Commission just because he wanted to sell Laguna Beach-branded shot glasses, which was ultimately denied. Instead of this, we need to allow our businesses to be nimble and manage their products based on demand. Passing the DSP would eliminate regulations on product mix and have an immediate positive impact on existing businesses, plus make it easier to attract new businesses. Proprietors would be able to increase and decrease product lines based on what sells, seasonal products and other economic factors.
Another change in the revised DSP is parking restrictions. Currently, the DSP requires five spaces for every 1,000 square feet for bars and restaurants, and three spaces for every 1,000 square feet for retail. The buildings in our downtown were never designed with these restrictions in mind. The city offers in-lieu parking fees which means, if you are not able to obtain the proper number of spaces, the city will sell you a space at the rate of $20,000 a space. The problem is even if they buy the space, no new space is immediately created; it’s just a fee paid to the city. Passing the new DSP and relaxing the parking requirements is another step forward in supporting our small businesses. It would demonstrate a City Council that is in touch with modern times and modern methods of transportation. There are other changes proposed as part of the DSP amendments that are worth consideration, but these two are a good start.
Jeffrey Redeker is a commercial banker and 38-year resident of Laguna Beach.