Opinion: Save Sweetwater Car Wash 

Billy Fried

By Billy Fried

One of the great things about living here is the funk. As in, the funkiness, the original OG buildings and businesses that have stood the test of time and escaped the short-fingered vulgarian clutches of developers. Places that have the unmistakable patina of time and make our town different from those cookie cutter, soul crushing communities to the east.   

Like the Orange Inn and Penguin Café, favorite local breakfast joints as old school as they get. Grab a newspaper (while they’re still around), slip into a booth, and soak up the ambiance and vintage signs and pictures.  

Then roll over to the Sound Spectrum, established in 1968 by Jim Otto and still selling the same stuff: vinyl and hippie memorabilia. The reprints of the 60s psychedelic calendars he commissioned by the great surf artist Bill Ogden are legendary remnants from our past. 

If breakfast didn’t agree with you, drop into the Laguna Beach Community Clinic – also established in 1968 – to serve the very hippies who were buying Jim’s records and perhaps doing too many drugs while listening to them. This phenomenal resource continues to provide free service for those in need to this day, one of only two such clinics left in Orange County. 

Once medicated, Uber over to the legendary dive bar Sandpiper (aka Dirty Bird) for the smell of a frat house basement and some epic west coast reggae.  

Then there are those funky people who uphold our heritage as well. Behold the artist and photographer Douglas Miller as he camps out nightly in his tiny, cramped studio fronting Coast Highway, painting tiny landscapes and archiving the hundreds of thousands of photos he began taking of Laguna in the sixties. And, of course, no paean to Laguna funkiness is complete without a shout-out to one of the funkiest men alive – our Greeter, Michael Minutoli. Just seeing him twirl cues visitors that this is a funky-ass town.   

Finally, there’s sweet little Sweetwater, our locally owned car wash, a freaky mashup of Jurassic Park, Hefner’s grotto and Zen monastery, all under that funky old gas station overhang. That massive awning still provides needed shade for the weary, just as it did for travelers to our dusty, desolate seaside village 83 years ago. Yep, that there is an original Atlantic Richfield service station, built during World War II, in a style we can only call Utilitarian Gas Station Chic. Compact. Practical, with perhaps a hint of Art Moderne or Deco under its hood. I’ll bet Bette Davis filled up here. Oh, if that awning could talk. 

Nowadays, this little gem can bottleneck and take 40 minutes to get your car washed, but so what? Why are you in a hurry? Settle down, grab an Indy, and take a seat by the dinosaur’s bum. Glance over at the statue of Kwan Yin (a Buddhist symbol of unconditional love, kindness and mercy) to quiet your mind. Or meditate on the colorful koi swimming in the pond. Yep, this ain’t the Laguna Niguel car wash!   

Now that you are settled into your mindfulness practice notice all the fancy vehicles being cleaned. Breathe in. Yes, you are super blessed. Breathe out. Be grateful. Take a look around and maybe strike up a conversation with one of your neighbors. Or that fetching stranger reading the New York Times. This is one of the very few places where meeting people in your age and IQ bracket is possible. In fact, some have met here and married. For realz. 

Local owner Scott Thompson has been making it happen with his eclectic mix of fun and funky for 30 years. And in the process, your rides have gotten a nice shine without having to venture out of town. He treats his staff like family, too. But now, sadly, those short-fingered vulgarians who own the property want to squeeze every dime of useable space by replacing our beloved car wash with a large, two-story, mixed-use retail/residential blah blah blah that will obliterate any remnants of our past. They live overseas, have absolutely no stake in Laguna, and have no idea who Bette Davis is.   

I understand we need more housing, but does it have to come at the cost of erasing the iconic buildings that make this place so Laguna? Didn’t most of us move here for this? 

The applicant will be going before Planning Commission this Wednesday for project approvals.  

Please show your support for Sweetwater and architectural preservation by opposing this application. Go on the city’s website to get Planning Commissioners’ email addresses and write them. Or attend and speak at this Wednesday’s meeting. I hope Planning presses the applicant to provide a historic assessment, as required. If it is determined that the building may be a historic resource, they could send it to CEQA for review. And it could qualify for the National Historic Register. It’s a long shot, but if we don’t fight for it, our beautiful past will be erased forever. Not to mention T Rex, the koi and the compassionate Kwan Yin.  

Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected].  

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  1. Don’t know why I even bother to waste time on Fried’s columns which seem to be half-baked and poorly thought through at best. Here we have his plaintive calls to preserve the Sweetwater car-wash from the “short-fingered vulgarians” (a phrase originally coined to describe Donald Trump but which Fried seems to find clever in this context) who threaten this iconic establishment. He waxes on about the quirky quaintness that Laguna has/had: “Places that have the unmistakable patina of time and make our town different from those cookie cutter, soul crushing communities to the east.”

    But who-else but Fried was one of the loudest voices against “Measure Q”, the ballot measure which offered voters the chance to hold back the worst impulses of insatiable developers. From his Indy column of 15Oct22:

    “Don’t buy into the myth that the town is controlled by ravenous developers, frothing to build monoliths. You know it’s not true.

    So vote no on Q. We’ll toast at one of our future Michelin starred restaurants. Bon Appetit!”

    So which is it Billy? Sometimes you appear to see “Short-fingered vulgarians” and at other times benevolent folks helping to build up Laguna’s “vibrancy”?

  2. After spending ≈8 hours reading everything in the PC packet, as a professional land use analyst and construction consultant myself, I’d add the following:
    Obviously for the neighbors, view loss/equity was tantamount in comments made by of the majority of the immediate residents.
    I’d add that construction staging logistics seem to be more of a TBD instead of locked in…which is what the neighbors will be for a year or 2 of construction: Doors and windows locked, to keep the dust and contaminated particulate outside.
    The developer alleges 9 months to demolish, excavate and build? That’s highly dubious considering the complexity of the venture.
    Trucks queued up coupled with onsite excavation machines will fill the neighborhood with pollution. The prevailing wind current will ensure air quality impacts.
    OC Health Care Agency (also filed with the SD Regional Water Quality Control Board) notes that the former gas station, servicing and auto sales site was never 100% remediated regarding hydrocarbon detritus when converted to a car wash: It was estimated in 2001 that there was still nearly 25 cu. yds. of contaminated soil and over 100 gallons of gasoline & benzene in the ground. Not only could more have collected, but spread, migrated. Remember the Texaco Station across the street, closed and fenced off by EPA years ago? I knew you could if a long term resident.
    The City alleges that it’s CEQA exempt, and “non-appealable”?
    First, our planners admit that it requires a Coastal Development Permit (CDP), are they alleging CDPs are non-appealable? Because I thought that the Coastal Commission ultimately determines that, they are the dispositive (deciding) agency, we only have local lead agency rights? Haven’t seen anyone go after that claim.
    The CEQA exemption § they reference is that it’s under 10,000 sq. ft, hence SMALL.
    Yes, there’s only about 8,200 sq. ft. of retail and residential construction, but nowhere does the staff report reflect the thousands of sq. ft. of viewing decks and the subterranean garage.
    I’m a retired general contractor, to me they constitute construction because they weren’t there previously, are new construction and even if only counted in a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio, it’s OVER 10,000 sq. ft., hence NOT exempt.
    As I told a concerned neighbor up the street, it’s vulnerable to legal challenges and appeals in many many ways. Been in the system for years but still not ripe.
    I wrote a column in the INDY many years ago about Retail Gas Outlets (RGOs), e.g., remediation and re-development. Several new projects in Laguna took years to clear RGO jurisdictional oversight from regulatory agencies before they were re-developed.
    Several still sit, ground unbroken because of the hefty expenses required to 100% remediate to safe conditions, meet remediation standards.
    This project’s program (its elements) is too ambitious, too large/tall, And the author is kind of on the right track:
    A CEQA-binding Initial Checklist should have been required. The developer pays the city for doing that.
    I believe this project would end up in the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) category: It has many potentially significant impacts that should mandate concessions/exactions. Mitigated below significance levels, better or to NIL (no impact) metrics.
    It might not look very big but it has a lot of faults that should be cured locally.
    If not, if no MND or something similar (paid for by the developer), i.e., local cures exhausted, due process followed, then locals should create a team and go for it.
    Sorry, but so often in Laguna an unknowledgeable individual resident, usually at/near Ground Zero takes ownership, hoards and firewalls critical path data.
    IMHO, no one owns projects that can affect us all. That’s selfish and myopic: Teams beat these things, not selfish individuals.
    If you wish to go fast, go alone…but if you wish to go far (and this looks like a long journey), then go together.
    There’re many historical reasons why oversight agencies have a skeptical attitude towards Laguna, our City cuts critical corners, we’ve a reputation for that.
    If the PC does approve it, as they’ve telegraphed in the previous hearing, locals should pool their money and appeal it to LBCC.
    If they certify it, its game on with the CCC and/or an OC Superior Court judge who knows CEQA.
    And yeah, for once I agree with the author: Scott’s a pretty kool dude, made that place pretty unique and worth saving.
    Full disclosure: Its where I’ve always gotten my cars washed. I just like the vibes and supporting a resident-owned business, we have so few left.
    Roger is a 51+ year resident and remembers when we didn’t have parking meters.

  3. Oh dear Michael, must we continue to beat this dead horse? Use your discernment. There is good development and bad development. One can be pro preservation and pro progress simultaneously. A resounding and discerning majority of this town didn’t want you and your ilk controlling every development decision, and stymying any progress we make as a town.
    And thanks for getting my Trump allusion. Can’t get anything past you!

  4. And for the record, the town isn’t controlled by developers. It’s controlled by a daunting review process that begins at the city, and then moves on to Planning Commission, Design Review, Council, and citizens like Mark Fudge, Roger Butow, Anne Christoph, and Cathy Jurca, to name a few. You’d have to be a masochistic short fingered Vulgarian to try and develop a project here. And it’s why I believe the car wash can prevail.


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