Opinion: Village Matters


A Dana Point Future for Laguna?

ann christoph

I wonder if only Dana Point had more citizen involvement would we be seeing those new huge structures in Dana Point’s town center? Perhaps not, but it’s more complex.  It involves the history, and the town’s image of itself.

Laguna’s vision has been unchanging since its founding a century ago. “The beach that’s different,” a scenic seaside village rooted in the arts, where citizens are dedicated to protecting it and building on its quaintness. Dana Point has a history of conflicting visions which makes it hard to have continuity of citizen activism. 

Dana Point had a bright future back in the late 1920s when Anna Walters, the Skidmores, and Sidney Woodruff (who built Hollywoodland where the Hollywood sign is) planned a Mediterranean village by the sea. Unfortunately the Great Depression put a stop to most of it. There remain a few beautiful homes and commercial buildings from that era. The town did not recover well. When I moved here in 1971 the downtown area had an assortment of one-story buildings of assorted design amid vacant lots and the few original Mediterranean buildings. The Harbor, built in 1970, was supposed to bring the town to life. The Harbor restaurants and stores thrived but there was little spillover into the rest of Dana Point.

In 1978, Dana Point was still unincorporated and the County hired a Philadelphia firm, Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd. to do a specific plan for the community. Their idea, along with the town committee, was to adopt a Cape Cod architectural theme—responding to the 1835 visit of Richard Henry Dana who was from Boston. Dana signed on as a common seaman on the brig Pilgrim which sailed around the horn bringing goods from New England to trade for cowhides along the California coast. The crew disembarked in the anchorage south of the headlands, collected hides from the Mission in a couple of days and left. What was meaningful about that short visit was the book Dana wrote, “Two Years Before the Mast” in which he described the area as “the only romantic spot in California.” The specific plan policies intended to build on this theme and transform the downtown area of miscellaneous scattered structures into a charming New England village. Thus the anomalous Cape Cod buildings that have been built since the 1980s.

Now there are at least three cultures represented in downtown Dana Point—the significant historical Mediterranean 1920s buildings, the small commercial buildings typical of the 1940s through 1960s, New England style, and post-1980s developments.  The area reads like a city in search of a vision.

Added to that mix are the enormous four-story apartment and commercial blocks just being completed now—incompatible with everything around them, and blocking views from residential areas above. How did the citizens let that happen?

The answer is, they really tried to stop it.

Dana Point residents participated in the process of developing the Town Center Plan, adopted in 2008. This seems like a positive plan, projecting an attractive, pedestrian oriented, mixed use environment with a “small town, village atmosphere.” It establishes “the appropriate building height, setbacks and stepbacks and discourages franchise architecture to create more pleasing and appropriately scaled structures.”  The 40-foot, three-story heigh limit, was “to be strictly applied and includes guard rails, decorative features, stairwells, elevators, etc.” within the 40 feet. There are detailed design guidelines and beautiful photos of the envisioned buildings. 

The problem came in the implementation when “Majestic” developers proposed construction of the first projects. Height variances were requested, up to 60 feet.  The parking requirements were reduced, and the city has no design review. The planning commission rejected the plans, but was overruled by the City Council.  “Residents for Responsible Development” reacted and proposed a voter initiative to require the city to strictly abide by the adopted plan. Despite a competing and confusing initiative proposed by the council, the residents’ measure passed overwhelmingly. But on the day of the vote, the staff issued permits on the big buildings we see now. They could not be stopped.

One resident summed it up. “Dana Point has the least visionary and maybe poorest leadership of any beach town except Huntington Beach. [The condos] were supposed to be three-story, 12-foot overall floors with underground parking. The landscape turned into side street parking places, additional height was added for parapets to hide various functions, all hidden behind construction screens. The city just kept giving them variances post permit with public notices that were posted in obscure locations, the streets were blocked, too, and everyone who attended all those meetings was stunned at the outcome. We had been led to believe that there would also be wider setbacks and some charm crumbs, really.” 

Guidelines, city ordinances, and sensitive design solutions go out the window once a pro-development council takes hold. The people serving on the council are key, and that’s where it gets complex. We have to be politically involved over the long term and have council candidates who represent community and environmental interests.  It’s often too late to affect change when a project is going wrong—as it did in Dana Point. The leadership was determined to see the project go ahead. It was obviously the wrong leadership. At that point the citizens were powerless, even with the initiative. 

We are at that point right now here in Laguna. Developer Mo Honarkar, having produced building plans for the block north of the art museum that look amazingly like the projects in Dana Point, is proceeding with remodeling the Hotel Laguna without having produced any plans for public review as required by the city.  Finally the city issued a stop order. Powers that be in the city seem to be ambivalent about making Honarkar follow the law, versus facilitating the reopening of the hotel.  Reports are that workers are back. Despite citizen protests and strong arguments for treating this beautiful hotel in a respectful and legally compliant manner, it seems we are powerless.

Is this only the beginning of a Dana Point-like future?

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

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  1. Hi Ann, I am currently sitting in Hotel Laguna and have been almost every day since May 5 when the building was red tagged. I can say with great confidence that there is no work being done here.

    If you would like to come see the Hotel for yourself, I will gladly walk you through in between almost daily city walk throughs.

  2. Ann, Ann, Ann.

    Don’t you get it? The old way, of incompetent activists who obstructed capitalists who want to invest their own money in profitable changes, didn’t work. Not even a drug store remains.

  3. Correction for Mr. or Ms. Lynn: We have a lovely, family-oriented and -run drug store in downtown Laguna—Bushard’s Pharmacy. It’s also a great spot for buying gifts and cards.

  4. The problem with Dana Point is all the city council have their hands in some deep pockets.
    DEEP POCKETS start in large corporations, local city governments, state government right on up to and including national government and the White House. This is nothing new. The old saying stands true “You can’t fight city hall” and all this is called crooked POLITICS and POLITICIANS.


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