Opinion: Village Matters

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Real Planning or Just Opinions?

Our Laguna Beach Planning Commission is not the leader in city planning it is meant to be. The presentations and staff reports seem to be arranged to limit the commission’s planning functions—and they go along with it! Thus the opportunity for detailed public involvement in determining the future of Laguna is being smothered.  

On July 5, the commission reviewed the designs to make the Forest Avenue Promenade permanent. Public Works’ Tom Perez gave a thorough presentation of the two plans (one straight line, one curvilinear). However, the review was limited by staff at the get-go. 

They had canceled the alternative that would keep the existing curbs and gutters in place, even though the council had dictated it be considered. Apparently, the consultants who came up with the plans were not invited to attend in person, and that limited the potential dialog with the commission and the public.

There were four lonely members of the public in the audience, and a half dozen testified by telephone. 

“Why wasn’t the room packed with interested citizens?” We wondered. 

There were two previous public workshops at the Susi Q, with more than a hundred people at each one. Where were all these people? It turns out the city had not notified them! This would have been their first opportunity to speak about the proposed designs—they had only been allowed to write notes on design proposals at the workshop. To learn about this hearing, they would have had to monitor all the agendas of the planning commission and be sure not to miss this meeting on the day after the Fourth of July when many are still on holiday or visiting with family.

Perez explained that he was only there to get comments about which of the two designs the commission wanted to recommend council pursue. “The council hearing will be in September when residents will be back from vacation,” he said.

The hearing was not designed to get community and business owner input, so the commission was deprived of important context for the decisions they might make.

The commissioners made many excellent comments. They asked for more involvement of the commission and Community Development Department in the design, in addition to the Public Works Department, which has been leading it.

Commissioner Susan Whitin stated that these plans were not designs; they were only diagrams. Important preliminary analysis was not done—an assessment of the existing trees, programming of uses, infrastructure requirements and input from businesses. What about the fencing required by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for areas where alcohol is served? There was strong support for preserving the existing trees—both plans would remove most of the mature trees that line our sidewalks now.   

“The plan needs to be “Lagunized,” Commissioner Steve Goldman stated. He explained it shouldn’t feel planned or contrived; it needs to feel natural. “What would an art colony gathering place be like?” Commissioner Steve Kellenberg asked. He struggled with the idea of a permanent closure of Forest Avenue, stating that, nationwide, 90 percent of downtown streets converted to plazas were reopened. He suggested that there could be an alternative that would be closed in summer and on weekends and open to cars the rest of the time.

In the end, even though they had many reservations about both plans, the commission did as staff requested and chose one. Their motion recommended the curvilinear plan “along with their comments.” They surrendered their power to affect the design at this early stage, giving up their opportunity to insist on seeing alternatives that responded to their comments. 

Planning Commissions are supposed to plan, not just give opinions and move on to the next item. The future of our town rests in their—and our—hands and we all have to do the heavy lifting.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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