Opinion: Village Matters


Is Old Laguna Going or Gone?

“The body is willing, but the mind is weak.” That’s what the plaque at Cliff’s gym says. Somehow, I wouldn’t accept that my mind could possibly be weaker than my strength-deprived body.

But he proved it—or rather, I proved it to myself.

Dumbbell curls with 15-pound weights,” he demanded. That’s more than I usually lift. I had started with 8, then 10. 12 had been my max. Reluctantly, I took the 15-pounders, hammer style and did the required 12 reps. It seemed extra hard, as I had expected. 

“No way can I do another set,” I told myself. I wimped out and grabbed the next set of weights down the line. I had lifted almost another 12 reps when Cliff said, “So why are those 15-pounders lighter than the ones you were using before?” 

Chagrinned, I saw that what I thought was a pair of 12-pounders was really a duplicate pair of 15s! He pointed to the slogan he had been trying to convince me of for months. Weak mind, strong and willing body indeed!

We are being tested all the time. Are we strong enough to prevail to achieve our most cherished goals? How determined are we? Will we wimp out? Take an easier path or give up altogether? We had another test recently in our battle to preserve the South Laguna Community Garden Park.

Confronted with a surprise listing of the Garden land at a much lower price than before–2 million instead of the 5 million the owner had been asking in 2022—our garden team pulled together energetically and with optimism. 

With a combination of private donations, a contribution of $500,000 from the city and a philanthropic loan, we met the agreed-on amount in 30 days. It felt like we were lifting way over the amount we were trained for—but we pushed on. 

(This is why the Village Matters column has not been written for much too long!) Just as escrow was about to close (and before any funds were transferred) the title company uncovered discrepancies in the so-called owner’s identification. The deal was no longer a deal.  

Still, the process demonstrated wide community support for saving the Garden, and we carry on. Music in the Garden last Saturday was lovely, even with the introductory showers. The Garden Band, Rick Weber, Charlene Mignault, Francois Dean and Nelson Coates treated us to country, opera and touching love songs. “Old Laguna is not gone. It’s right here,” a neighbor mused as the sunshine broke through.

This little garden-saving battle is just one of many trying to break through our community consciousness. Sometimes, those leaders must feel like they are out there on their own. Carolyn Smith Burris has been trying for years to ensure that the Coast Liquor building would be restored to how Chris Abel originally designed it—with redwood. Built early in his career, this building pioneered key features that Abel would incorporate in his signature homes throughout Laguna Beach—slanted windows, indoor-outdoor continuity of natural wood beams and ceiling, redwood siding. The project received a 54% parking credit for restoring the building. Yet the result is a mockery of historic preservation as it stands—painted red with a white interior. Carolyn, the granddaughter of Pappy Smith, who developed the Coast Inn and the liquor store, seems to be the only person who remembers how the building looked and has been calling for a correct restoration for years. In hearing after hearing, decision-makers give the impression that the restoration will be a true and proper one. Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf stated, “We’re giving them all the benefits we should make the building look the way it used to look.” 

Still, we have this result and city staff continues to say it’s just fine.

Sometimes, we form new organizations to make a point that Old Laguna is worth protecting. Sensible Laguna tries to keep improvements at the High School campus in keeping with the neighborhood and in proportion with the site, the budget, and a spectrum of needs.

Meeting after meeting, the school board is still trying to fit an Olympic-size pool where the existing pool is now. Sensible Laguna’s leader Steve McIntosh explains, “They WANT, not need a 50-meter, Olympic-sized pool in there, taking out the front shower building and basically eliminating the family-friendly, community aspects of the pool. All without a proper feasibility study.” 

Then there are the new housing laws. Since 2021, the state has been passing a whole series of measures intended to address the housing crisis. The problem is these laws provide “maybe” housing at the expense of local control and reasonable planning. I say “maybe” because there is no provision that the housing added is affordable or even rented. They allow the installation of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) (apartments) in single-family areas without allowing for discretionary review (such as Design Review) and without requiring parking for either the new apartment or to replace existing parking if the ADU is built in a garage. Recent provisions allow an ADU to be two-story, up to 25 feet high. These new laws have been worrying city planners and council watchers all this time, but there has been no “uprising” from residents. It is just now that the impacts on residents and neighborhoods are starting to be felt. An application for a two-story ADU has been filed for a house on Louise St.—according to neighbors, a location where view and privacy will be seriously impacted. Now, those neighbors are starting to battle this situation. Right now, it seems they are alone.  

Village Laguna sponsored a meeting about this issue. It appears we as a city could be doing more to impress on the state the impacts their arbitrary housing solutions are causing. 

We need to prevent the transformation of our town into an overcrowded, poorly planned, even more parking-deprived place–nice only in memory.

As a community, will we wimp out and leave these neighbors to fight these important battles alone, or will we join them and help them do the heavy lifting to make a difference?

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc. Those interested in learning more about the issues in this column can contact Ann at [email protected]

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  1. Ms Christoph, as always your observations are spot on! I look forward to eventually attending the grand opening of the South Laguna Community Garden park. In the meantime, I’d like to expand a bit upon the tale of “Coast Liquor” store and the way in which developers game the system so as to enable massive intensification of commercial properties.

    I’ll join the consensus in saying that the building now looks nice, despite the niceness being skin-deep only. But my concerns go beyond whether the developer has done a good job in making the project attractive. The issues that concern me most with this project are two-fold;
    1) The developer – DIG is a developer known to get their way, when common sense would dictate that their various proposals should be dead-on-arrival.
    Exhibit A is the “Artist Live-Work” monstrosity in the canyon. How does this project fit within the Canyon’s “small scale & rural” character mandate? It doesn’t. How is it affordable for artists? It isn’t. It’s evidence that this developer has the deep pockets and City Hall clout to get just about anything he wants, approved.
    Exhibit B: Coast Inn – This developer has put forward numerous proposals to intensify the use of the old Coast Inn that IMO, would be disastrous for the neighborhood. DIG have proposed enormous roof-top pools/party venues and other intensifications for this 24 room hotel; all while never addressing the epic lack of parking on site. Thankfully, DIG haven’t gotten approvals for the worst of these proposals (yet). But don’t expect them to stop trying.
    Exhibit C: DIG’s purchase of 11 acres of open-space land in Rim Rock Canyon for residential development in a protected, open-space area. An extremely difficult to access, high-fire risk area that has been open-space until now; but with DIG’s aforementioned deep-pockets and City Hall clout, who knows?

    To those who watch, this is a developer who’s very skilled at getting their way, consequences to residents be damned.
    2) Intensification of use of the 1391 S Coast Hwy site without mitigation – Based on the intensification DIG sought for this project, they owe LB 37 parking spaces and only provide 13. The primary tool they used to achieve reductions in parking requirements is the City’s Historic Preservation program, specifically the historical building parking forgiveness program. A “K” or “C” rated building, once brought back up to standards can qualify for up to a 50% parking reduction. An “E” rated building can qualify for up to 75% parking reduction. Guess which rating DIG sought for 1391 S. Coast Hwy? “E” of course. Unfortunately, the rating system is highly subjective and IMO, subject to politics. Some buildings which have little historical significance somehow manage to snag an “E” rating. Witness the ugly 1960s stucco office building on Forest (“Forest Building” connected to the Slice Pizza restaurant). This ‘strip mall’ quality building somehow managed an “E” rating and therefore was eligible for up to 75% parking reduction. It owes the downtown 43 parking spaces and provides 13. Enough said.

    Another comparison is the White House restaurant – this one only warrants a “C” rating (and can therefore only manage a max 50% forgiveness, but in current form only asked for a 34% reduction). The ‘gaming’ of the City’s various parking forgiveness programs (historic preservation, grandfathering, sidewalk cafe) is how we end up with parking gridlock and neighborhoods overrun with business-related parking.


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