Opinion: Village Matters

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Make Laguna Shine

Last week, the City Council considered whether voters would be interested in increasing taxes in an attempt to extract more income from visitors and produce more funds for the projects the Council is planning. They considered raising the sales tax, increasing the business license tax for bars and restaurants and/or upping the bed tax—called the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), which would raise $3.5-3.6 million annually.

Kurt Bjorkman, general manager of the Ranch at Laguna Beach, engaged the council in a discussion of the real world of competition for the visitors looking for a special destination, who also are always considering the price. The TOT entered into that pricing decision, and Bjorkman maintained that a list of major hotels in town would not support an increase. Other coastal towns compete for the same visitors that Laguna Beach hotels covet, he said.

Councilman George Weiss pointed out, “You’ve got one of the most unique locations in California, if not the United States, the world…”

Bjorkman countered, “I agree that our city, our beautiful…our topography and everything…I would say, if we were to support a TOT increase because we’ve got the best city in California, the best city in California should shine like the best city in California.”

It doesn’t now.

What does it take to make Laguna shine—to have our parks, streets, and public spaces befit the magnificent cliffs, coast, canyons and artistic heritage we have been blessed with? Our generous annual budget has grown from $30 million when I was on the council in the early 90s to over $145 million today. We have 345 city employees, but most of them are doing something other than making the town shine. There is a maintenance crew of only seven to manage a giant list of tasks. Supervisor Wayne Chintala cited responsibilities that ranged from sweeping sand back into play areas and picking up trash to managing planting and irrigation systems. Outside contractors are also hired to mow lawns and maintain some areas.

Highly visited areas like Heisler Park get more attention, but even the downtown tree wells and planted areas have been neglected and are home to mature weeds. Last year, I wrote to Public Works about the condition of Village Green in South Laguna. It was overrun with weeds and unmanaged shrubbery. Parents complained that they had to go out to the park and clean up before guests arrived there for their child’s birthday party. “It’s embarrassing,” they said. A crew was sent out with their power hedge trimmers—the instant solution. Often improperly used to zip through landscaping, all they do is give the impression that a crew has been there doing something. They ruin the structure of shrubbery and often cut off all the flowers. I pointed out that the adopted city policy recommends naturalistic pruning. Staff maintain they know how to do proper pruning, but they don’t have time to do it right.

Vines covering Glenneyre Street Parking Garage. They have since been removed. Photo/Ann Christoph

This year, the park is better, but there are still grassy weeds throughout that have been allowed to go to seed. The pruners haven’t been there yet, and I hope they will respect the natural forms of the shrubbery and we won’t have sheared balls. The play equipment has needed repair for years, but the answer is to replace it—$400,000 has been budgeted! Replacement parts from the manufacturer should be pursued at a much lower cost.

Glenneyre Street Parking Garage is much more in the public view, another example of hedge pruners gone awry. The original planting featured Boston ivy and lavender trumpet vines on the brick walls and shrubs of various heights in informal espaliers in front. The city removed all the vines when structural issues were addressed, but despite promises to replant them, it was never done. All the shrubs along Glenneyre have been uniformly buzz-cut, losing the opportunity to show their gracefulness and uniqueness. These relatively minor fixes can make a big difference in the impression conveyed by the landscape—we should give the impression of caring both for the plants themselves and for those who experience the landscaping daily or maybe only once in a lifetime.

We need to do better. If more staff, a larger landscape maintenance budget, and detailed training are needed, we need to provide them. Laguna Beach is known for its beauty, and it should be a high priority throughout our city.

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect who, often with partners, designed Village Green, Alta Laguna Park, Bluebird Park, the Glenneyre St. Parking Structure, South Laguna medians and South Laguna Community Garden Park. She is also a former councilmember, mayor, and board member of Village Laguna and South Laguna Civic Association. 

 

 

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