Tuesday night the council considered whether to tear down or restore the Digester building, and whether to fund projects that include cutting down the trees on lower Forest Avenue and on lower Broadway. Wednesday night the Planning Commission had to decide what to do with the so-called “voluntary” historic preservation ordinance that could mean loss of many historic buildings. Next Wednesday the Planning Commission reviews the Downtown Action Plan that includes the tree removals mentioned above, as well as removing many more throughout the downtown.
Somewhere in the bureaucracy of city hall, this barrage of harmful proposals besieging us indicates there is a competing vision for Laguna Beach of the future that doesn’t comport with the our adopted vision.
In 2000, hundreds of Lagunans met over months in city-sponsored workshops to prepare a strategic plan, the Laguna Beach Vision 2030 plan. The results of this process were accepted by the city council and procedures were set in place to keep us on track in implementing the 2030 plan’s goals. Here are a few excerpts:
Preserve, enhance and honor
- The “small town” and “village character” that has traditionally defined Laguna Beach
- The individual, unique and historical character of Laguna Beach’s residential and commercial neighborhoods
- The city’s identity as an “art colony” and as a “beach community.”
The plan later states: “In the soul of Laguna is found an appreciation of the unconventional and the unpretentious.”
City hall is seriously off track in achieving those goals and in appreciating the unconventional and unpretentious.
The much-weakened historic preservation ordinance not only opens the door to more demolition of historic buildings, but adds even more confusion to the process for property owners. Instead of actually preserving buildings that depict our history, the ordinance says it is only encouraging voluntary preservation.
Yet the documents imply that there really is something called preserving a “historic resource” that the state, through the California Environmental Quality Act, requires be considered. This conflict is at the heart of why our present ordinance needs to be revised, so that we have a fair and well-understood process in place to help property owners, and to assure that historic resources are protected. The ambiguous ordinance being suggested will only prolong our present misunderstandings, delays, and losses of historic resources. All because we’ve lost sight of our goals, “Preserve, enhance and honor…the individual, unique and historical character…”
The proposed tree removals downtown reflect staff and consultant’s desire for a refreshed look. A giant turn-around from the casual, rustic, unconventional, unpretentious character most of us love about Laguna Beach, toward a more standardized appearance as is seen in urban areas and Orange County’s master planned commercial centers. They are suggesting we remove our lovely, dramatic trees so that they can be replaced with much smaller trees that look like they belong in the parking lots of Irvine. Another suggestion is the installation of metal tree grates instead of plants and mulch around the bases of the trees. It would be like paving the Sawdust Festival grounds.
Our trees, neighborhoods and we are unconventional and unpretentious and we like it that way. Commentary on my last column said that a majority of Lagunans are not buying what the developers are selling. They’re selling conventional and pretentious, and changing our town to suit their pro forma. Now it’s time for that majority to be heard. We’re 20 years into the Laguna Beach 2030 strategic plan, and nearly 100 years of successful cityhood. Let’s not veer off course now.
P.S. The council responded favorably to many eloquent speakers and voted to restore the exterior of the digester building and to defer decisions on tree removal until more public vetting and action by the Planning Commission on the Downtown Action Plan takes place. Thank you, council and speakers, but it looks like lots more continued dedicated public involvement will be needed to keep Laguna, Laguna.
Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.
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