Laguna Beach mulls $23M deal for closed South Laguna school

Principal Michael Letourneau with St. Catherine students in 2014. File Photo

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange is asking for $23 million to sell the 6.5-acre St. Catherine of Siena school property to Laguna Beach, according to a staff report.

St. Catherine, a transitional kindergarten to eighth-grade Catholic elementary school, closed its doors in June 2020 after county health orders shifted classes for all schools online.

“The school-age population in the local area has been in decline for many years, and it was a driving factor in the decision to close the school and put the property up for sale,” diocese spokesperson Jarryd Gonzales said in a statement Friday.

The school opened in 1957 and was remodeled in 2008. The Diocese of Orange considered all options for disposing of the school but landed on moving forward with Laguna Beach, foreseeing community-wide uses for the land, Gonzales said.

“The Property provides the City with a unique opportunity to increase services for the community. More notably, given the excellent condition of the buildings on the Property, many services could be brought online almost immediately, if the City Council decides to move forward with the acquisition,” senior management analyst Jeremy Frimond wrote in a staff report.

The report identifies possible uses as a public pool, new civic center, cultural arts center, and/or parking structure. The property falls within the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone by the California Dept. of Forestry and Protection.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District submitted a letter to the City declaring its interest in partnering with the City to help shoulder the cost.

“Specifically, the District would like to partner with City to acquire the property for use in the District’s educational programs and services,” Supt. Jason Viloria wrote.

Among the identified educational uses is a possible site for an expanded transitional kindergarten program. South Laguna has been without a school since the district closed Aliso School in 1981.

An Irvine-based performing arts nonprofit had publicly mulled establishing a conservatory at the shuttered South Laguna school to supplement Laguna Beach students’ need for additional performing arts classes. This proposal was never launched.

A preliminary review of the municipal budget and investment portfolio showed city staffers that Laguna Beach has the financial resources to fund the transaction. Among the options is borrowing surplus from the City’s vehicle replacement and insurance funds. The funds would be repaid with interest over a 10- to 15-year term. City staff also looked at issuing revenue bonds or applying for state-based or commercial loans.

This would be the latest in a string of real estate deals sought by city officials over the last year. In May, Laguna Beach and Laguna Presbyterian Church inked a tentative deal that could add 92 spaces of public parking through a ground lease agreement for a $10 million parking structure.

Last year, the City Council voted to acquire two South Laguna properties for future public use. The $2.7 million deal was for the vacant Ti Amo restaurant and parking lot at 31727 and 31735 S. Coast Hwy. Fire officials have studied building a new fire station on the site but the plan faces opposition from the South Laguna Civic Association.

This story is developing and will be updated as necessary.

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  1. This a viable, strategically situated option candidate for a southerly multi-purpose City facility?
    Fire, Marine Safety, EMT, modest LBPD presence plus maintenance services?
    No view encroachments, a wide view range if a one person observation tower to monitor conditions was built.
    No sirens until emergency response vehicles were down on PCH.
    Sell Ti Amo, a poorly thought out purchase, there’s your 10% down payment.
    This facility would include updated communication relay infrastructure (cell service sucks major here), faster emergency response (especially difficult during high season), etc.
    My NGO, Clean Water Now, proposed and supported that type of annex while negotiating with The Athens Group during design for The Montage but they didn’t have adequate space.
    It has a dedicated street (Cardinal Place) for access/egress, painting PCH + an overhanging flashing sign would warn when in emergency use, and the distance from the intersection at Nyes Place is enough free space. Unlike Ti Amo, which is at a signaled intersection.
    Just wondering.

  2. After walking the site this morning with a neighbor who is, like me, a retired general contractor, I’d add that the living quarters which overlook PCH could be converted into low-income/senior housing.
    We’re in search of credits, this site should get a visioning approach: What are the burning priorities, especially some carving out for a So Lag annex? I think that it can be a mixed use site without zoning changes.
    Not bells & whistles Tooth Faery stuff, not everyone’s empty-headed X-mas wish list, but master planning that benefits, that serves everyone, not a limited segment or portion of our population.
    And for God’s sake, NOT another flipping parking lot. That PCH frontage lot that the city is leasing is sufficient.

  3. I agree that this is an opportunity the City of Laguna should not ignore. It has enough land and buildings to house the fire station and other facilities that could enhance the lives of the Laguna locals.

  4. I agree that this acquisition in SL makes sense. It’s a large property with potential for community benefit. Turn that soccer field snd open space into a well-designed compact skate park! Generate some revenue and give our youth something to do and rave about!

  5. Holy bat cave, I agree with Roger and MJ. Affordable housing would be impactful adaptive reuse. And yes, let’s ditch the parking. MJ, a skate park is desperately needed – though I would still prefer it right smack downtown on Main Beach – next to the basketball court. Mostly for access. But it would probably be too small.

  6. Since 1957 this school has served the children of Laguna Beach and the children in surrounding cities. Let it continue to serve the children.
    I pray the diocese truly exhausted all possibilities prior to closing another Catholic School just when the public was seeking more private in the midst of a pandemic. Saint Catherine pray for us.
    Continue your vision as big as the sea.

  7. Ixnay on a skateboard park at this site.
    Obvious “duh” question: Do we even need one?
    There’s hillside wilderness directly behind and to the south of the site, and as a CEQA analyst, I’d say that it’d have a difficult time without legal challenges from open space activists and residents alike in Vic…… that a park like that could NOT be mitigated below the regulatory, “fair argument” oppositional standards (less than significant). Never get past the Coastal Commission is my best guess.
    Now relatively passive after dusk, very low lighting, relatively noise-generating free, a skateboard park could only be disruptive to neighbors and critters alike.
    So visionaries should use the current “program,” the activity levels and their diurnal duration as a benchmark.
    Only path forward is if a skatepark it was only open daylight hours. Weekdays for most of the year it’d reflect zero visits as the dominant prospective users would be in classes (grammar thru college age). That’s exactly what I meant about the portions of the site NOT being re-purposed for a small demographic, and limited diurnal usage at best. Little “value-add.”
    Plus that for those who couldn’t drive there, have to be dropped off and picked up, the ramped up (little skateboard joke) vehicular trips, circulation/access/egress difficulties are also elements that’d have levels of significance thresholds that wouldn’t lend themselves to CEQA-mandated mitigation.
    And if they rode their bikes there, anybody want to see more kids riding along side of 40-45 mph traffic? We’d be creating a negligent condition. That has “deep pocket,” indemnification and vulnerable, injury-related litigious ramifications.
    Personally, a lot of us in lower and upper Vic didn’t want or need the snooty Drake, which if mercy serves, also has a CUP allowing it to open for weekend/holiday brunches…….adding such a burden would put Vic in gridlock much more often than currently experienced.
    Partial mitigation might be achieved if turn lanes were added or existing extended, but that just creates more gridlock potential, and if these lanes backed up a choke point—which then creates more air pollution!
    Main Beach has always been the logical choice. It’s an existing sports complex, active footprint already established.
    So who exactly believes that we have both a legitimate skateboard park demographic demand level plus also believes there’s enough space to create a semblance of a legitimate skating facility that would ever get through local lead agency processes?
    I say first things first: The safety of locals and visitors alike should be discussed. Ask our Chiefs—Fire, Marine Safety and LBPD. Let them have first bite of the apple, where onsite and how large of an annex they’d project into the urban demand future we’d need.
    Then plan AROUND their proferred concepts, give them the tools they need to do their jobs 25, 50 years out.
    With the intensified influx into our city (no, Virginia, it’s not a village or town anymore, hasn’t been in 20 years), the elements that serve and protect EVERYONE need addressing proactively.
    On my CEQA checklist so far, needing mitigation I see: Aesthetics, Transportation/Traffic, Air Quality, Biological Resources, Land Use/Planning, Noise, Recreation.
    And then there’s the catch-all category on that list: “Cumulatively Considerable” (Mandatory Finds of Significance).
    That’s ≈ 1/2 of a CEQA checklist, and our City is delegated by the State as local lead agency to comply.
    Maybe those who want a pet project element should go online and realize that CEQA can be your best friend, or your worst enemy, your highest burden of proof hurdle.

  8. BF- There’s always common ground when it comes to true community benefits. I’m in Ketchum/Sun Vally/Hailey Idaho – all three very small communities (about 12,000 ish pop between them) and they have not one but two skate parks! It can be done. Obviously I’m not a skater (haha) but frankly I get tired of seeing our youth get treated as if they are criminals because they ride skateboards. Give them a local place to ride and practice this sport with a discounted LB skater permit fee and charge non-residents a reasonable use fee. This new property, a canyon property or maybe move the t-ball games to another park and use the grass area at Lang Park for a skate park. It seems large enough and deep enough and could have parking below for venue users and beach visitors. This property is underutilized as far as I am concerned. Just my thoughts. Thanks.

  9. I agree we need to buy this wonderful property. It was remodeled in 2008 with updated wifi and other capabilities for enhanced learning. Yes, lots more has happened technologically since then but this is by no means a dinosaur building for learning and I hope the city can repurpose it for the benefit of children. However, while I am all for this purchase I would like to see a concept plan for what they intend to do with it. I believe the School District has it’s eye on partnering with the city. While $23M may be the purchase price I’d like to see the overall cost with what they want to do with it. But this is wonderful – finally the City is doing something for residents and not tourists.

  10. Roger, thanks for the information. There will be lots of potential use ideas for the community to explore directed by the necessary regulatory agencies. This school site had lots of kids, field/sports, activities, events and daily traffic so its future uses could be similar for daytime uses. IMO – with or without this site, the city/parents should address the e-bike safety issues and community concern. Maybe better promote our public transportation and convenient trolley resources to our youth. Should the acquisition go through, there will be lots of community repurposing input. That’s exciting!

  11. MJ:
    I’m not trying to rain on everybody’s parade but while the public pushes for their pet element, understanding the jurisdictional and regulatory hurdles should be part of the decision tree.
    Some uses might be in conflict with each other, incongruent, or complicate compliance.
    Plus being aware means understanding that certain aspects of the conversion might take longer than others.
    When it comes to such an acquisition, patience, homework and pragmatism seem intuited virtues.
    Plus what’s affordable…..maybe well-intentioned, it’s easy to write blank checks if budget/funding, the money, is no object!


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