Passionate Pleas Preserve Historic Building


By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

Residents overwhelmingly supported the preservation of Laguna’s historic sewer digester building last week during a workshop on the proposed village entrance at the corner of Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road.

Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel recently fielded fervent entreaties from residents to restore the historic sewer digester, behind him, that sits on the proposed village entrance site.Photo by Jody Tiongco
Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel recently fielded fervent entreaties from residents to restore the historic sewer digester, behind him, that sits on the proposed village entrance site.Photo by Jody Tiongco

The City Council wanted public input on four issues that underpin the direction of improvements for the area between City Hall and the art festivals, Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel told the 60 or so attendees at the Wednesday, July 16 meeting. These included disposition of the historic sewer digester building and of the dilapidated carport, timing and funding of improvements to the Laguna Canyon Road median, and whether or not to cover the flood channel that bisects the public parking lots.

When the City Council bowed to public opinion last November and agreed to abandon the original plan for a large park and parking garage, they effectively returned the site to a blank slate, according to Siegel.

The Council approved a $14.4 million budget for a vague concept replacing some surface parking with a landscaped pedestrian park, adding parking at a newly purchased lot abutting Art-A-Fair and stipulating that there would be no parking structure or borrowing. Mapping out an actual design will come later, when they hire a design team and hold more workshops, said Siegel. The task at hand was not about design, but to determine public consensus in four areas, said Siegel.

The audience, nonetheless, offered plenty of unsolicited design advice. One group went even further. Ann Christoph, Ginger Osborn, Ruben Flores and Penny Milne collaborated on a proposed blueprint for the site that they presented at the end of the meeting.

Digressions aside, direction on the four key points eventually emerged.

The question of the median came first. Though $100,000 is currently budgeted to design median improvements, the estimated $1 million construction cost is not budgeted until 2019, said Roger Torriero of Griffin Structures, hired as the project manager through a competitive process earlier this year.

If median improvements are to begin with the rest of the project in 2016, funds would need to be borrowedfrom another element, such as the digester building renovation, Torriero said.

“Why are there only two options?” queried Rita Conn of Let Laguna Vote, whose suggestion of seeking alternative funding to avoid delaying median improvements won the day.

Local artist Jorg Dubin asked that spaces for public art be included in the median’s ultimate design, while another resident requested shade.

In any event, no improvements to the median should occur without first considering how they might mesh with circulation, pedestrian and biking improvements along the entire length of Laguna Canyon Road, which are currently under review by consultants, insisted Tom Halliday.

Public opinion quickly coalesced on the question of whether to renovate or demolish the K-rated sewer digester, the city’s second highest historic rating classification.

Repurposing the structure, with its prominent cylindrical portion descending 25 feet below grade, will require more debate about its reuse, but demolition would require further environmental studies and a statement of overriding consideration to destroy a historic landmark, said Torriero.

“I urge you not to tear down this building,” said Heritage Committee member Bonnie Hano, offering the first of an onslaught of impassioned pleas that revealed a clear consensus to renovate and repurpose the structure. Agreement on an adaptive reuse can come later, she said, as long as we save it now.

The 1934 building earned coverage in 2014’s “The New Deal in Orange County, California,” described by author Charles Epting as “the most interesting sewage treatment facility in the county” and “all the more impressive” that despite outliving its usefulness, it remains standing in the parking lot and is even listed by the city as a historical landmark, said Ann Frank, another Heritage Committee member, quoting from the book. It would, appropriately, make lovely public restrooms, she added.

Further discussion over the renovation unearthed some interesting complications. The only usable part of the digester is the 1,400 square foot rectangular section, which currently serves as evidence storage for the police. The cylindrical portion still contains roughly 60,000 gallons of sewage, which would require some environmental cleanup, admitted Siegel. Leah Vaszquez proposed bottling and selling the vintage sludge.

The audience was divided about retaining the dilapidated carport. The corrugated metal carpeted by morning glories covers about 20 parking spaces and would need some shoring up to remain safe, Torriero said.

While Arts Commission member Mary Ferguson questioned the need to save it, Tom Halliday’s proposal to allow the eventual design team to weigh in on the structure’s fate drew support from half of the participants.

The other half backed landscape architect and former Laguna Beach Mayor Ann Christoph’s push to preserve the “vernacular architecture” that she said “gives a sense of place that is not Irvine, that is not brand new.”

A final item of debate involved whether to cover the flood control channel that bisects the site, perhaps allowing more room for pedestrians or bikers, or to leave it as is. Outlined as costing between $2 and $4 million and taking three years, this proposal gained little traction with the audience beyond eliciting calls for a decorative screen of some sort. And Laguna Canyon resident and local architect Paul Barnard took the opportunity to suggest that covering the channel would be less of an issue if flood waters were captured in containment basins upstream.

For fear that the rudimentary concept endorsed in November be taken by designers as an actual blueprint, Christoph’s group chose to provide a more detailed option at the end of the workshop. “We hope you’ll support this or something like this,” said Christoph.

Her group’s design depicts a pedestrian park on the outer edge of the site and a parking lot against the hillside and behind the flood channel. The central area between the park and the channel would be improved with a decomposed granite surface and landscaping, creating a “garden-like setting” that could become an overflow parking area during the festival season and for special events. Cars would access the rear parking by crossing a new bridge over the channel, entering opposite the Festival of Arts. Christoph’s plan includes a bike path adjacent to the flood channel and a decorative fence for screening and safety.

Armed with this input, the City Council, will send a request for proposals to qualified design teams and potentially select one by early fall.


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