Planning Commission offers positive marks for LCAD Student Center

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A site plan for the new student center proposed by the Laguna College of Art and Design at 2825 Laguna Canyon Road. Courtesy of Laguna Beach

By Bradley Zint, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission expressed enthusiasm Wednesday for a proposed new student center for the Laguna College of Art and Design.

The envisioned 21,350-square-foot facility at 2825-2851 Laguna Canyon Road, on LCAD’s northern campus, would replace a vacant 2,600-square-foot building.

Plans for the student center, which could be two stories and located on the edge of the property, close to the adjacent hillside and farther from Laguna Canyon Road, date back to LCAD’s master planning efforts from about five years ago.

The building’s lower story is planned to contain storage areas, a cafe, gallery space and quiet study rooms. The upper level is planned to have various classrooms, studio spaces, and offices.

Because of the site’s future intensified use compared to what’s there now, LCAD is planning to add 44 parking spaces, bringing the total from 151 to 195.

City staff have suggested the building have a muted, earth-tone color to match the canyon setting. They also advised it to have landscaping with “informal, irregular character.” No student housing is suggested for the site.

Representing LCAD, architect Charles Williams of LPA, Inc. said, “We see this as a really fantastic community resource that is a much-preferred alternative to some of the commercial enterprises that have been proposed here.”

Commissioner Anne Johnson said she wished for the student center to “fit in with everything else we have there.”

Chairwoman Susan Whitin questioned LCAD’s need for a new building since students are on campus less frequently due to distance learning and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams said having fewer on-campus students was not originally considered, as plans for the center began before the pandemic affected Laguna Beach. He said the campus has taken a hit on enrollment, and that may take several years to recover.

Nevertheless, Whitin said the student center had potential for quirky qualities representative of an art school setting.

Commissioner Ken Sadler said he preferred the center being two stories — a one-story alternative was proposed — because it would minimize its footprint on the property, which is adjacent to a habitat restoration zone.

Some Laguna Canyon residents expressed reservations about the center, urging that it blend into the landscape. They also decried future traffic or light pollution being caused by the development, and any effects it would have on the canyon’s sensitive natural environment.

The center is still in the preliminary planning stages. It will eventually require further review from the Planning Commission and City Council, as well as a state coastal development permit.

Wildfire Defense, Home Remodel Regulation Changes Are Postponed

Commissioner Anne Johnson summed up what her colleagues were likely thinking late Wednesday when she said, “It seems like a big rush here for a big report.”

The commission was scheduled to recommend to the City Council a complicated, multifaceted zoning ordinance amendment. In effect, the ordinance would allow certain things to be approved more quickly by city staff instead of using lengthier processes, including the citizen-led Design Review Board.

Easy-to-approve projects could include facets of home remodeling work, such as exterior modifications or moving a window. Even the installation of vinyl fencing was considered for quicker approval.

Marc Wiener, director of community development, said the changes would diminish staff time spent on small projects so they could focus on larger, more complicated matters.

But after hours of technical questions and gathering public input, the commission ultimately decided to table the matter, potentially parceling out segments of the large ordinance into separate discussions.

The exception was immediately addressing the regulation of fuel modification, which relates to dry brush and wildfire safety. That matter could be discussed as soon as the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 4.

Part of the reason why the commission tapped the brakes on Wednesday’s approval related to things they thought were significant and wanted more time to disseminate. For instance, Commission Ken Sadler questioned why administrators should be able to approve a 25% addition to someone’s house. He was also worried about the legalities of granting variances getting whittled down to becoming “minor exceptions”, to use the ordinance’s wording.

“There’s a lot of stuff here to absorb,” Sadler said.

While one resident questioned the need for the ordinance at all because residents have more pressing concerns in mind, Meg Monahan said the whole process was happening “under the dark of COVID.” She urged for more public input.

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