Red Dragon restaurant exits planning quagmire

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A conceptual drawing of a view of Red Dragon restaurant as seen from Coast Highway. Courtesy of James Conrad Architect

After a six-year process encumbered by disagreement between Laguna Beach and California Coastal Commission, Red Dragon restaurant received many of the required approvals from councilmembers Tuesday clearing the path for the remodeled building to open.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously voted to support a restaurant concept scaled down to 152 seats and a third-story deck at 680 S. Coast Hwy. Councilmembers directed the entity controlled by local developer Enshan Zhao to return with a finalized valet and employee parking program that could include leasing 82 spaces from Neighborhood Congregational Church, Costa Azul surf shop, and First Team Real Estate.

“The project was approved back in 2016 so it’s a technicality approval. We’re looking forward to getting the restaurant opened,” Red Dragon architect James Conrad said in a phone interview.

The Zhao family is aiming for a September opening date, Conrad said.

“I’d like to see something the neighborhood could support. The neighborhood has been involved in this for a lot of years. It seems like there is a deal to be made here,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said.

The Red Dragon project is a prime example of why the City needs to invest in providing more public parking, Mayor Sue Kempf said. New businesses endure headaches when trying to occupy historic buildings developed without any off-street parking required for new construction,

“We always go through these gymnastics—I was on the planning commission for five years—and you’re always trying to figure out what to do about parking because we have no dedicated parking, we have a built-out town,” Kempf said. “You can’t get people out of the neighborhoods if you don’t give them a place to go.”

Even though Kempf supported the Red Dragon reopening, she said valet programs that patch together multiple private parking lots don’t work overtime.

Councilmember George Weiss pointed out that part of the Church’s parking lot has been eyed by city officials as a potential affordable housing site and questioned where else Red Dragon could find needed spaces for when that project breaks ground.

A group of homeowners from El Mirador neighborhood has long expressed concern that patrons and employees will park on already crowded residential streets, creating noise and traffic that’s particularly disruptive at night. El Mirador spokesperson Kurt Wiese applauded councilmembers for trying to hammer out a comprise in an environment where parking is a tough challenge.

“When government is operating effectively it tries to reach a compromise and I think that’s what the council was working toward. It’s hard to balance the needs of the businesses and residents. We haven’t seen the new parking plan but we’re hopeful that the council will do the right thing.” Wiese said.

Wiese underscored that he and many of his neighbors think the restaurant will be a positive addition to the community.

“The plans for the restaurant are fabulous and we look forward to welcoming the restaurant into the neighborhood,” he said.

In August 2011, the popular Laguna Beach sushi bar and nightclub Mosun abruptly closed at 680 S. Coast Hwy. under legal pressure, an attorney for the previous landlord said. Efforts to reopen the building were temporarily halted when Laguna Beach issued an October 2018 stop-work order after an inspection revealed unpermitted slab demolition, according to a staff report.

Community Development Director Marc Wiener said city law requires 104 parking spaces based on the building’s square footage. City officials agreed to let Red Dragon move forward because the remodeled building beautifies a blighted stretch of Coast Highway and an off-site parking management plan would improve the neighborhood’s existing conditions.

After a 2018 whistleblower complaint, coastal staffers opined that the city-approved project was not a minor remodel and the demolition required a coastal development permit.

“This one came about as there was a change in direction in how this policy was being interrupted and unfortunately it had some negative consequences for this project and that’s why it’s back before you tonight,” Wiener said.

The City Council set the daily hours of operation from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, requiring that employee parking be provided for all employees at all hours, and eliminated a proposal for take-out food orders.

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