“We have been romanced and courted for too long,” said George Nelson, owner of the downtown gift store Fawn Memories, who recalled that his landlord sold land adjacent to City Hall to the city 25 years ago for a parking structure. “We’ve lost the spark,” Nelson concluded.
Now, more than 30 years after the community’s first collective aspirations for a village entrance project, and 18 years since serious deliberations began, the City Council hopes to spark the project to life.
A special meeting with an update on the project is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 26, in City Council chambers.
Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson and council member Toni Iseman, who have collaborated on the project intermittently since 2004, will present their respective alternatives on Tuesday.
Shopkeepers such as Nelson said the short-term inconvenience of any construction work would easily be offset by the long-term gains should the project come to fruition.
In addition to the convenience of a parking structure by City Hall for visitors, it would spur foot traffic downtown to the benefit of all merchants, said Stephen Jacobs, co-owner of the two Stephen Frank retail stores on opposite corners of Forest Avenue.
While shop owners and others remain skeptical, the City Council seems determined to give the project a foothold, in part because uncertainty about the village entrance delays decisions elsewhere. For example, Mayor Kelly Boyd said Festival of Arts leaders want to see the village entrance plans before finalizing their own proposals to redevelop the public park they lease from the city.
And Pearson recently highlighted another reason to fast track the project, namely nearby housing developments in Irvine. So far, 760 homes have been approved, with imminent approval for another 98, all of which will feed into Laguna Canyon Road. Additionally, about half of 3,700 apartments planned for nearby Irvine Center Drive are already open for rental.
While Laguna previously overlooked accounting for the impact of mushrooming housing developments in the vicinity on downtown parking, Pearson said that the Irvine Company developments “will definitely have an impact on our week-end and summer traffic.”
Until quite recently, plans developed by Pearson and Iseman shared a basic central concept, but differed on a few specifics, such as the footprint of the garage and certain traffic considerations. However, in a comment made to the City Council on Tuesday, Pearson noted that while she and Iseman had been working on different iterations of a core plan for the village entrance, Iseman would now be submitting “a different plan than the one we got approved.”
Pearson said her Plan A has not changed. It includes a garage with three above-ground stories that will maintain the city’s 36-foot height limit and will provide surface and garage parking for 600 spaces, a net gain of 200 spaces over the current configuration. According to Pearson, the proposed site for the village entrance project now parks 397 cars, with 143 designated for city use.
Pearson said her completed plan “focuses on capturing downtown visitors before they enter the city core, to minimize congestion.” If certain economies are achieved, she said the estimated $42 million cost, with a built-in 10 percent construction contingency, might be reduced by $7.5 million.
She proposed tapping an existing $7.8 million from the parking fund, a new revenue bond, grants and some capital improvement dollars to underwrite the project. “No taxes of residents or businesses are proposed in my plan,” she said.
Iseman’s original Plan B envisioned a smaller, less costly parking structure with a basement and two above-ground stories, and included economies of space such as designating 40 percent of the garage slots for compact cars. Her plan compensated for the smaller structure by creating additional new parking spots around town. She also hoped to shave some land from the park to add a u-turn lane on Laguna Canyon Road to improve traffic flow.
Reached Wednesday for comment about her apparent revisions, Iseman admitted that her plan would reflect strong new concerns about odors emanating from the sewer lift station that she would like to see remedied before any parking structure is built around it. She also said she’s looking at more ways to save money. “We have parking needs all over Laguna Beach,” she said, adding, “I think we need to make this as economical as possible so that we can address the needs in other parts of the community.”
Without going into specifics, Iseman said her plan would describe “conceptual ideas” to forward to the Planning Commission for further review and refining.
While a final environmental impact report on the basic concepts of the project was certified in June 2011, after a six-year process, Pearson believes that the plan Iseman presents next week would require a new EIR.