Rivian theater project appealed to Laguna Beach City Council

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The vacant movie theater in Downtown Laguna has a cheery message for motorists and pedestrians. File photo

The Laguna Beach City Council will hear a historic preservation group’s appeal of an electric vehicle dealer’s planned restoration and remodel of Laguna South Coast Cinemas on Feb. 23.

Catherine Jurca of Laguna Beach filed the appeal on behalf of Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, which is identified in court records as an unincorporated association. They’ve asked the City Council to require environmental review to disclose the project’s impacts as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“The historic fabric of Laguna is what attracted my partner and me to Laguna in the first place,” Jurca said in a phone interview Wednesday. “You can really see the history of Laguna Beach built into the environment. It just seemed quite unique to me and worth preserving.”

Last year, Rivian’s historic resources consultant found the property was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as well as a state register because of its connection with the city’s early commercial development, a local movie theater chain run by the Aufdenkamp family, and Mediterranean Revival architecture, according to the appellant letter.

The Planning Commission “abused its discretion” by exempting the project from preparing an initial study required by CEQA, the letter states.

The company plans to use the auditorium most days to educate the public about its mission to create sustainable products and electric vehicles. No vehicle transactions will be conducted on the property. Rivian also plans to host films and stage performances for the public as well as serving as a meeting space. The two-story building will also house retail and food and beverage components.

Jurca works as an English professor at the California Institute of Technology. Her recent scholarly work focuses on the business history of Hollywood film studios and theaters, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Jurca and her fellow coalition members were among the Laguna Beach resident who spoke out against the revised historical preservation ordinance when it came to a vote before the Laguna Beach City Council.

The Coalition that she represents has already generated some controversy this year as a co-plaintiff alongside Preserve Orange County and Village Laguna in a legal challenge filed in Orange County Superior Court that aims to overturn the amended Historic Preservation Program.

Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition isn’t a registered corporation with the California Secretary of State, a nonprofit with the California Attorney General’s Office, or a political action committee with the Laguna Beach City Clerk’s Office. This lack of a formal organizational structure has some pro-business advocates inferring that the coalition led by Jurca is a branch of Village Laguna.

“This is a waste of time. All it does is slow up the change of owners, as far as the theater goes,” said Sam Goldstein, chair of Liberate Laguna PAC, which supports loosening regulations businesses looking to open in town.

Jurca acknowledged in a phone interview that she’s has been a member of Village Laguna for a few years. She also donated $1,000 to Village Laguna, Inc. last December, according to a political campaign disclosure.

Jurca denies the allegation that she filed the appeal at the behest of Village Laguna.

“Her coalition are the ones who spearheaded this and Village Laguna would like to see a beautiful building there that is historic and useful,” Village Laguna president Anne Caenn wrote in an email.

Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition isn’t opposed to all development, as some critics claim, Jurca said.

“Preservation is about managing change and making sure the qualities that make a building historic are preserved when is a remodel is undertaken,” she said.

Overall, Jurca said she’s optimistic about the welcome reception during meetings with Rivian representatives.

“They’ve been extremely responsive,” she said.

However, incorporating a car showroom into a historic movie theater presents a creative challenge.

“We support efforts to provide for the restoration and re-use of the theater in a manner that will preserve the property as a historic resource of national significance,” Caenn wrote.

Business boosters have decried this appeal as the latest example of obstructionism by historic preservationists. Meanwhile, the building sits empty. Laguna Beach police on Feb. 3 removed a homeless man who had been squatting in an apartment above the theater for an unknown period.

The City Council will review the appeal at 5 p.m. on Feb. 23 via Zoom.

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