Failing to take into account that Laguna Beach is subject to California Coastal Commission requirements was criticized as a major blunder by consultants hired to solve the beach town’s changing parking demands.
The city’s mayor and city manager chastised the omission that surfaced when a representative of MIG, a Berkeley-based urban planning firm, suggested distributing residential parking permits as a way to discourage visitors and employees from parking in neighborhoods.
Council member Toni Iseman, a former Coastal Commission member, informed MIG parking consultant Rick Williams that the Coastal Commission doesn’t allow that during a public study session on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
“That’s a difficult one because that is the gold standard for managing parking in neighborhoods,” said Williams. “That’s a flaw…in what the Coastal Commission is doing because they’ve taken away the primary tool for managing parking and mitigating overspill from commercial areas.”
Mayor Steve Dicterow then stepped in. “Rick, with all due respect,” retorted Dicterow, “I expect you as our consultant to have known that. I expect you to advise us in light of that.”
The parking discussion is part of an on-going study to update the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, adopted in 1989 to “preserve and enhance the unique character of the downtown,” according to the city’s description. Since then, the plan has been amended nine times with a more extensive revision in 2000 to include businesses and festivals in Laguna Canyon.
At the end of the joint session between the City Council and Planning Commission, both city and consultant said they were short on hard data.
MIG project manager and urban designer Jenny An and Williams opened their remarks by reviewing nine preliminary parking recommendations, including changing the three-hour limit on parking meters to two hours to improve turn-over, developing a downtown business improvement district to enhance the shopping experience and determining the city’s future role in parking.
MIG consultants summarized that they needed more data before they could get provide more specific direction.
City Manager John Pietig said he needed more information from MIG before city staff could compile data.
“I’m expecting recommendations from you that I can take to the Coastal Commission that are going to give us the flexibility to carry out your theories, Rick, so let’s seriously consider that,” he said. It generally takes 18 months to obtain approval from the Coastal Commission for a local coastal program amendment, which is necessary to guide development.
The MIG study stated that when 70 to 85 percent of the downtown parking spaces are filled, it indicates that “retail is robust and customers are having an easy time finding parking,” Williams said.
Even before the meeting, Larry Nokes, president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, issued his own detailed and researched retail planning manifesto. The letter detailed the chamber’s vision of future changes and supported many of the MIG recommendations.
One question was whether to loosen the city’s minimum parking regulations for new businesses, which now requires one parking space for every 250 square feet of retail space and one space for every 100 feet for restaurants. MIG recommended one space for every 1,000 square feet, which the chamber supports.
A recent retail opinion survey conducted by the chamber showed that people are looking for an “experiential time in the downtown,” Nokes said at the meeting. Nokes cited the OC Mix Mart and the Anaheim Packing House as thriving retail district examples, adding that 32 businesses closed in Laguna last year.
To accomplish that, MIG’s planners were asked to also consider other consumer trends, including the growing inclination to shop online while eating out more often, an apparent shift in consumer behavior.
“I’m sitting here listening to this tonight about parking, parking, parking,” said eight-year retailer Deanna Frieze, who owns Sunny Daze on Forest Avenue. “The only thing I’ve heard from my employees in the last three months is how many parking spaces are available on Forest. There are no shoppers in town currently. I’m dying.”
Downtown retailers won’t be able to sustain high monthly rents because residents are not shopping here, said Frieze. “Right now, every retailer in this entire community is about to go under,” she said.
New transportation services such as Uber and Lyft that don’t require parking and the city’s popular shopper’s permit for residents, which skews hourly parking space data, were also mentioned as important trends needing to be considered.
“I feel you need to understand this community better than you do right now,” Dicterow said at the conclusion of the study session. “And I think you need to understand the concerns that the retail businesses have and the fact that it is a beach community as well. There’s just more I’d like you to work on to understand Laguna itself.”
The city’s most recent official parking and transportation data from 2007 may be out of date, said council member Bob Whalen. “I think getting parking off the street and creating a different vibrancy with a pedestrian-oriented area is what this retail district needs to get itself back, energized and motivated,” he said. “We will have to replace on-street parking someplace else. We’ve got to have a viable business community or the parking is kind of irrelevant for the business folks. It’s just beach-oriented parking.”
Pietig urged the consultants to specifically factor in the lack of parking available for beach-goers as well as art festival patrons. “Clearly, they’re under-parked,” he said.
The recommendations, suggestions and questions were handed to the city’s planning commission to sort out and vet at upcoming meetings.