With the summer tourist influx just weeks away, city officials unpacked a beach-bag full of tools to ensure it isn’t visitors alone who enjoy a good experience. Visitors should expect to see an increase in patrols to head off bad behavior on South Laguna beaches, downtown parking meter rates of $3.75 an hour to push price-conscious motorists elsewhere and a free beach-bound bus for those who leave their cars near the 405 in Irvine, the Laguna Beach city manager said Monday.
“I can’t keep people from coming here,” City Manager John Pietig said at a state of the city talk largely devoted to a discussion of the impact of 6.3 million annual visitors on a town of 23,000 residents.
Concerned that the town’s popularity is degrading its livability, realtor Chris Tebbutt asked that the city manager ensure that promoters such as the Chamber of Commerce and visitor’s bureau avoid intensifying the problem. “Without intervention, this sort of runaway train of congestion, crime and polarization has the potential to crush the quality of life in Laguna Beach to be sure,” he said in a follow-up email.
While Pietig assured him there is coordination between the groups, “social media is a huge curve ball” which lures day-trippers, by far the biggest percentage of visitors. “We are struggling to address that. I don’t have a silver bullet,” he said.
In her remarks to the 175 people present for the Chamber of Commerce talk, Mayor Toni Iseman, the city’s longest serving elected official, focused on the town’s successes of recent years. They included halting development plans in Laguna Canyon 30 years ago, trolley ridership more than doubling to 1 million boardings annually, the establishment of stronger marine protections, and private restoration of a dozen mostly historic commercial properties.
“Legacy buildings that define our character are still here,” said Iseman, who noted a friend’s description of the cache of historic structures as “miraculous” given development pressures along the coastline.
But Iseman, too, pointed out “near Laguna Beach” remains the marketing slogan of developers with approvals for another 27,000 new homes in south-county and plans for another 2,500.
“The impacts to the city, it’s so, so serious,” she said. “We have work to do.”
Sam Goldstein, who redeveloped one the historic buildings Iseman praised, called the city’s measures too “temperate,” citing, as an example, a reluctance to give up metered parking spaces near restaurants for ride-sharing drop-offs during peak dining times. “They don’t want to do anything to accommodate tourism,” he said, in an interview afterwards.
The city remains steadfast in opposing adding lanes to the town’s main artery without financial support from elsewhere, Pietig said. About 40,000 cars daily traverse the canyon road, which is also a state highway, with Laguna’s peak travel period during “leisure time,” he said.
“We need to get those people thinking about transit,” said Pietig, outlining a few of the city’s parking management strategies. They include improvements coming to a mobile phone app for trolley riders and 10-years worth of Caltrans sidewalk improvements, he said.
Pietig elicited a groan of doubt from the audience in forecasting that the long-planned village entrance beside City Hall, scaled back from a multi-level parking structure to an aesthetically pleasing pathway between the art festivals, could break ground late in 2018. As currently planned, the entrance doesn’t increase parking capacity, but would add a robust foliage buffer along the canyon road and greenery within the existing 397-space parking lot. It was to be reviewed by the City Council this week.
“We’re the closest we’ve ever been,” Pietig promised.