Tennis Players Rally to Block Festival of Arts Expansion

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Festival of Arts is once again eyeing two tennis courts for future expansion, a proposal that has riled tennis advocates who say this is another attempt by private enterprises to benefit from public land.

The property’s future will likely depend on how Laguna Beach officials interpret a nearly 72-year-old deed restriction. In December 1947, Myford Irvine, president of the Irvine Company, grant deeded the land under Irvine Bowl to Laguna Beach, with a restriction that it be used in perpetuity for public entertainment and recreational purposes. If the city attempts to use the property for any other function, land ownership would revert back to the Irvine Company.

The City Council approved a lease with the Festival of Arts for the entire campus in 2001 that gave the nonprofit the right to repurpose the 0.3-acre parcel provided it secured sufficient funding and obtained necessary permits.

Conceptual renderings of the FOA tennis court remodel. Image courtesy of City of Laguna Beach.

In a Sept. 23 letter to Mayor Bob Whalen, festival president David Perry wrote that the Festival of Arts (FOA) has discussed moving forward with incorporating an arts and performance-centered facility into the campus. Notably, a former exhibitor donated a $1 million grant for the development of a gallery to display art related to the festival.

“During the court of that process, it became clear to the FOA that reuse of the Tennis Court Property presents a unique opportunity and avenue to meet these community articulated hopes,” Perry wrote.

In September 2019, Bauer Architects designed a new structure that includes a partially-covered parking lot, a Festival of the Arts Collection Gallery, a living artist gallery, a multipurpose gallery, storage, workspace, and restrooms. FOA staffers asked the City Council to amend the current lease that confirmed their exclusive use of the tennis courts by Nov. 18 and “thereby eliminating public use of the city-operated tennis courts.”

Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson said the festival hasn’t yet filed an application for the tennis court property.

Festival spokesperson Sharbie Higuchi said that a future project at the tennis courts would follow the lease terms agreed to by the city and that it will go through a public process. There are no plans to close the courts in the near-term, she said, and the timing for filing an application for the tennis court property has not yet been determined.

Higuchi said the intent of the expansion “is to create a multi-purpose space not only for the furtherance of the festival’s mission, but for beneficial community use year-round.”

“No final decisions have been made as this is still in the conceptual phase, but galleries, art education and storage space related to supporting those uses are under consideration as part of the project,” she said. “’Set storage’ is not anticipated.”

Higuchi said the festival’s programming is currently limited to the summer season, and the addition of the new space would create opportunities for year-round use.

In 1968, the Irvine Company and Laguna Beach penned an agreement to allow the year-round operation of the restaurant and meeting venue at the Irvine Bowl property.

Charlie Anderson, a Corona Del Mar resident and former president of the Canyon Courts Tennis Association, said he suspects the proposed facilities are merely a stalking horse that will allow for further enhancement and exploitation of the Terra restaurant and wedding venue.

“In my opinion, this is simply cover to justify conversion of the courts to parking facilities for festival VIPs,” Anderson said. “What on Earth is entertainment- and recreational-related about storage, parking, administrative offices, and art education facilities?”

The bottom line is that the addition of parking spaces on taxpayer-owned land will provide value to private enterprises working at the FOA campus and adjacent to it, Anderson said.

Higuchi said the assertion that the parking component of the project would be used exclusively for Terra or other Laguna Beach Company projects across the street is incorrect.

“The project is entirely unrelated to any other entity or business,” she said.

Laguna Beach resident Ray Tang said he regularly started playing at the tennis courts around 2004 at the invitation of another player who started there in 1947.

“My observation is that it is a community space where a diverse group of people gather to play, learn about all dimensions of diversity, learn about different cultures [and] religion, learn about the struggles of being humans from different social-economic backgrounds, learn about different political points of views, learn about getting along despite all those differences, and play some tennis,” Tang wrote in an email.

The Canyon Tennis Courts are the only public tennis facilities in North Laguna, Laguna Canyon, and downtown, Johnson said. Tennis at Laguna Beach High School is largely limited to students.

There have been previous discussion about a compromise of finding a new location for the tennis courts to allow the Festival of the Arts to expand without providing players with a new home.

In an October 2001 letter to Anderson, former Laguna Beach Mayor Paul Freeman wrote, “I agree that new courts come before eliminating present courts.”

Freeman’s pledge was never incorporated into the subsequent lease agreements, nor was there notice about the city ceding control of the tennis courts to the FOA, Anderson said.

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. If the tennis courts are taken away for ANY reason, it just supports the “Golden rule”…”The person with the most gold, makes (or can change) all the rules” reguardless of the constitionality of the existing rules or statues that were thought to be set down in stone! MONEY TALKS, and that’s the way it’s always been, only now there is approximately a couple of hundred people who have enjoyed the fun, and personal interaction with each other meeting at this national land mark called “The Canyon Courts”, who are standing up and saying “No Way, this time big money is meeting big resistance!”

  2. Where was the public input and interest in Mr. Perry’s statement that “.. the tennis court property presents a unique opportunity to meet these community articulated hopes” when only a 2 day notice was given to attend a meeting at a City conference room to close the courts by November 18th so that temporary storage units are placed on courts? The statement conveys a degree of avarice and callousness that is not worthy of the largess shown by the Laguna City Council in reducing the FOA’s rent from 15.5% to 3.5% of gross revenues starting with the 40 year lease granted in 2001. That is a $1.25 million per year rent relief based on FOA’s latest available IRS tax filing.

    There are numerous opportunities within the existing City infrastructure to accommodate the stated reasons for the new construction. Sawdust, Laguna Art Museum, City’s Art in Public Spaces Program, Boys and Girls Club (for youth programs). Instead, the path chosen was to use Laguna’s youth art programs and galleries as excuses to take over the second most used public active recreational facility when the main FOA grounds sits unused most of the time. The proposed new building will also have low utilization just like the current grounds except for convenient VIP parking for bridal parties using the new bridal suite.

    With respect to Ms. Higuchi’s statement that “The project is entirely unrelated to any other entity or business”. That is factually incorrect because of the Terra Laguna sublease signed in August 2018 with Sections 4.1(b), 4.2(a), 4.2(b) and 4.2(c) all citing the permission to use FOA grounds and sharing of calendaring for the of coordination to avoid schedule conflicts catering events and weddings.

    The bottom line on the proposed final project is that we end up with 12 additional parking spaces (22 minus 10 existing spaces) with a second level gallery spaces of around two thousand square feet, with auxiliary spaces and bathrooms connected by a covered walkway to the bridal suite area of Terra restaurant. All of this on a lot that is currently around 16,000 square feet. We think Laguna Beach residents would benefit more from better utilization of the existing FOA grounds which sits unused much of the time and the proposed gallery spaces fit easily within the FOA office footprint. We believe more cultural and entertainment events at the remodeled FOA grounds and Irvine Bowl would be welcomed by residents even though the City still only gets a raw deal of 3.5%.

    Please sign our petition below if you agree that proposal is not in the best interest of Laguna residents.
    https://www.change.org/p/laguna-city-council-save-the-laguna-canyon-tennis-courts

    Ray Tang
    Byron Nelson
    Gene Nalbandian
    Laguna Beach Tennis Association

  3. Please sign this Petition to stop the removal of the canyon courts, the only, the best and friendliest pick up tennis courts in Laguna. And centrally located. We need more recreational land, not less.

  4. There’s a reason that public parks and conservation of said parks has been an American tradition and obligation throughout history. President Theodore Roosevelt, famed conservationist and creator of the national park system, once said: “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

    I can say that I’ve grown up with these amazing canyon courts and most of you have been like brothers and sisters, some like mothers and fathers, you’ve seen me mature, start a family and it’s been a rich heritage in my life coming to this amazing landscape and park – feeling like an integral member of the community. It’s by the people, for the people, and enlivened by the people. To cast a blind eye to this creation of a long standing tradition and the community that thrives because of this, would be, not only a grave error and disappointment, but a blight on the ideals and vision of the park monument that has been carried throughout our rich history in America.

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