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.
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.