Now that City Council has approved a trial street closure and pedestrian plaza on the 100-foot sliver of Park Avenue for 40 days, it will only be a matter of months before we rid downtown of cars forever and turn the whole village into a pedestrian mall.
This is baby steps, folks, to see if we create something that every vibrant city has – a place to sit and relax that is shaded, tree lined, and inviting. No one has even considered what to do long-term if it works. We just want to try it, see if it can enliven a downtown core that is moribund most of the year, and improve the lives of our residents.
Sure, some will be inconvenienced who use it as a short-cut, but the idea that it will create a massive traffic snarl was debunked by a recent city traffic study, which found that during the peak hours of 4-6 p.m. on a Friday, only one car came through per minute. That’s the traffic density of a rural road in Alaska. But for all the prognosticators of doom, let’s just suspend judgment until the 40-day trial is complete and we have some data under our belts.
In the meantime, let’s focus on another element that is leading to the decline of downtown as a locals’ destination: the Laguna Cinema. It’s been two years since the last operator pulled out, a victim to changing viewing habits, and a theater with old, creaky chairs, soiled carpet, and poor projection that felt more like a porn palace than our most prestigious downtown civic venue (not that I would know). Are there any wealthy cineastes out there who can acquire it as a legacy project?
Laguna Cinema has been the crown jewel of our downtown since 1923, a Spanish Revival theater with an iconic tower that was dedicated by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It still has a stage and orchestra pit. That’s quite a provenance. In 2015 Regency Theaters failed to renew their lease because of unfavorable terms that wouldn’t justify their investment in upgrades, like digital screening technology.
It’s been for sale (or lease) ever since by its New York owner, Leslie Blumberg. As of March, 2016, the asking price was $14.2 million. Several of Laguna’s well-heeled movers and shakers evaluated the price and cost of renovations, and deemed it too pricey to make work as a 550 seat, two-theater cinema competing against the snazzy multiplexes nearby.
Then the theater was purportedly leased to Vintage Cinemas of San Diego, and we were told it would open for screenings as early as April, 2016. That never happened. It seems Vintage was scared off by the condition of the theater.
How right they are. It’s pretty gross. And that’s just the outside. I happened into its courtyard recently and it resembled a war zone: trash and discarded food strewn all over, floor tiles caked with dirt. A breeding ground for rats. Anyone venturing in would wonder about the fiscal health of our town. And what a shame because that courtyard is iconic with its tile work and Main Beach view, and could be repurposed into something special.
So I wonder, when the city ponders investments in the tens of millions to build multi-level parking structures, or to underground the power lines on Laguna Canyon Road, and when they spent $5.5 million to buy a vacant piece of land in the canyon, why couldn’t they just take ownership of this building?
Imagine the money they could make leasing the two stores, adding a restaurant and a roof deck (which has been proposed), as well as restoring the theater. And turn it into the mixed use, “black box” civic arts center this city so richly deserves. We’d have a beautiful, historic building that could be re-purposed (without changing any of the exterior) into a place that showcases regional and national music, surf, art house and foreign films, symphony, lectures, workshops and community gatherings. It seems so congruent and vital to our heritage as an art town. This could also be a wonderful way of supporting our local musicians with a venue for listening instead of drinking. Now one could have an early dinner on Forest, go to a movie, and finish with dessert at Park Plaza. How delightful.
Finally, Ms. Blumberg, if you read this, and you care in any way about the well-being and vitality of Laguna, please consider a reasonable sale price that will attract a reasonable buyer. I see that you own the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, and that you are on the board of the Hollywood Entertainment District. This shows a real commitment to the arts. If you can’t find a traditional theater operator to buy our only theater in town, please consider gifting it to our community of 25,000 art lovers, or finding terms agreeable to sell it to our city. That would be a tremendous legacy that would endear you to this town forever.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]