Underground Parking Not Included in Building Height

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Planning Commission heard a presentation from Planning Manager Scott Drapkin on Wednesday about how the city considers subterranean parking levels when measuring a proposed building’s height.

This issue mostly depends on whether a driveway to below-grade parking is included within the proposed building’s footprint. For example, a two-story development with two subterranean parking levels would be considered a 24-foot-tall building if motorists access parking spaces via a ramp.

Laguna Beach’s building height limits are expected to be a hot topic as the Planning Commission reviews concepts for the Laguna Beach Co. projects and the draft Downtown Specific Plan. First is the Cleo Hotel proposal including 219 parking spaces in three underground levels that would be accessed by a ramp on Cleo Street.

The Cleo Hotel’s opponents argue the city should include the three underground parking levels as part of the project’s overall height. The developer claims the Municipal Code considers it a 36-foot tall structure with three stories.

Similarly, Laguna Beach Co. wants its Museum Hotel project to include 320 parking spaces in three levels of underground parking. The new building would top out at 30 feet above street level.

Planning Commissioner Jorg Dubin said measuring a proposed building’s height gets complicated quickly if the developer can’t fully contain the access driveway within the footprint of the building.

“It seems that it’s something that people are getting hung up on in terms of trying to determine, “can I put a second story on my building where it’s allowed?’” Dubin said.

He added that maybe the Planning Commission should consider revising the Municipal Code to resolve this ambiguity about how the City measures building heights.

Drapkin said he doesn’t think it’s difficult to interpret the Municipal Code’s rules on whether to include subterranean parking in a building’s total height. However, he acknowledged it sometimes restricts developers’ vision for a site.

“I do think there are some applications where it doesn’t benefit the project, Drapkin said. “I think there are other projects where it succeeds in its intent of not creating [additional] mass.”

Parking remains a stubborn obstacle for downtown property owners interested in adding second-story residential units to their buildings. Subterranean parking is an expensive solution unless the Planning Commission votes to decouple on-site parking requirements for new downtown housing.

Downtown Specific Plan to Return Oct. 2

The Planning Commission expects to hear city staffers’ responses to public comments about the draft Downtown Specific Plan at its 6 p.m. meeting on Oct. 2.

Following that meeting, the City plans to conduct an analysis of the Specific Plan’s environmental impacts. A statement about that study has to be posted for at least 30 days before the Planning Commission can vote on the draft Downtown Specific Plan.

A meeting was tentatively scheduled for Nov. 13 to move forward on the next steps for the Specific Plan. Planning Commissioner Steve Goldman said he would be absent from that meeting because of a vacation he scheduled before the City Council appointed him.

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