Hotel at the Crossroads
When I was 17, Mr. Harry Willats gave me the best job a teenage boy in Laguna could wish for. He hired me as the beach boy for his Laguna Riviera Hotel. There was nothing better. While beach boy didn’t rise to the Olympian god status of lifeguard, it was free of the structure that comes with government employment. Nothing can beat being paid to go to the beach.
Harry paid me a small stipend and I made a deal with George, who had the beach equipment rental stand at Main Beach, to rent some of his stuff for a share of the rent. Mostly it was the inflatable air mattresses called surf tans.
George’s stand was a sight to behold. It consisted of a space a few feet wide between two buildings on the boardwalk. Somebody put a roof on that space and gates at both ends. Inside was a lockable space for all of George’s inventory. Renting this stuff was George’s livelihood. What a life that was. A business that only ran a few months a year.
That’s all gone now. Demolished to make our window to the sea. Anchoring the south end of this window is Hotel Laguna. In those days she was the Queen of the Coast. Being the beach boy there was the best. Any better, you’d be a beach boy in Waikiki.
We’re talking real beach boy here. Not waiters in shorts and tennis shoes like we have now. These were watermen in trunks. Getting wet showing the tourists how it’s done.
These were the days that the Hotel Laguna was one of the beach-front hotels along the shore of the Pacific. She shined as brightly as the red neon sign on her roof. As the years passed, Hotel Laguna’s shine slowly faded until we ended up with the hulk we now see.
Hotel Laguna and our village are at a crossroads. The lease has expired and some local people who may have more money than sense have leased the hotel. They plan to restore its former glory. If they succeed, the hotel will continue to anchor the south end of the boardwalk for the next 99 years, in the way it always has.
If they fail, it will become the site of the former Hotel Laguna anchoring the north end of the Central Bluffs Redevelopment Zone. Most of the property between Legion Street and El Paseo along the ocean side of the highway has one owner. Any honest look at this property should lead one to conclude that its current state of development is economically obsolete. The only practical option is big time redevelopment.
It once seemed the new development of the Wyland Gallery, which is in the middle of the Central Bluffs, was a valuable enough enterprise to preclude the redevelopment of the bluff as a whole. Today the money is so big, Wyland’s wouldn’t be a wall in the way but only a speed bump.
We want these new lessees to succeed and prosper. Their plan is to preserve a central icon of our community. We should help them. Not hinder them. When we review their plans, let’s stop making the perfect the enemy of the good. Hard for us to do. Look at our response to the plans for rehabilitating the old Coast Inn.
Those folks are trying to do much the same thing that will be required at the Hotel Laguna. Invest enough capital in an aging facility to bring it intact into the modern economy. That takes a lot of money.
During the hearings on the Coast Inn a question was asked, “Why do you need a swimming pool with a bar on the roof? Your guests can swim at the beach.” The rational answer is, “We need a pool and bar on the roof so we can earn enough income from our guests to repay the ton of money we will spend refurbishing this dump.”
Questions like that aren’t helpful. They’re just plain silly. We have to do better.
JJ Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11. He has loved it ever since. This column is the latest of his efforts to repay this hometown that has given him so much and allowed him to take even more.