Village Matters: Urban Messiah

By Ann Christoph.
By Ann Christoph.

At last week’s hearing about the village entrance there were repeated calls for hiring an urban designer.  Someone who can lead us out of the morass of our own lack of consensus.  Someone from somewhere else who has designed award-winning complexes all over the world.  An urban messiah who can organize Laguna Beach and solve our problems

Do we really have problems? Or do we just have some great opportunities for improvements to what is already an exceptional community?

Are things so bad that we have to do a national search for a savior? Or can we buckle down, read the studies we have already paid to prepare and make some logical conclusions?

Let’s take a look at how we’ve made decisions in the past—bit by bit, piecemeal. Now that word “piecemeal” is supposed to be a bad word. The kind of approach no self-respecting planner is supposed to espouse Yet it could be thought of as a detailed examination of the position we find ourselves in, responding to that and not attempting to impose a grand solution. Isn’t that how Laguna Beach was put together starting a 100 years ago?  Isn’t that an essential quality of our charm?

Downtown we have a Second and a Third Street, but no First Street. Someone decided to call First Street Glenneyre instead. Some parts of town have a logical grid street system that carries on for a short distance, then there’s an intervening canyon or large complex like the high school or the hospital that takes over.

Streets don’t always line up: the Glenneyre/Thalia street intersection is the perfect example. In an old newspaper article, the property where the Nolan building is now was up for sale.  The writer urged the city to buy that land and straighten out the intersection.  “If we don’t, we will have a dangerous intersection forever,” he said. It is obvious what the city did not do. Awkward, yes, but dangerous, no.  Just another Laguna opportunity to check out human nature and work out who should go first.

Would Laguna Beach really have been better if it had been designed as a whole?  At last Thursday evening’s workshop to kick off the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element preparation, urban designer and 30-year Laguna resident Steve Kellenberg said, “Laguna Beach defines good urban design.” It could be considered to be ironic that a professional urban designer would tout Laguna as an example, since it hasn’t been “urban designed.”

But incrementally by making detailed decisions along the way, respecting the land forms and the coastal setting, our community has intuitively assembled all the features of good urban design.

Outsiders can give a fresh perspective but they can also come up with inappropriate proposals.  What looks interesting and creative. in plan view sometimes doesn’t produce a comfortable hospitable environment on the ground. Take Pershing Square for example:

Award-winning Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta and Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin teamed up to redesign Pershing Square in 1994.  Full of symbolism and sculptural elements, and with a predominance of interestingly designed hardscape, the design was lauded at the time.  Now downtown residents are longing for a simple green space, “a tree and bench filled oasis,” as described in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

The city of Irvine searched world wide for a design team for the Orange County Great Park.  The selection committee even visited designers in Spain before deciding on New York landscape architect Ken Smith. Yet after millions were spent on various trendy designs, the Great Park is far from being the large green central park of Orange County that the public has been looking forward to.

At Dana Point decades ago Philadelphia-based Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd recommended changing the architectural theme from the Mediterranean Revival started in the 1920s to Cape Cod style. Coast Highway was divided into two one-way streets.  Neither of these ideas has worked to develop the desired cohesion of downtown Dana Point.  Now Dana Point, after several more studies, is considering restoring two-way traffic on Coast Highway and Del Prado.

Laguna Beach is among the iconic destinations in California, along with Carmel, La Jolla, Mendocino and Sausalito. It has its own character, its own image.  Imposing a grand design is not only very risky, but unneeded.  Los Angeles had a deteriorating park at Pershing Square, Irvine had an abandoned air base, Dana Point had a center without a soul. They took a risk because they felt they needed to.

We don’t need to risk what we have. We are already so much of a success that we have no lack of appreciative visitors. Our city is beloved and memorable worldwide.

Can we find an urban designer who is not a messiah? One with a light touch who appreciates Laguna’s uniqueness? The results will not only depend on who it is, but on our expectations. They can’t save the Laguna we love unless we save it too.

Local resident Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former council member.


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