Village Matters: Village Entrance, Success on the Way

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By Ann Christoph

What happens when goals are partly met and partly not?

Everyone is a little disappointed—but at the same time pleased that some of what they hoped for actually happened. (Or didn’t happen, as the case may be.)

For years we have known the Village Entrance as the big expanse of parking at Forest and Laguna Canyon Road. It was the site of the city’s sewage treatment plant from the 1930s until 1970s. When Laguna Beach got permission to send its sewage to Aliso Canyon to the Coastal Treatment Plant, most of the Laguna Beach plant was demolished. The turreted digester building remains and now a pump station sends Laguna Beach sewage south. For decades after, the area was used for the city’s corporate yard/maintenance and storage area. The area was unsightly, and this prime location begged for something more beautiful. The dream was to create an entrance park, pathways and a scenic connection between the festivals and the downtown. In 1995, the Council appointed a Village Entrance Task Force. They saw the Village Entrance as “yet another jewel for Laguna Beach residents and visitors to be proud of and enjoy.”

The Task Force, council and designers dreamed of an elaborate project with a parking garage and added buildings—like an arts center, maybe even housing on top of the garage…a restored stream instead of the concrete channel, a large park west of the channel, maybe even a pedestrian bridge across the canyon road. They are probably mostly disappointed.

We have a smaller park, and no garage—nor any of the other items on that list.

We do have a landscaped pathway connecting downtown to the festivals. No longer will we be walking between parked cars on our way to the Art-a-Fair and Sawdust. Instead of chain link fencing, we have a more attractive fence of iron and wood-looking posts. There are lots of promising trees. Already it’s a more scenic entrance to our town.

To balance those who are disappointed at no parking garage, we have the members of “Let Laguna Vote” who rose up in protest at 2013. Remember the yard signs, “$65 Million and you want to do what?” They objected to the expense and the commitment of parking meter income for years to pay back the proposed revenue bond needed to build the garage. They questioned the future need for parking spaces considering the effect of Uber and self-driving cars. They cited a recently done parking analysis that said that the garage wouldn’t pay for itself because it would be virtually empty in the non-festival season. They hated the bulky structure and the urban look it would give the village. Their campaign is the reason the Council cancelled the garage.

The parking garage had been planned in order to replace the parking that would be removed to create the park. When the garage was cancelled, would the park idea die with it?

Were we going to have that huge expanse of asphalt forever? After 30 years of planning, was that the best we could do? Task force recommendations, design competitions, parking consultants, architects and landscape architects all paid for, innumerable public hearings. The results abandoned?

The Council decided to make up some of the parking spaces that would have been in the garage by purchasing the Christmas tree lot next to Art-a-Fair. That would allow us to convert some of the parking area into landscaping and pathways.

Staff proposed a 30-foot-wide strip along Laguna Canyon Road—10 feet of planting, 10 feet of pathway, and another 10 feet of planting. The bulk of the rest of the parking lot would remain. Disheartening! That’s when the Beautification Council and Village Laguna formed a Village Entrance design committee trying to salvage as much of the park concept as possible. We produced the “Multi-Use Plan” which provides for more landscaped space and the ornamentally-paved parking area between the channel and Laguna Canyon Road that can easily be converted to events when needed. The City’s consultant, Michael Baker, Inc. included these key features in the final plan.

Is this a success? Yes. Am I also disappointed? Yes. Our goals were only partly met. Many suggestions from the public were for naught. There are still details that need to be worked out for Phase II work that will start this fall on the parking lots on the city hall side of the channel.

The digester building still needs to be restored and fully utilized for a public use.

But we now have a life-size implementation of the Village Entrance walkway and landscape concept. We can enjoy its plantings and pathways. We can see its potential and ways we can improve it. It will get more perfect as we all devote ourselves to making the project all it can be.

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.

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