By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
A majority of the Laguna Beach Planning Commission signaled Wednesday during its review of the draft Downton Specific Plan that they support the development of housing downtown, more flexibility to business owners, and limited additions of second and third stories on commercial buildings.
After seven years of public comment, workshops, and studies, Planning Commission Chairman Ken Sadler and Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson said it’s nearly time for the five-person panel to take action. The Commission heard about an hour-and-a-half of public comment Wednesday on the 169-page draft document that, if approved by the City Council, will serve as a blueprint for Downtown Laguna Beach’s development over the next decade.
“We’re expecting, at this point, for staff to take this [public comment] in and provide us with feedback about whether they agree the changes proposed tonight should be included or shouldn’t be included,” Sadler said.
Among the main points of discussion was increasing the building height limits in the downtown. The Specific Plan maintains the one-story height limit on Beach Street, the lower half of Forest Avenue, and the Bluffs. The rest of the downtown would be potentially opened to new two-story development, and lower Laguna Canyon would see up to three-story development from the Village Entrance to the Laguna Beach Boys & Girls Club.
Village Laguna President Joanna Felder said the existing 12-foot height limit was fiercely defended for years to protect the village charm that attracted residents to Laguna Beach.
Planning Commissioner Jorg Dubin said the term “village character” is very subjective
“Who decides what that is?” he asked. “I think that [term] should be eliminated throughout any public document that’s going to represent this community.”
Dubin also said misinformation about the Downtown Specific Plan potentially increasing building heights and other issues has become rampant. He encouraged members of the public to get their facts straight and then comment on issues that are based in reality, not fantasy.
“I’m afraid we’re becoming a community of Luddites,” Dubin said. “The bottom line is, we’re a creative community and we should come up with creative solutions to all of these things that come before us.’
Another contentious issue was allowing “planned integrated development,” which involves developing two or more parcels with the same zoning together as part of a comprehensive development with multiple uses.
Laguna Beach resident David Raber said allowing these lot combinations would pave the way for block-long developments that will make Laguna Beach look more like Huntington Beach, Brea, and Downtown Disney.
“Combining lots is going to change Laguna big time,” Raber said. “The organic mosaic of buildings downtown is what makes it specials.”
Sadler said there are components of the Downtown Specific Plan and the other requirements in the Municipal Code that would prevent this from happening.
“I am in support of what’s currently being proposed,” Sadler said. “Does that mean we’re going to have a strip of 24-foot buildings along any of our streets? No, I don’t think so.”
Chair Pro Tem Susan McLintock Whitin said she supports bringing additional housing to downtown for all demographic and socio-economic groups. The lack of off-street parking has been a huge obstacle to housing development, and she advocated for allowing new residential units to be built without existing parking requirements.
“Transportation is changing,” Whitin said. “I’m not a great believer that Uber and Lyft are going to solve all our problems, but we need the political will to build peripheral parking structures.”
Along with affordable housing and increasing building heights, one of the main goals for Planning Commissioner Steven Goldman is bringing better business to downtown. The conditional use permit process stifles business owners’ flexibility, Goldman said. Retail shops, for example, cannot change their inventory without applying for an amended permit.
“Who the hell wants to do that?” Goldman said. “We should be talking about what are we doing to get the better business to come here and what about our permitting is preventing them from coming here.”
Laguna Beach resident Louis Longi said his 12-year ordeal to develop artist housing in Laguna Canyon makes him skeptical that the new Specific Plan will actually allow anyone to build projects.
“Building the second and third stories downtown is just unrealistic when you look at all of the codes,” he said.
Dubin shared Longi’s concern about approving a document that doesn’t really make development easier because of the numerous limitations of building on small lots without parking.
Greg Pfost, the city’s director community development, said his staff will review the written statements and public comments on the Specific Plan draft and return with a comprehensive report analyzing all the concerns. The discussion will continue at the Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 2.