Bringing a cultural arts center to the city remains a passion for Bob Whalen, a City Council member who informally announced his bid for re-election at a community event last week.
On the heels of Mayor Steve Dicterow announcing his re-election plans, Whalen is the second incumbent to officially say he’s running, too. The terms of the three other City Council incumbents do not expire until 2018.
Whalen passed the mayor’s gavel in December to Dicterow, who announced his intention to run last month at a kick-off party. “I think he sort of accelerated the schedule,” said Whalen, who announced his candidacy at a luncheon that honors the outgoing mayor sponsored by the Woman’s Club on Friday, Feb. 12.
Only a month ago Whalen said it was too soon to say whether he’d run again. But pressure and the good intentions of supporters got the best of him, he said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of friends and supporters who I know in the room so why not let them know first?” Whalen said.
There’s unfinished business he said he wants to pursue.
Balancing residents’ needs with visitors’ demands is the city’s biggest obstacle, said Whalen, who was elected to the City Council for the first time four years ago.
“Preserving the character of the community without being overrun by the visitors,” is top priority, he said. “Residents need a certain amount of peace and quiet and tranquility in the community and the ability to move around in the city, and visitors create challenges to a lot of that.” With a population of 23,000 residents, Laguna Beach now logs 6 million visitors a year, he said.
A central cultural events center is an important and missing defining element of the city, Whalen said. Re-energizing Laguna’s artistic community will keep the town’s cultural legacy alive, he said. “I really want to see if I can make that a reality.”
Providing more affordable artists’ live-work space is a start, he said, suggesting the industrial zone on Laguna Canyon Road near downtown as a potential location. Whalen recognized there’s a strong push among some residents to preserve the rural character of the canyon. What he described as the inner canyon, occupied by older, single-story industrial buildings, might be redeveloped as affordable housing, artists’ work-live housing or assisted-living senior housing, he said.
“Refocusing on the vibrancy of our arts community is critical,” Whalen said. “That’s what makes Laguna unique and has made us unique for 100 years.” Offering a cultural events center for city artists and residents is part of an updated community arts plan that will be presented to the council in March.
Whalen’s campaign managers and organizers have yet to be decided, although he said he hopes Ann Johnson, a planning commissioner, will again lead the charge.
“Of course I will, if he asks me to,” Johnson said Tuesday. Whalen has solidified her support even more over the past four years, said Johnson, who helped with his initial campaign. “Bob does not run for council to grandstand or for any kind of ego,” she said. “It’s because he really feels he has something to contribute.”
Friday’s luncheon was sold out 10 days before the event, said Whalen-supporter and Woman’s Club president Barbara Crane. It was the highest-attended event in years, she said.
The first factor Whalen considered in deciding to run again, he said, was the synergy of the council. “If I didn’t think we had a council that could be productive and cooperative together, maybe I would have reached another decision,” he said. “I think we really have a good working group.”
And he has unfinished business on projects he said he was instrumental in spearheading. The first is city-wide undergrounding of utilities, an initiative sparked by a fire last July 3 in Laguna Canyon, which was caused by a downed power line. Whalen and council member Rob Zur Schmiede have pressed the power companies as well as state officials for support and financial input, Whalen said.
Another work-in-progress he wants to follow through on are revising regulations that overlay the downtown and Laguna Canyon. Known as the Downtown Specific Plan, which will include proposed land-use changes, revisions will take another year of refining before the plan is presented for final evaluation by the council, Whalen said.
Other items on his list of priorities are acquiring more open space and maintaining the integrity of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park as well as continuing to improve the quality of water coming from urban run-off before it reaches Laguna’s shores, he said.
As the city confronts pressures to maintain the town’s character while keeping up with demands from residents, businesses and tourists, Whalen said he’s happy to have some influence on which way Laguna will turn. “It’s rewarding to be able to feel like you can focus the discussion and start to make some improvements that will benefit residents in Laguna,” he said.
Other candidates typically wait for the incumbents to decide before entering the competition, said City Clerk Lisette Chel. No one else has yet to step up, she said. The actual deadline for non-incumbents to file qualifying papers with signatures of supporters is Aug. 17.