Village Laguna Beach's January 9, 2017,  Letter to Planning Commission: Comments re MIGs Proposed Amendments to Downtown Specific Plan, Section II

1. This chapter is, of course, primarily descriptive, but we did find a policy change that we’d like to object to. Under “Land Use and Zoning” (II-1), we urge you not to eliminate the “resident-serving commercial” district of the plan.

MIG seems to have misinterpreted the intent of this zone in pointing to the fact that resident-serving uses occur in other zones. The idea was not to confine resident-serving businesses to a sort of ghetto but to attempt to even the playing field for businesses that typically make less money by giving them a place where they would be preferred. Rents have historically been lower on Ocean than on Forest, and creating a resident-serving district there was an attempt to preserve a safe haven for them. The district initially reflected the uses that were there when it was established (when we had a tailor’s shop, a bookstore, a couple of dry cleaners, a Community Clinic, and an additional bank in addition to the surviving shoe repair shop, the banks, the post office [with its own parking lot], the Zinc café, the bus station, the public restrooms, and the brokerage). 

Despite MIG’s assessment that the downtown “serves most resident needs with the exception of specialty food stores and office supply stores” (Task 2.10 Recommendations regarding retail uses p. 34), its own (albeit limited) online retail survey indicates that customers desire, among other things, more “affordable clothing stores” and “stores with everyday goods (such as cookware, office supply, home goods)” (p. 35).

The resident-serving district was the only thing the creators of the DSP could think of to encourage these uses, and in the absence of other incentives it appears that we still need it.

2. The “Land Use Summary” (II-5) is 20 years old and, ironically, includes the assertion that “Another land use count in five or ten years can again be based on business license and Census data thus permitting a more valid analysis of land use change over time.”

We encourage MIG to assemble those data and make the comparison that the original DSP envisioned. It would also be useful to examine the square footage devoted to the various uses, which would probablygive a different picture of the contrast between residential and nonresidential uses.

3. The general remarks under “Public Infrastructure and Utilities” as originally written seem pointless, and specific descriptions are limited to the storm drainage system.

We suggest either omitting this part altogether, with the information on flooding to be handled under “Environmental Hazards” below, or adding discussion of other public infrastructure. (Is there something to be said about streets? Utilities? The Water District offices and the various sewage treatment facilities? The City’s corporate yard, including ACT V?)

The added language about storm drainage under this heading should be replaced by the following more recent and detailed statement about the storm drainage system in the Laguna Canyon Flood Mitigation Task Force Report (November 10, 2011): 

“Over the years, highway/floodway improvements of varying capacity have been constructed by the City of Laguna Beach, Caltrans, and the Orange County Flood Control District (Appendix 4). The lack of capacity becomes acute in the downtown area, where the channel has a capacity of 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) entering the downtown area and continues as an open structure until reaching Beach Street. At this point, the channel goes underground, and the capacity is reduced to 1,050 cfs. A further reduction occurs at Coast Highway, where the capacity drops to 800 cfs. The result of these constructions in a heavy storm is an explosive overflow at Beach Street, resulting in rapidly flowing water down Broadway, Ocean, and Forest Avenues. Because of physical, financial, and environmental constraints, one-hundred-year flood protection appears unattainable at this time, but the situation could be improved by modifying the severe bottleneck at the ocean end of the channel.”

A suggested summary of some of the steps taken since the 2010 flood to mitigate flood damage, based on the recommendations in the Task Force Report and subsequent Council action, could be added here:

“To this end, improvements to the channel at Beach Street and between Beach and the ocean are under way, and there have been discussions with Caltrans about enlarging the outlet under the Coast Highway. Residents upstream of the downtown are notified annually of the need to clear debris that has the potential to inhibit storm drainage from the channel, and property owners in the downtown are being required to have flood gates and be prepared to use them in a potential flood situation.”

4. The section “Environmental Hazards” might include a statement of the implications for further development of the downtown’s being largely in the 100-year floodplain (elevation of new construction above the flood level and its effects on the streetscape).

Perhaps, too, as we have indicated in our line-by-line comments (attached), it should say a little about sea-level rise, which is mentioned under Policy 7.3 of the Land Use Element.

In addition to these general remarks, we offer a number of detailed suggestions for corrections or additions as “tracked changes” to the attached Word version (kindly provided by staff) of the document.

We appreciate the opportunity to participate in this important effort.

 Sincerely, Johanna Felder, President, Village Laguna

Attachment: Line-by-line suggested changes to strikethrough version

Village Laguna’s December 3, 2015, letter to the City Council and Planning Commission:

After review of the retail- use memos and recommendations for retail and commercial uses and conditional use permits, we have the following observations and comments:

We generally agree

  • that identification of certain permitted uses, with an emphasis on resident-serving ones, could serve as an incentive and reduce the need for CUPs.
  • that fees should be reduced for resident-serving businesses.
  • that we need a building maintenance ordinance.
  • that simplifying the approval process might help to reduce uncertainty.
  • that specific saturation levels should be established for problematic uses that could over proliferate.

We’d like more information about the following:

  • What is “alcohol + one,” and how would this use affect the retail mix? What is the problem it is intended to solve?
  • Have the survey results, particularly those critical of the current process, been reality-tested?  It’s said that the CUP “could potentially be impacting the economic vitality of Downtown,” but where is the evidence that it is? On the contrary, the downtown is said to have many strengths (p. 34) and to be “one of the most vibrant and pedestrian-friendly downtowns out of the five communities examined” (p. 14).
  • What criteria were used in selecting the retail cities analyzed? Should Carmel and Malibu have been included?  How can annual sales be compared with Newport’s, where people are buying boats? What might we learn from Carmel’s experience with managing its retail mix?
  • How is the use of the CUP process in the current plan “inconsistent with how the CUP process should be used according to the Laguna Beach Municipal Code”? The code (25.05.030) says that the purpose of the CUP process is to allow uses to be “modified to the extent that they can be made compatible and harmonious with adjacent uses” and consistent with the General Plan.
  • How do we maintain “a balanced retail mix that also allows for flexibility of business types” while streamlining and in some cases eliminating the need for the CUP process?
  • How will formula-based businesses be addressed, particularly with respect to the recommendation to modify Topic 3, Policies 6 and 8?
  • What mechanism will be used to maintain the retail and food use mix with the proposed modification of Topic 3, Policies 9 and 10?
  • What outdoor noise level is suggested to replace the current requirement of 60 decibels as required in Topic 3, Policy 15?
  • How will entertainment uses be controlled with the proposed modification of Topic 3, Policies 16 and 17?

Finally, we have the following concerns:

  • That combining the CBD-1 and the CBD-2 zones could reduce the number of resident-serving businesses by eliminating an area designed to be a refuge for these uses.
  • That encouraging more food-related uses could drive out retail uses and dramatically change the retail mix, especially since the proposed new use for food service that does not require a kitchen would be going into former retail spaces rather than former traditional food service spaces.
  • That an administrative use permit process would be a needless complication if certain uses were simply permitted.
  • That rather than eliminating the parking lots on Ocean Avenue, we should be examining ways to beautify them and to implement design features and appropriate peripheral uses that will better integrate them into the downtown ambience.
  • That the Central Bluffs should be considered as part of comprehensive recommendations, since they affect the retail and entertainment mix.
  • That changes to the current methods of handling formula-based businesses could negatively impact the character of the downtown.
  • That key policies that should be preserved weren’t identified at the beginning of the revision process.   
  • That the proposed schedule does not appear to provide sufficient opportunity for public response to Sections III and IV(Issue Statement and Policies and Urban Design) of the document.

We appreciate the opportunity to raise these concerns and hope that you’ll address them.

Sincerely, Johanna Felder, President, Village Laguna

Village Laguna’s September 28, 2015, letter to the City Council on the DSP Proposals:

The proposals for updating the Downtown Specific Plan presented by the urban planning firm MIG last month were greeted by the City Council and the Planning Commission with open minds but very appropriate caution. As longtime activists in favor of Laguna’s village atmosphere, Village Laguna welcomes Councilmembers’ comments on the need to assess the feasibility of the firm’s suggestions and to have a policy discussion of the conflict that Toni Iseman pointed out between facilitating more housing downtown and creating more “vibrant” nightlife. As a contribution to these discussions, we’d like to draw on twenty-five years of experience in observing the operation of the specific plan to raise some questions.

As we pointed out in our previous letter on this subject, a planning process should proceed in a logical fashion--gathering information and input from the public, making conclusions on needs and goals, defining problems to be solved and then proposing alternative ways to solve them.  We seem to be witnessing attempts by the consultants to solve problems before the other steps have been taken.  Thus solutions are proposed for undefined problems—perhaps problems for which no solutions are even needed.

  1. New second stories: What is the problem for which allowing more second stories would be the solution? The 12-foot height limit was introduced to preserve the downtown’s pleasing diversity of building heights, preserve public views of the ocean and hillsides, and maintain light, air, solar access to the streetscape and maintain the human scale. How would residents benefit from a relaxation of the rule that has protected the character of the downtown for all these years?  Does anyone support this idea beyond the property owners who imagine that they might financially benefit from it and those who would build the second stories?  How could the selective approval of new second stories be done fairly, and what would prevent the whole downtown from going two-story as each property owner insisted on the privilege granted his neighbor?  Are the existing residences in the downtown a success for their occupants and their owners? Are the buildings big enough to be attractive as residences, especially given the high rents that can be expected to be charged for them? Where would the proposed new residents park their cars? More fundamentally, can these old buildings structurally support second stories? Replacement or substantial improvement for residential use would be required by law to be elevated 2 feet above the base flood level (which historically has been 1–3 feet above the ground on Forest Avenue, 2–3 feet on Beach Street, and 3–4 feet at the Coast Highway).
  2. Replacing the gas station on Broadway with a two-story mixed-use building: How would the City manage to displace an apparently thriving business from the site, and at what cost? Is the Coast Highway, designated visitor-serving in the land-use plan, the best place for a community cultural center? Would the City own the building and lease the ground floor to businesses? Do we really need more retail stores in the downtown? (The retail study we’ve been promised by MIG has yet to appear.) Would a two-story building there create view issues for the surrounding residential neighbors? Is everyone aware that the ground underneath the gas station may well be contaminated and require extensive remediation? (This is in fact the issue that definitively sank the proposal for a new storm water channel under Broadway some years ago.)
  3. Underground parking on Cliff Drive and behind Las Brisas: What effect would this have on traffic? Would the residential neighbors object to the intrusion of hundreds of new cars and pedestrians into their quiet neighborhood? Would the new “park” on the structure’s roof obstruct cherished views of Main Beach and the ocean? Would shoppers use the parking structure knowing that they would have to walk back up the stairs with their packages to retrieve their cars? How does the idea square with the community consensus about the need for peripheral parking rather than big structures downtown? Would the residents who recently objected to taking on $69 million in debt for a parking structure at the Village Entrance be any more willing to pay for such a project on Cliff Drive?
  4. Moving the library: Aside from the unanswered question “Where to?”—is everyone aware that the building belongs to the County and operates on rather limited funds? (The secondhand books sold by volunteers in the basement help buy new ones for the collection upstairs.) Is everyone aware that the library is one of the oldest institutions in the City and has a loyal and active support group that generously funds improvements, the most recent of them in 2010? That the building was designed by a respected local architect in 1972? That it’s centrally located and close to the high school, whose students it serves? And is there any real community interest in opening up that particular space for a view of the ocean blocked by shops and moving cars?

Some of MIG’s other ideas—the pedestrian scramble on the Coast Highway, relocation of the bus station, and a “green” Ocean Avenue—are more appealing than these four at first glance, but we need to know what the changes would do to traffic patterns. Where would the bus station be moved to?  While “greening” Ocean Avenue we hope that it will still look like it belongs downtown, not a trendy, millennial anomaly. Where everything is interconnected as it is in our tiny downtown basin, small changes can have large consequences.

Finally, beyond all the practical questions, there’s the question of benefits. We’re told repeatedly that visitors love the downtown just as it is, and we know that many residents feel the same way. Before we commit to any of these changes, we need to know how they’re linked to problems actually identified by residents and how such changes would solve those problems. As the planning process continues, we will be encouraging the City Council to keep these issues in mind.

Sincerely, Johanna Felder, President, Village Laguna

Village Laguna’s July 2015 letter to the Council on proposed “parklets”: 

On June 16 the City Council unanimously approved two parklets proposed by the City’s Downtown Specific Plan consultant over the objections of nearly everyone who spoke on this agenda item.   

Your original plan to identify locations in the downtown to foster small, informal community gatherings was a good one. What you ended up approving was turning over our street parking spaces to four restaurants and/or bars, for their exclusive use.

This proposal is unfair to our other businesses. It also takes away public parking with no benefit to the public in return. If you ask restaurants to invest in the construction of these venues, they will push to make them permanent. Sometimes a good intention can take a wrong turn. It is our retail shops, not our restaurants and bars that could use some support.

Village Laguna suggests a re-evaluation of this proposal. The City needs to craft a proposal that benefits our residents and retail establishments. Other cities have done it.  We can too.

Johanna Felder, President, Village Laguna

Village Laguna’s June 2015 letter to the Council on the implementation of pilot demonstration projects:

We agree with the business owner who said the plan for temporary changes in the downtown is “a plan in search of a problem.”

We'd like to remind the Council of the tasks assigned to MIG. There are more than a dozen of them, of which I'll read just a few:

  1. Gather public input
  2. Research relevant city planning efforts
  3. Provide recommendations for mobility and wayfinding, finding parking, attracting resident-serving businesses, and improving underutilized parcels
  4. Evaluate retail uses in detail
  5. Evaluate parking solutions for intensification of use
  6. Evaluate downtown parking management plan and pedestrian and bicycle circulation as it relates to the Village Entrance
  7. Urban design height analysis
  8. Recommendations in relation to, among other things, village character, identity as an art colony, downtown commercial uses, re-use and intensification, and parking, circulation, and public transit

All this work is to come together to produce a revised Downtown Specific Plan. When we see that, we should be able to decide whether parklets, street closures, and other features not yet considered will be appropriate for implementing our community goals.

To our knowledge, MIG has accomplished Item 1 and possibly Item 2. We see the present projects as premature and a distraction from its main tasks. We as a community won’t be in a position to evaluate these projects until the assigned tasks have been completed.

In addition, we feel strongly that the premise that the downtown needs to be revitalized is essentially flawed. Rick Barrett’s summary of public input emphasized that respondents wanted to protect the character and feeling of the town as it is, not make fundamental changes. The downtown doesn’t need revitalization, but it does need more resident-serving businesses.

It isn’t the role of our downtown (in the regional context) to be “up to date.” If residents and visitors seek an “up to date” shopping experience, there are many shopping centers in Orange County to visit. People come to Laguna Beach's downtown because it’s different; it has a sense of history and a traditional main street environment that’s quaint, charming, shady, friendly, and right next to Main Beach Park. It offers an experience not available anywhere else. We don’t need to apply solutions developed for other towns to problems we don’t have.

We recommend that the Council authorize the planning for moving the Farmer’s Market to Ocean Avenue, and postpone any decision on the remaining items until MIG’s work is completed.

Sincerely, Johanna Felder, President