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Parking structure again part of talk about village entrance

Talk of a parking structure being part of the Village Entrance Project resurfaced Wednesday night — almost three years after the idea was dropped because of public outcry — during a design firm's unveiling of two proposed plans for beautifying the site near Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road.

After a year of public outreach that included a walking tour of the area and workshops, representatives of Michael Baker International, which has an office in Irvine, came up with "Downtown Link" and "Sendero."

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About 20 residents gathered at the Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Center to vet the proposals, gathering in groups and noting their likes and dislikes regarding each.

Residents and city officials have for more than 20 years talked of improving not only the look but also the function of the area, which includes dedicated parking lots for the public and city employees, city storage facilities and the historic sewer digester building.

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In September 2014, the council approved various aspects of the project, including a redesign of the Laguna Canyon Road median and the removal of a carport behind City Hall.

Both proposals from Michael Baker envision the addition of trees, possibly sycamores and oaks, along with a trail for walking and cycling, seating areas and spaces for public art. Both plans would also maintain the current 397 parking spaces.

The Sendero model calls for a 134-space parking structure made up of a ground-level and a deck, similar to that on Glenneyre Street, company officials said. The structure would be located on the city-owned Christmas tree lot, on Laguna Canyon Road next to Art-A-Fair, which in the off-season can accommodate 67 cars, and would make up for spaces lost elsewhere to landscaping and the trail.

Residents at the meeting were leery of the deck, with memories still fresh of community opposition to a proposed four-story parking structure. The City Council ultimately eliminated that aspect from the plan.

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Lorene Auger asked if the parking structure could go underground instead, adding that if a deck were part of the eventual plan, that top level could occasionally be used as a skate park, an attraction some residents in the city have wanted for decades.

Auger said she liked the Sendero model for its multiuse trail and single vehicular entry point into the Forest/Laguna Canyon lot instead of two.

Removing one driveway off Forest would enhance safety, eliminating one area where cars and pedestrians intersect, said Susan Harden, Michael Baker's senior vice president of national planning and moderator of Wednesday's workshop.

Roger McErlane, speaking for his table, said the group "did not like the deck" and would like to see more landscaping along the edge of Laguna Canyon Road to provide screening for the cars that would park in the area.

In a separate conversation, McErlane said the deck "is an expensive jewel not worth the value."

Sendero would carry the higher price tag: an estimated $11 million, including $2 million for the deck, compared with $6 million for the Downtown Link. The City Council previously authorized $7.8 million for the project.

Plans also call for storage buildings to be removed and an exterior renovation of the digester building.

Specifics regarding a redesign of Laguna Canyon Road's median, which currently include mulched areas with bottlebrush trees, remained unclear. Residents wondered whether larger trees could be planted.

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Gary Warkentin, Michael Baker's vice president overseeing project planning, design and community outreach, said the matter gets complicated because of Caltrans' speed limit rules. The state owns the canyon road.

For safety reasons, if an area has a speed limit of 35 mph or higher, the diameter of a tree trunk along the roadway cannot exceed 4 inches, unless there is a barrier, Warkentin said.

Visitors to the farmers market on Saturdays can visit Michael Baker's booth and see design plans while providing feedback. Company officials said they will incorporate comments from the workshop and farmers market and eventually present a proposal to the City Council.

The farmers market runs from 8 a.m. to noon at the Forest/Laguna Canyon lot, at 551 Forest Ave.

For more information about the Village Entrance Plan, visit lagunabeachcity.net.

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