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Village entrance project now is about merging two visions

After much public debate over how to beautify the entrance to the village, the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday had a decision to make between two conceptual drawings.

One would add a two-level parking garage — even though a larger parking structure was part of earlier plans until about three years ago, when significant public outcry prompted the council to nix it.

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The council Tuesday rejected the parking ramp but agreed to include landscaping and a trail for pedestrians and bicyclists. It also unanimously voted to pay management and design firms an estimated $40,000 to put into one plan the best of both visions for the area, which is near Forest Avenue and Broadway Street. The council will review the edited rendering before the Planning Commission also analyzes it.

Design firm Michael Baker International, which has an office in Irvine, presented the two concepts, one with a 134-space parking deck and one without. The concept with the deck carried an estimated $12 million price tag, $3 million of that for the parking structure alone. It was $5.5 million more than the concept without the structure.

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Laguna had earmarked $6.5 million for the project, City Manager John Pietig said, and the council said it did not want to exceed that amount.

For decades the city has wrestled with how to spruce up an area that includes city-owned asphalt parking lots in the Forest/Laguna Canyon area and next to City Hall.

In the past year, the city has held multiple workshops and a walking tour of the site, which includes the historic sewer digester building — which is now used as police storage — to gather public feedback.

Similar sentiments toward a parking structure remained Tuesday. The deck would have been placed on the city-owned Christmas tree lot at 725 Laguna Canyon Road, near the Laguna Art-A-Fair.

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Mayor Steve Dicterow said Wednesday that he opposed a parking structure because of the cost, aesthetics and possibility that it could exacerbate traffic and parking problems rather than relieve them.

"As soon as you create a two-story structure, you create the appearance of more space," Dicterow said. "We want to encourage people to look for peripheral parking."

The proposal with the deck included features that appealed to some council members, such as the removal of one of two existing driveways into the Forest/Laguna Canyon lot, the addition of a walking trail running parallel with the Laguna Canyon Creek channel closest to a hillside, and more trees and landscaping.

Parking spaces would be scattered throughout the site; the city has worked to maintain 397 spots under the council's previous direction.

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

For Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman, the Village Entrance Project represents an access route more than a destination.

She said she recently walked through the area en route to the Sawdust Art Festival and found it to be "not a pleasant walk because it is [Laguna] Canyon Road."

"It's noisy, it's dirty and, other than looking across the street to see the beautiful Festival [of Arts], it's just a walk," Iseman said. "I envisioned the walk would be protected by vegetation. There would be something that would buffer us from the road.

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"I may be in the minority, but this is not where I would go to go to a park. I think it's in dire need of being made beautiful, but I don't see a need for a park-like situation."

Iseman was not keen on having cyclists and pedestrians using the same trail, which would run parallel to Laguna Canyon Road, and suggested separating users.

For aesthetic purposes, resident Tom Halliday said, a berm could elevate the roadside trail above parked cars, screening them from ground-level view.

It was unclear Tuesday when the matter would return to the council.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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