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Laguna Beach council endorses arts enhancement plan; $20-million cultural facility deemed unlikely

Laguna Beach council endorses arts enhancement plan; $20-million cultural facility deemed unlikely
A consulting firm suggests the Festival of Arts grounds in Laguna Beach could be “reconceived as a civic park” and the centerpiece of a downtown Civic Arts District. (File Photo)

A plan approved by the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday night states that a new $20-million cultural facility is unlikely, though the city should work toward improving the Festival of Arts grounds and branding a downtown Civic Arts District.

The plan, officially dubbed the Creative Placement Assessment, was completed by AEA Consulting, a New York- and London-based strategy firm for cultural and creative industries. Throughout the past year, AEA has been assessing Laguna’s artistic venues, conducting interviews with major players in town, sending out surveys and holding workshops.

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City officials tasked the firm with determining the potential for a new performing and visual arts facility, how Laguna could better use its existing cultural spaces and where companies could partner with City Hall to enhance the town’s artistic offerings.

The effort was the latest toward realizing the city’s Cultural Arts Plan, an endeavor approved in 2016 with intent to explore the use of Laguna’s existing artistic spaces and determine the feasibility of a new one.

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The potential $20-million cultural facility — envisioned as having 400 seats and enough flexibility to host music, theater, art exhibits and film screenings — was considered but not recommended.

AEA looked into using existing structures such as the Wells Fargo building on Ocean Avenue and the tennis courts next to the Festival of Arts grounds, but ultimately concluded that Laguna had no “clearly identifiable site that would fit the proposed venue.” It also questioned the city’s funding to operate such a venue, as well as the ability of local nonprofits to take on large fundraising campaigns for it.

AEA also envisioned branding a downtown zone as the Civic Arts District, stretching from Heisler Park and the Laguna Art Museum southwest to the Main Beach cobblestones, then north along Forest Avenue, past the Village Entrance and up to the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival grounds.

AEA noted that the Festival of Arts grounds are not used extensively outside the summer festival and could be “reconceived as a civic park and the centerpiece of the Civic Arts District,” with the festival as the anchor tenant.

The firm also suggested improvements to the Irvine Bowl, home of the festival’s Pageant of the Masters, such as removable seating to make it more suitable for smaller events, a retractable canopy and state-of-the-art digital technology. It suggested the city fund such upgrades.

AEA suggested making Forest Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, closing it to cars at times and installing signs to guide visitors to key cultural sites.

Libby Ellis, who heads AEA, said the company found that some residents want Laguna to resemble a European village, with sketch artists and plein air painters abounding, along with pop-up performances, food carts, puppet shows and magicians.

Council members expressed general enthusiasm for the Creative Placement Assessment but didn’t offer specifics on what they liked, disliked or how to achieve its ideas.

Councilman Bob Whalen called the plan “tangible and manageable,” while Councilwoman Toni Iseman called it “really exciting … a powerful step.”

Iseman also emphasized the need to use existing artistic venues better.

Some residents said they were worried about attracting even more tourists and exacerbating parking problems.

Lorene Laguna, a City Council candidate, said she’d like to see food trucks at the Village Entrance that would complement the nearby restaurants. She also suggested chalk art contests for Ocean Avenue and “international body art competitions.”

The Creative Placement Assessment next heads to City Manager John Pietig for direction and implementation.

In other action Tuesday, the council approved spending $105,610 for three new police cars from an Irvine dealership. The cars being replaced are 2014 models that lasted a year longer than typical. They have 87,000 to 107,000 miles on them.

The council also approved spending $21,500 from the city’s open space fund toward acquiring 10 private properties throughout the Arch Beach Heights neighborhood. The properties total about 0.8 acres. Plans for the sites were not announced, though city officials said similar land purchases have been used for open space or recreational purposes.

Bradley Zint is a contributor to Times Community News.

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