Fate of sewer digester building in question

One question that city leaders and the public must wrestle with as the Village Entrance Project moves along is what to do with the sewer digester building.

The 79-year-old, beige facility with the red-tile roof treated sewage until the mid-1980s and still greets people entering downtown from Laguna Canyon Road. Now the building sits in the crosshairs of plans to spruce up the area.

The City Council last year voted for a scaled-down beautification project, one without a parking structure but with a landscaped pedestrian pathway. The city will hold a public workshop July 16 in its effort to solicit ideas from the community, and Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel expects the digester will be a main point of discussion.

Laguna Beach police have stored evidence in the facility for the past six years. But the building's hallmark feature is a silo that sits in the southwest quadrant of the structure and houses about 60,000 gallons of sewage left over from the plant's working days.

Ideas for the digester have run the gamut from transforming the facility into a visitors center, which the city projected would cost $1.3 million, to renovating the exterior to spruce up the structure at a cost of less than $300,000, according to a city staff report.

Some residents want the digester restored, lauding its architectural and artistic appeal.

The facility is a K-rated structure on Laguna Beach's historic register, meaning it has retained its original integrity and demonstrates a particular architectural style or time period.

Loans and grants from the Public Works Administration, a New Deal agency, combined with local bond money to cover the $165,838 needed to build the sewer digester during the Depression era, according to a 2006 draft environmental impact report for the Village Entrance Project.

"The tower is a significant surviving public works facility from a community that greatly upgraded its infrastructure in the 1930s with New Deal assistance to accommodate projected growth," the draft EIR says. "The city could not have become the popular artistic and tourist destination, as well as desirable living community, that Laguna Beach achieved after World War II without this facility."

But Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen considers the building past its prime and said the space could be better used.

"I think it's more beneficial for the city to demolish it and utilize space for added parking," Whalen said. "If someone comes up with a great idea I'm willing to listen, but to spend over $1 million in its current condition would not be a good use [of money]."

The staff report says demolishing the digester would add 10 to 13 parking spaces — in a city that seems always to be trying to accommodate vehicles, especially in the summertime — but this option presents hurdles to overcome.

Any applicant who wants to tear down a structure listed on the city's historic inventory or register must apply for a demolition permit with the city, according to the municipal code.

The city's Design Review Board, responding to a recommendation from the Heritage Committee, would have to hold a public hearing on the matter and consider how the demolition would affect the "overall neighborhood character or streetscape," the code says.

Demolition of historic structures in Laguna must also comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. In the digester's case, additional environmental studies would need to be done since the Village Entrance's EIR includes keeping the building.

Heritage Committee member Bonnie Hano said she and fellow committee member Anne Frank will urge the City Council at the July 16 workshop to preserve the digester.

"I'm hoping we're able to find some good purpose for it," Hano said. "It was done so artistically ... and became essential to the heritage of Laguna."

Author Charles Epting, who wrote a book titled "The New Deal in Orange County," called the digester, designed in a Mediterranean style, the "most interesting sewage treatment plant in the county."

"What sets Laguna Beach's apart is the artistic design," Epting writes.

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