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Live-work space gets public critique

Sculptor Louis Longi and architect Horst Noppenberger received plenty of feedback on a proposed artist live-work space project at last week's Planning Commission meeting.

Some residents favor the proposal, while others criticized the project along Laguna Canyon Road, saying the building is too big and would create traffic nightmares.

When it appeared that the commission would divide 2 to 2 on the matter, Commission Chairman Robert Zur Schmiede asked the applicants what they wanted to do.

Longi and Noppenberger decided to return to the Nov. 13 Planning Commission when all five commissioners are likely to be on hand, eliminating the possibility of a split vote. Commissioner Anne Johnson was absent during last week's meeting.

The project includes 30 artist live-work units on a 36,750-square-foot plot near Canyon Animal Hospital, Laguna Koi Ponds and the Sun Valley residential neighborhood, a city staff report said.

Two two-story buildings spanning 16,192 square feet would contain the units and be arranged around two outdoor communal work spaces, a staff report said. The live-work units range in size from 351 to 1,664 square feet, the staff report said.

The proposed development, which also includes a 45-space, one-story parking structure, is too big for the space, some nearby residents said during the meeting.

"It's too massive a design," said Ralph Haun, a 40-year Laguna Beach resident. "I don't feel it's rustic; it seems more modern. While the building is not flat, it still has a cube-like appearance."

Former Planning Commissioner Barbara Metzger is also concerned about the project's scale.

"The specific plan for this area requires maintaining a rural setting," said Metzger, speaking on behalf of Village Laguna, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to preserving Laguna Beach's village character. "This is a quiet residential neighborhood of single-family homes. The specific plan calls for small-scale development, and this project is too big."

Longi, the property owner and a 16-year Laguna resident, has planned the project for seven years. He is a joint partner with the Laguna Beach-based Dornin Investment Group.

Noppenberger came aboard last year, and the team considered how to make the project compatible with the surrounding hills.

The applicants would maintain the existing 80-foot-tall willow trees and add five sycamores to "soften the scale of the building" and "give the project a sense of belonging to the canyon setting," Noppenberger wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the Planning Commission.

"Multiple pitched roofs mimic the canyon's mountain skyline," Noppenberger wrote.

On Tuesday, Noppenberger said in a conference call with Longi that after thinking about residents' concerns, the applicants may reduce the building's scale at the northernmost point by relocating two upper units.

"Nothing is official, but we'll focus on the northern elevation because that's the part of the building people will see as they're coming into town," Noppenberger said.

"We understood that density [the square feet of habitable area divided by the size of the lot] is the greatest hurdle to overcome," he added. "We did a comprehensive analysis to find projects of similar density."

Noppenberger cited Seven-Degrees, an event venue at 891 Laguna Canyon Road., as an example of a comparable density ratio.

Seven-Degrees is 25,000 square feet, according to its website, on a 28,000 square-foot lot.

But Seven-Degrees does not come as close to Laguna Canyon Road as the proposed live-work spaces, Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman said.

"[Seven-Degrees] is on a different site," Grossman said. "There's a deep setback with the [flood-control] channel and frontage road [in front of the facility]."

But Longi said the proposed project has setbacks at different places, at 50, 60 and 65 feet from Laguna Canyon Road.

"It breaks up the facade; it's not an elongated building," Longi said.

Residents also expressed concern about artists' work if a flood was to roar through the canyon. The staff report said the project as designed meets the zoning standard of 31 feet above the base flood elevation.

Nick Hernandez, a sculptor and arts commissioner, urged planning officials to consider whom the project would benefit.

"I'm speaking as a citizen who's been [in Laguna] for 45 years," Hernandez said. "It's about the most good for the most people. We need to nourish our artists."

The amount of open and available land in Laguna is at a premium, Planning Commissioner Ken Sadler said.

"If not here, where in Laguna is this possible?" Sadler asked.

Artists need space to spread out in order to work, and ceilings need to be a certain height, project supporters told commissioners.

The proposed project received strong endorsements from former Laguna Art Museum Executive Director Bolton Colburn, as well as Laguna College of Art + Design President Jonathan Burke.

Planning Commissioners debated the merits of rural and rustic when describing the project.

"I have a prejudice. I was on the Arts Commission before the Planning Commission," Planning Commissioner Linda Dietrich said at the meeting.

"I don't think this has to look like an old barn," Dietrich said during a follow-up phone conversation. "Horst did a good job in echoing the rustic architecture with shingle siding. Architecture changes over time: The turn of the 19th century is different than the turn of the 20th century — it's a continuum. Life hasn't been rural in the canyon for awhile."

Sadler acknowledged the building's proposed mass but said Noppenberger and Longi mitigated size concerns.

"There are offsets, different angles and you can see through in certain portions," Sadler said. "Because it is a vacant lot, people are used to that."

Laguna Canyon resident Elizabeth Harding expressed concern about possible traffic the development may bring.

"If you're on Sun Valley Drive and want to make a left turn [onto Laguna Canyon Road], you have to wait until northbound traffic stops," Harding told commissioners. "If there are 30 units there, there will be cars turning into the building, and there's a bus stop there. This stretch of road is so dangerous."

Longi said artists would not be coming and going as much as people think.

"For three or four days, I don't leave [when working on a project]," Longi said.

Grossman was concerned that the proposed building might stand out too much.

"It's too stark visually," Grossman said. "A change in color will help. I don't think gray is appropriate."

Zur Schmiede agreed with some residents that the building is large for the area.

"The problem is it is close to the road," Zur Schmiede said. "I'm afraid that if we say yes, other property owners will say, 'You granted their request.' This is not a rustic building [with the surrounding landscape]. It's a significant departure from what's around it."

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