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A Laguna Clash: Art Vs. Parking Spaces : Planning: A gallery owner has turned a lot meant for cars into exhibition space. A compromise is sought.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After spending $450,000 to create a sculpture garden behind his art gallery, Glen Engman expected to win applause from a town that takes pride in its reputation as an artists’ colony.

To be sure, the garden’s waterfalls, lush landscaping and dramatic night-lighting earned oohs and aahs at its grand opening celebration Saturday--along with a beautification award last week from the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

But the city of Laguna Beach wants to prune back Engman’s garden to make way for something the city cherishes as much as art: parking.

City officials complain that they believed Engman was planning to use sculpture to beautify the 20-space parking lot behind his upscale gallery at 326 Glenneyre St. But somewhere in the execution of the plan, all of the parking spaces vanished.

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When the city planning staff insisted that Engman has a legal obligation to restore the parking lot, Engman appealed for an exemption.

On Wednesday night, the Laguna Beach Planning Commission listened to the emotional pleas of Laguna Beach art lovers, who called Engman’s creation “visionary.”

“Yes, we have a parking problem. But parking we can find, the magic of art only rarely,” said Gene Gratz, a Laguna Beach lawyer.

Finally, the commission postponed any decision on the issue and agreed to give Engman until Nov. 13 to submit a compromise proposal. Several commissioners indicated that such a proposal might provide more limited parking in exchange for greater public amenities and access to the sculpture display.

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Engman, 36, said he was “very pleased. Basically, they appear willing to work with us.”

Engman’s attorney, Don Black, said he believed that his client might have misunderstood what the city wanted. But Kyle Butterwick, the city’s community development director, said earlier: “It appears there is a very clear violation of the city’s General Plan and coastal plan by virtue of reducing the number of parking spaces on the property.”

Butterwick, however, acknowledged that Laguna Beach has a warm spot for art.

For instance, the city has an “Art in Public Places” program that requires public sculptures to be financed by the developers of new commercial or industrial buildings, residential subdivisions or major commercial remodeling projects.

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But he said the city also has a chronic downtown parking shortage and a General Plan that forbids any reduction of parking spaces in the central business district.

In August, 1990, the Planning Commission gave Engman permission to redesign the parking lot behind his gallery on the condition that any outdoor landscaping not interfere with parking, Butterwick said.

Not only did the parking spaces disappear, but an electric gate was installed to keep out street traffic, he added.

Engman says his business, which caters to art connoisseurs and architects by appointment, does not need much parking. What it does need, he said, is an outdoor setting to show off large sculptures intended to be sold for placement in office courtyards or gardens.

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Because the sculptures are movable, he said, they can be put aside when customers arrive or when vans need access to the gallery for pickups and deliveries of artwork.

Besides, Engman says, he has no interest in operating a parking lot.

“I didn’t lease this land--paying $3,000 a month for the quarter acre--to make money on parking. I am an art dealer,” he declared.

Moreover, he said that he cringes at the thought of striping parking spaces on the sculpture garden patio floor. “I don’t want to stripe a $60,000 granite surface.”

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While the sculpture garden serves as an extension of his two commercial galleries in Laguna Beach, Engman said it was also intended as a community asset, a place of beauty and tranquility in the middle of the downtown. He said if the city would allow it, he would like to install benches where people could come and eat their lunch.

Engman said he hopes to appeal to the viewing public by changing the sculptures in the garden continuously as works are sold and new ones take their place.

After a local newspaper recently reported the sculpture garden’s run-in with the city, Engman said he received hundreds of calls of support.

Becky Carey, president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, said that although the downtown merchants rely on parking spaces for their business and want to protect them, they also want the sculpture garden to remain.

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“They think it is great,” she said.

C.H. Boyd, an art entrepreneur and appraiser in Laguna Beach, said he understands that “from the city’s view, in Engman’s zeal to make it (the sculpture garden) wonderful, he went beyond what was allowed.”

But he said he hopes the sculpture garden will stay.

Boyd said he believes it would be difficult for a sculpture garden and a parking lot to coexist.

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“It is essential to have enough viewing space to get the essence of sculpture,” he said. “I don’t think I would like to look at a piece of sculpture between a couple of Hondas.”


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