Picture driving down Coast Highway into Laguna Beach, greeted by a row of galleries on one side and an artsy boutique hotel and block of retail on the other.
Continue to drive until you reach the south side of town, where a similarly swanky hotel sits on the corner of Cleo Street.
Such is the vision of the Laguna Beach Co., which recently released its concepts for two new projects on land it owns in town: the Museum Hotel on North Coast Highway between Jasmine Street and Cliff Drive and the Cleo Hotel on South Coast Highway at Cleo Street.
The plans and renderings for the projects are the first among six major development proposals the Laguna Beach Co., owned by millionaire real estate investor Mo Honarkar, has submitted to the city.
The developer emphasized that the plans for the two hotels are preliminary and likely to undergo concept reviews — informal meetings to provide feedback — before entering the formal city approval process at a Planning Commission meeting.
“It does seem maybe detailed to some, but I’ve been doing this a long time,” Mark Orgill, consultant for the Laguna Beach Co., said with a chuckle. “We have a long way to go.”
Since the renderings were posted on the city website last week, local residents have taken to Facebook to lament or extol the proposals. Laguna Beach is preparing for the long haul — these projects are just the beginning.
The main attraction on the oceanside block of North Coast Highway between Jasmine and Cliff would be the three-story, 118-room Museum Hotel, complete with an ocean-view pool for exclusive use by hotel guests. Orgill said the top two floors would be reserved for rooms, while the bottom would have an art gallery. Other parts of the project could hold three retail locations and a spa.
Whether the company will retain its current tenants — including the Laguna Nursery and the Marian Paquette handbag shop, which are already in that block — is a decision “a ways off,” Orgill said. He added that there has been discussion of integrating the recently revived Royal Hawaiian restaurant into the hotel plans, but it is too early to know.
The Laguna Beach Co. Showroom, which sits in the middle of the block, “would no longer be needed,” he said.
The renderings for the Museum Hotel project show a block with an array of exteriors and varied setbacks designed to break up the line of buildings. The plans also feature three levels of underground parking that would include a required 320 stalls and up to 25 additional public parking spaces.
“By following the neighboring characteristics, the hotel is inserted into the neighborhood as a seamless par to the community and blends with the environment,” according to the proposal.
Orgill said the Museum Hotel would “enhance the pedestrian experience” while drawing inspiration from the neighboring Laguna Art Museum at the corner of North Coast Highway and Cliff.
“The visitors that benefit us the most are the overnight visitors — I think everyone can agree on that,” Orgill said. “It’s not about more visitors, it’s about attracting visitors that are going to benefit our local ecosystem.”
To that end, he hopes the hotel will provide “an experience” for younger travelers interested in Laguna Beach’s “Bohemian art scene.”
Across the street, gallery proprietors are having mixed feelings about the proposition of a massive new neighbor.
On one hand, according to Zach Rollins, 41, manager of Adam Neeley Fine Art Jewelry at 352 N. Coast Hwy., the development would draw more visitors to North Laguna from downtown. But he said he’s worried that it would drive up costs, such as rent for locals and restaurant and shopping prices for tourists.
“It’s a really tough situation, because I get wanting to take Laguna Beach into the next century, but still appreciating the last one,” Rollins said.
Either way, he said, he’s concerned about how the process of building the project would affect business at Adam Neeley. Parking and traffic are already tight, he said, and a construction site often drives people away.
Elizabeth Rojas, 28, who has worked for five years at Zeytoon Cafe on the corner of North Coast Highway and Jasmine, said she’s concerned about how the new developments would affect the views from nearby structures. She pointed to an already-obscured sliver of ocean visible from the cafe window.
“You don’t want this to turn into Santa Monica,” Rojas said. “We all seek change to evolve, but some things we try to leave [untouched].”
On the other side of Laguna Beach, the company is planning a bigger, more modern hotel in place of two hotels currently on the corner of South Coast Highway and Cleo.
The Cleo Hotel would fill out the property envelope, which currently houses a Holiday Inn, the 14 West Boutique Hotel and a parking lot. The new hotel would feature 80 or 103 rooms and three levels built into the Glenneyre Street hill, with a pool deck overlooking the ocean beyond Coast Highway.
Three levels of underground parking would include the required 219 stalls and potentially up to 50 additional spaces, according to the project description. The development also would include a restaurant and likely spaces for retail kiosks, Orgill said.
The hope for the Cleo Hotel, he said, is to draw more people from downtown to Laguna’s southern end and revitalize an area that he said has seen better days.
“I used to own several properties right down at the end of Cleo … for about 24 years, so I just kind of watched it steadily decline,” he said, attributing the descent to a change in the retail mix. “It used to be a bit more interesting.”
Toni Mooradian, 54, owner of the new Unique Boutique at 664 S. Coast Hwy., said she’s excited for the hotel overhaul to bring life back to the block. At least five properties nearby are closed or under construction.
“I say the more the merrier,” Mooradian said. “It kind of hurts my business to have an empty [storefront].”
The Cleo Hotel would be among a cluster of other hotels — across Coast Highway from the Pacific Edge Hotel, up the road from the Laguna Riviera Beach Resort and around the corner from the Seven4one boutique hotel.
“This is hotel row,” said Fabian Iezzi, 47, an artist at Laguna Tattoo at 656 S. Coast Hwy. “One more won’t make a difference.”