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Laguna Beach’s 1930s sewer digester may be demolished, despite calls for renovation

The fate of historic sewer digester building at the corner of Forest and Laguna Canyon Road is uncer
The fate of the 1930s-era sewer digester building at the corner of Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach is uncertain.
(File Photo)

Laguna Beach residents who described the beige water treatment tower on Laguna Canyon Road as part of the city’s folklore and identity called on the City Council on Tuesday night to restore and renovate the building, possibly for use by small businesses.

But with the majority of the council members saying they didn’t see value in spending money to restore the deteriorating building, the council voted 3-2 to direct city staff to begin plans to remove sludge in the tower, do an economic analysis on the feasibility of renting out the building and begin the process for an environmental impact report to determine what it might cost to demolish it.

The red-tiled-roofed sewer digester — built in the 1930s with Public Works Administration funds — has been largely dormant since it ceased operations in the mid-1980s, though it remains at the edge of the canyon as a landmark of sorts for people passing into downtown. Discussions of what to do with the tower have been going on since 2014, with many residents calling for its restoration.

Current estimates place demolition of the building at about $360,000, yielding about five parking spaces. Other options for demolition include reconfiguring parking to create up to 15 new spots ($710,000) and creating a new restroom in another area ($760,000).

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In September last year, the council directed staff to investigate obtaining grants or other outside funds to restore the exterior of the building, evaluate the sludge remaining inside it and put a hold on exterior patching and painting that is included in the agreement with contractors working on the Village Entrance project in the area.

On Tuesday, staff went before the council with four recommendations on how to proceed with the building, with costs ranging from the already allocated $100,723 to an estimated $1.8 million. The options included painting and patching the building, refurbishing its interior, performing a complete restoration or demolishing it to make room for more parking.

An environment assessment of sludge in the interior indicated it contained elevated concentrations of materials such as copper, lead, zinc, mercury and organic waste that would need to be removed. A staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting said the sludge would be classified as hazardous waste according to the state of California and would need to be taken to a licensed facility in Arizona for disposal at an estimated cost of $60,000.

The building also will need asbestos abatement, regardless of whether the council decides to demolish it, said Public Works Director Shohreh Dupuis.

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Residents spoke largely in support of restoring and renovating the building so it could be occupied by a small business such as a coffee shop or walk-up restaurant or serve as a public restroom. Others emphasized preserving part of the city’s history.

Mayor Bob Whalen said he hadn’t changed his position from 2014 that it’s more beneficial to the city to demolish the building and use the space for additional parking. He said he didn’t feel inclined to spend money on the building beyond removing the sludge, and added that he felt the council didn’t really know the cost of any of the options presented.

“I question whether we’d ever recover the cost [of renovation] through the rental of that location ... because any time you restore something, it is always more expensive than you think it’s going to be,” Whalen said. “I don’t think it’s a building worth saving. I think the cost is going to be so prohibitive. I just can’t see a logical reuse for it.”

However, Whalen said he was open to doing “during the 24 to 36 months to do the EIR process ... some analysis on the real estate economics of it, send out a request for proposal or something, see what you can rent that thing for.”

Councilwoman Sue Kempf said she didn’t see any value in patching and painting the facility or spending additional money to restore it.

Councilman Peter Blake said he felt the only option was to replace the digester with parking and put trees and walkways in the area behind it.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman wanted the building re-purposed as a public restroom, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow wanted to paint, patch and clean it, saying it is iconic to Laguna Beach.

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

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