After years of work by city staff, the final draft of the Downtown Specific Plan’s comprehensive update is going to the Laguna Beach City Council following approval by the Planning Commission on Wednesday night.
"[The Downtown Specific Plan] is a herculean effort on all parts. We’ve made a lot of progress over almost seven years ... since the first walkaround,” Planning Commissioner Susan Whitin said. “I think the plan achieves a balance between preserving the scale of the downtown, what we think is important about the downtown and creating a vision for the future.
“It’s important because things are going to change and we need to try and find what kind of change we want. I think this moves us forward.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the third and final review of the 177-page Downtown Specific Plan, and the commission received additional, minor edits to the document that were brought up during the previous review in early October.
Staff said the plan is tentatively scheduled to be discussed at the City Council’s Dec. 17 meeting.
Some residents urged the Planning Commission to be more stringent with the plan, while others welcomed relaxing of regulations in the downtown area in hopes of revitalizing the area, pointing to businesses shuttering, such as the recent closure of the Tommy Bahama restaurant at 400 S. Coast Hwy. and the continued closure of the city’s movie theater at 162 S. Coast Hwy., which shut down in 2015.
One resident called for the commission to “Free Mo” through the Downtown Specific Plan — a reference to six major undertakings in the city planned by the Laguna Beach Co., owned by Mo Honarkar, a millionaire real estate investor. The projects include a plan to restore Hotel Laguna, which was shuttered in 2017. Honarkar’s company has a 99-year lease on the property that went into effect in January.
Commissioners also recommended that the City Council consider other ongoing issues that residents brought up Wednesday, such as the boundaries of the arts district and the methodology of building height measurements.
The Downtown Specific Plan was originally adopted in 1989 and has been amended nine times since, with its last comprehensive update in 2000 to expand the plan’s boundary to the Boys & Girls Club and create the Civic Art District. The city website says the plan’s primary objective is to “preserve and enhance the unique character of the downtown.”
The council selected urban planning consultant MIG in July 2014 to help with the preparation of the comprehensive update and review Laguna Canyon Road land-use issues and selected then-Principal Planner Carolyn Martin to shepherd the overhaul of the plan in 2012.
Between 2015 and 2018, the Planning Commission and the public considered proposed amendments by MIG. The commission held its first hearing for the draft update in August this year, followed by a second hearing in October.
Also Wednesday, the Planning Commission adopted a negative declaration in accord with state law stating that the project will have no substantial negative effects on the environment.