First draft of Laguna Beach Downtown Action Plan gets mixed reviews at Planning Commission meeting

A rendering by SWA Group, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, depicts what lower Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach could look like in five years after Downtown Action Plan projects proposed for the area are completed.
(Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach)

The first draft of Laguna Beach’s Downtown Action Plan got mixed responses from residents Wednesday night as consultants and the Planning Commission gave initial review to the 24 projects proposed to revitalize most of the major streets in the downtown area.

Residents packed the council chamber at City Hall to voice their concerns about the 307-page document. The draft, initially posted on the city website in February, details the ideas, intentions and costs of the nearly $14 million in projects proposed by SWA Group, the Laguna Beach-based landscape architecture and urban design firm that the city retained in April.

The Planning Commission took no action on the plan Wednesday.

Commissioners moved to continue the discussion to their next meeting March 18, when they plan to provide feedback on each of the 24 projects and lay out recommendations for City Council consideration. Commissioners also will determine whether they agree with the design review and environmental findings by city staff and make a determination on a coastal development permit.

Commissioner Anne Johnson acknowledged that several residents asked for the commission to slow the process, but Commissioner Jorg Dubin and Chairman Ken Sadler advised against much delay to avoid the risk of the Downtown Action Plan becoming like the Village Entrance project, which took 30 years.

The nearly three-hour hearing followed the council’s hearing on SWA Group’s conceptual projects in December. New projects were added for Cliff Drive, Legion Street and Laguna Canyon Road.

Proposals include high-visibility crosswalks, converting Ocean Avenue to a one-way street, establishing a pedestrian plaza at Park Avenue, increasing landscaping along all streets, and installing street lighting and additional furnishings such as bicycle racks, removable bollards and benches throughout downtown. The plan also includes pedestrian “scrambles,” where traffic signals stop all traffic, allowing pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction at the same time.

A rendering shows what lower Broadway Street in Laguna Beach could look like in five years after completion of projects proposed for the area.
(Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach)

Dozens of residents appeared at the Planning Commission meeting, with some calling for the commission’s support for the Downtown Action Plan to help revitalize downtown.

Others were outspoken against the plan, saying the proposals are nice, but not for Laguna Beach, pointing to cities such as Irvine and Huntington Beach.

Most of the residents supported most of the plan, but not the removal of trees along Forest Avenue and Broadway Street. Dozens of trees on lower Broadway and Forest were tagged recently with yellow ribbons and markers indicating their planned removal.

One speaker joked that the city would have to rename Forest Avenue if the trees were removed.

Much of the discussion focused on the trees, of which an estimated 149 would be replaced and 151 additional trees would be planted. Residents have raised concerns about the time it takes for new trees to grow and the effects on shade.

Other topics of discussion included the financial burden the plan could place on Laguna Beach, the legal implications of the finding that the project wouldn’t have adverse environmental effects, and the plan’s compliance with the Downtown Specific Plan, Local Coastal Program and general plan.

The Downtown Action Plan, which deals with the streetscape, is not to be confused with the Downtown Specific Plan, which deals with land use, staff said.

Some asked why the Downtown Action Plan needs to start with Forest Avenue. Commissioners agreed that the projects should start with a different street, with some consensus on starting with Broadway or in front of City Hall.

“There were some comments about and I asked the question of ‘Who is this project for?’ I don’t see it as for the downtown businesses. I don’t see it as being for attracting additional tourists. I see it being for us,” Sadler said.

“This is a project for us as residents of Laguna Beach, and it’s a matter of civic pride and civic improvement that we should do these things,” he added. “That’s why [the Planning Commission is] all up here spending our time trying to do these things. ... There’s so many good things in here.”

The city has approved $2 million in appropriations for the Downtown Action Plan.

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