Laguna Beach considers $23-million purchase of closed school site

Laguna Beach is considering the purchase of the St. Catherine of Siena school property.
The city of Laguna Beach is showing interest in purchasing the St. Catherine of Siena school property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County. The school was closed in 2019.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach is considering purchasing a 6.5-acre school site on Coast Highway for $23 million, generating excitement among residents who are calling the potential acquisition a “once in a generation” opportunity.

The property in play is the St. Catherine of Siena School, which closed its doors in 2019.

City officials said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County reached out to the city about a year ago to gauge its interest in purchasing the property. Four buildings totaling 39,500 square feet of indoor space stand on the campus. Outdoors, athletic courts exist beside a soccer field and playgrounds.

Residents speaking on the item at a July 19 meeting urged the council to acquire the property, pointing to its potential ability to enhance community benefits.

“This would allow the city to have many opportunities, from offices for nonprofits, a community pool, affordable housing, a police substation, city offices, many uses with much opportunity,” Sally Anne Sheridan said. “All of our community-gathering buildings — City Hall, the Irvine Bowl, Susi Q [Center], the library — all are located in the north end of town. This location would allow residents in the south end of town to have a community connection with the north end.”

The City Council directed City Manager Shohreh Dupuis to continue seeking public input in advance of the item returning before the panel Aug. 16.

One of the four buildings on the campus of St. Catherine of Siena School, as seen on Thursday afternoon.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Dupuis said in the event the council decides to move forward with the purchase, she would recommend a process to develop a master plan for the long-term use of the property, which could take a couple of years.

“I think we would really need to cohesively look at the vision for all the community-serving facilities, for all of our administration offices, for safety department buildings,” Dupuis said. “I think the purchase allows us immediate uses, so that’s a different type of public input to immediate uses.

“But for long-term use, I recommend that after the purchase, we do a comprehensive master planning with a lot of public input through that process and put together in a couple years the comprehensive master plan for the property.”

Some possible long-term uses included in the staff report included a community pool, a parking structure, a skate park, a cultural arts center and a relocation of the city hall.

Pointing to the good condition of the campus’ buildings, which were constructed in 2010, city staff also indicated the facilities would be equipped to bring some community services to fruition almost immediately.

The city of Laguna Beach is considering purchasing the St. Catherine of Siena school site for $23 million.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“The quality of construction that is there, they spared nothing,” Councilwoman Toni Iseman said. “It’s really well done, and it will solve a lot of issues that we have in the community. I think we need to be creative going forward to maximize this opportunity.”

City staff members said the city could complete the transaction using a combination of cash contribution and borrowing. Another option is on the table, as the Laguna Beach Unified School District has contacted the city regarding its interest in a potential partnership.

“The district would like to partner with the city to acquire the property for use in the district’s educational programs and services,” LBUSD Superintendent Jason Viloria said in a July 13 letter addressed to Dupuis.

Viloria’s communication notes the district could look to use the property for transitional kindergarten expansion and to support an increase in student services.

Councilman George Weiss said he felt the school district makes sense as a partner in the acquisition.

“I like the idea of purchasing this site,” Weiss said. “I think it’s getting people excited about what it can be and how it can be used, but I do want to say I’d love to hedge that with getting partnerships with one or more entities that could partner in a way that reduces our risk and our investment but makes sense, and that’s the school district.”

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