Laguna Beach moves forward with plans to acquire St. Catherine of Siena school site

Laguna Beach plans to purchase the St. Catherine of Siena property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
The city of Laguna Beach plans to purchase the St. Catherine of Siena school property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach has made plans to make a $23-million offer to purchase the St. Catherine of Siena closed school site from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

The 6.5-acre property is located at 30516 South Coast Highway in south Laguna Beach. The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously authorized the city manager to make the offer with an escrow period of up to 120 days at its most recent meeting on Aug. 16. A refundable deposit for the purchase could reach $690,000 — 3% of the total price for the property.

When the city considered whether to buy the property on July 19, those discussions were met with resounding community support. City staff had said that a master plan for the property could be developed if the council decided to move forward with the acquisition.

At the recommendation of Gavin Curran, Laguna Beach’s director of administrative services, the council called on staff to finance the acquisition using a combination of existing funds and a private placement sale.

To raise the first $12 million, $4 million will be taken from the future city facilities account, $3 million from general fund midyear savings, $2 million each from the American Rescue Plan Act and the city’s vehicle replacement funds, and $1 million from an insurance fund savings account.

The council also directed staff to take out an $11.5-million loan by way of a private placement sale to cover the remaining balance. The model presented to the council consisted of a 20-year loan with an interest rate of 4.64%, and the city could also refinance the loan after five years.

“My bigger reason for wanting to go with the private placement is I don’t like borrowing this much money internally,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said. “The parking fund should be used for parking. We’re going to have lots of parking demands.”

Potential long-term uses brought up during the prior meeting had included a community pool, a cultural arts center, a parking structure and a skate park.

“The Diocese of Orange is selling the St. Catherine of Siena Parish School property to the city of Laguna Beach,” said Jarryd Gonzales, head of communications for the Diocese of Orange, in a statement. “Originally opened in 1957 and reconstructed in 2008, the school partnered with parents and parish families to provide thousands of students in the local area with a Catholic education before closing in June 2020.

“St. Catherine of Siena Parish is not part of the sale, and it remains open at its separate location. The Diocese of Orange considered all options but landed on moving forward with the city of Laguna Beach, foreseeing community-wide uses for the land.”

Although the city moved forward with acquiring the property outright, a staff report indicated the city still plans to look into the possibility of partnership opportunities. The Laguna Beach Unified School District has shown interest in utilizing part of the site as a transitional kindergarten facility, provided it meets standards set by the Division of the State Architect for that use.

“Being that the city is pursuing this, our school district and knowing our partnership, we really look forward to planning what this could be, short and long term,” Jeff Dixon, Asst. Supt. of Business Services for the school district, said. “I think our board, via the letter last time that went to the City Council, has shown that [the district is] committed to planning this out and being a partner with the city.”

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