The Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve the relocation of the highly regarded Peter Blake Gallery from North Coast Highway to Ocean Avenue in downtown Laguna Beach, but it was a stretch.
Ocean Avenue is reserved in the Downtown Specific Plan for resident-serving businesses, which many city officials believe is not working.
The commission accepted the spin on the resident-serving requirement, based on the gallery’s contention that it advises and sells art to local patrons, represents local artists and exhibits their work, offers framing services and appraises art.
“At the end of the day, the argument that [the gallery] is resident-serving is thin,” Commissioner Rob Zur Schmiede said. “There is a small amount of objective criteria and a large amount of subjective criteria.”
Gallery owner Peter Blake is credited with raising the bar for quality art in Laguna.
Blake’s architect, Anders Lasater, claimed the renaissance of Gallery Row in North Laguna and the success of the First Thursdays Art Walk are attributed to Blake.
The move is expected to energize Ocean Avenue.
Blake said he would never have thought of leaving his gallery’s home of 15 years if not for a huge rent increase.
“I think this will bring other galleries [to Ocean Avenue],” commission Chairman Norm Grossman said. “But I don’t want to play the game we played with the Diane Nelson Gallery.”
Nelson was approved for a framing and consultation service at the site. The commission stipulated that no art was to be displayed, but the City Council overturned the condition. The business became a de facto gallery, later replaced by a beauty supply businesses, which was patronized by locals.
City staff recommended approval of the Blake relocation, but proposed a 10% limit on retail sales, based on income, to ensure that the use remains resident-serving and not evolve into solely an art gallery. Commissioners rejected the condition.
“The only way you could enforce that would be to audit the books,” Commissioner Bob Whalen said.
Commissioner Linda Dietrich, who formerly served on the Arts Commission, said the condition was not necessary because the gallery is resident-serving.
“What are the criteria for future resident-serving galleries?” Whalen said.
Blake’s application for a conditional use permit included a lengthy list of local patrons, as an indication of the service to residents.
“It would be interesting to know what percentage of all the customers are local,” Zur Schmiede said.
The issue of how many customers would be local versus tourists was not taken up by the other commissioners, who were outspoken in the belief that Ocean Avenue’s restriction on tourist-serving businesses has not been a success, although the commission has taken no steps to revoke the designation.
However, City Council members Elizabeth Pearson and Kelly Boyd recently proposed extending the Civic Art District to a portion of the avenue, a proposal to be reviewed by the commission for a recommendation as it relates to the Downtown Specific Plan.
“The purpose of the plan is to have a successful downtown,” Grossman said.
To that end, he believes the commission was justified in approving the gallery relocation before any changes are made in the plan.
“This will bring more foot traffic to Ocean Avenue,” Commissioner Anne Johnson said.
Blake’s move to Ocean Avenue is also expected to impact Gallery Row.
Rent increase prompted move
“The move was totally prompted by a rent increase,” Blake said. “I could not have survived, otherwise I would never have moved from North Laguna.”
Blake was originally asked to sign a lease for $8 to $9 a foot.
“Then I was offered $6.50 a foot because I have been such a good tenant,” Blake said. “That is double my rent.”
Blake is not the only gallery impacted by rent increases.
Many of the leases of galleries on Pacific Coast Highway, not just on Gallery Row, are coming up for renewal, according to Blake.
BARBARA DIAMOND can be reached at (949) 494-4321 or email@example.com.