'Gateway' under review

The public has until Nov. 24 to file comments on the environmental impacts of a proposed Village Entrance project before it moves along the path to certification by the City Council.

The proposed project includes a park and a five-level, 218,625-square-foot parking structure with a maximum of 667 spaces for public and city employees. The structure, last estimated to cost $52 million, is also envisioned as housing for some city offices, a meeting room, public and employee restrooms, lockers, maintenance equipment, storage rooms and city vehicles, left over when most of the city's corporation yard was relocated to ACT V.

"I'm hoping they [City Council] will significantly downsize the parking garage so the city can afford it," former Mayor Ann Christoph said.

"A much smaller two-level garage with access from Loma Terrace and from Broadway that would not need ramps would save space and money. It could be designed so they could add another level later."

Public comments on the project, as described in the revised environmental-impact report or alternatives, may be submitted in writing to the city until the deadline or orally at a Planning Commission hearing scheduled for Nov. 10.

"All comments, written or oral, will be responded to," city Planning Manager Ann Larson said.

The purpose of an environmental-impact report is to inform decision-makers and the public of possible effects of a project, identify ways to minimize them and describe alternatives to the project, including no project.

Impacts are identified by the lead agency for a project: in this case the city's Community Development Department. Public Works is the applicant.

Extensive analysis

The Village Entrance draft report analyzes impact areas such as aesthetics, cultural resources, geology, hazards hydrology and water quality, land use and planning.

Among the areas of known concern:

•Air quality

•Traffic congestion, especially on Laguna Canyon Road at the proposed entrance

•Noise from city equipment

•Landscaping, including the preservation of existing trees

•Visual impacts

Alternatives include three- and four-level parking structures, a mixed use project, alternate site plans and no project at all.

"Getting the park done is the most important part to me," said Christoph, a member of the Laguna Coalition.

The coalition includes Village Laguna, South Laguna Civic Assn., Temple Hills Community Neighborhood Assn., Top of the World Neighborhood Assn. and some North Laguna representatives, member Bill Rihn said.

They would prefer to see something along the lines of the creek project, which meanders through downtown San Luis Obispo. The town lost asphalt and parking, but the value to the community was immeasurable, according to the coalition committee report.

However, in Laguna, a net loss of parking spaces is not allowed by the California Coastal Commission.

At the candidate forum recently hosted by the Arts Alliance, Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said the relocation of the corporation yard to ACT V opened up 109 parking spaces at the Village Entrance site. If they are removed for a park, the commission would require they be replaced in Civic Arts District, which includes the art festivals, Laguna Playhouse and Laguna College of Art & Design facilities—and not a lot of undeveloped land.

Public Works Director Steven May estimated the cost per space at upwards of $20,000, not including the price for the land, assuming the land could be found.

Pearson said when the Village Entrance Task Force first discussed the project more than a decade ago, everybody — the festivals, the Chamber of Commerce, the Playhouse — was on the band wagon, but interest has dissipated over the years.

"There is no excitement for it anymore," Pearson said. "If there is no interest, why go forward?"

Councilman Kelly Boyd said the once the festival season is over, parking is not a critical issue.

"Why spend $50 million for a garage to sit empty nine months a year?" Boyd said at the forum.

As proposed in the revised EIR being re-circulated for public perusal and comment, the project has been designed to be a pedestrian-friendly link connecting the Civic Arts District to downtown and Main Beach. A three-level parking structure was selected as the environmentally preferable alternative.

Long-planned project

A Village Entrance project has been on and off the drawing board for decades, without getting beyond the planning stage until then-Mayor Cheryl Kinsman appointed council members Pearson and Iseman to work on a compromise. The quid pro quo hammered out in 2005 was the relocation of the bulk of the corporation yard to ACT V and parking at the Village Entrance to satisfy the downtown shop owners and the coastal commission and a park to placate environmentalists.

A draft environmental-impact report was circulated in 2007, based on the compromise and a design approved in 2002, which the designers had fiddled with in the interim.

Public and official comments on the draft led to some revisions, including additional technical studies and new alternatives, hence the revised draft. Analysis of the revised EIR was prepared by now defunct Christopher A. Joseph & Associates.

"The revised EIR was 99.9 percent done when the original consultant went out of business," Larson said.

Terry McCracken, project manager for the defunct consultant, went to work for Design Community & Environment in Berkeley and the company completed the revisions — mostly cleaning up some typos, Larson said. The company will complete the EIR process for the city.

The revisions necessitated a circulation of the new draft and a public hearing to gather comments on the potentially significant impacts of the project on the seven-parcel site, currently used for surface parking, storage for city signs, parking meters, police and fire equipment and to park official vehicles. The metal building on the site houses police and lifeguard equipment.

A working sewage lift station, also called a pump station, and the former sewage digester tower, which has historical status, would remain on the site whether or not the proposed project is approved.

The environmental-impact report is posted on the city's website http://www.lagunabeachcity.net. Wait for it to show up on the announcements on the home page and click for more information.

Comments may be submitted to Larson by phone at (949) 497-0713, by fax to (949) 497-0771, e-mail to alarson@lagunabeachcity.net or by mail to City Hall, 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 92651.

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