Village Entrance plans still under review

A decision on what people see when they enter Laguna Beach from Laguna Canyon Road has plagued city officials for at least three decades and still remains unresolved.

The Planning Commission is winding down its review of a revised environmental impact report, or EIR, for the Village Entrance, the strip of land from City Hall to the Art-a-Fair grounds.

"It is important for the public to delve into this and decide what you would like to see on the site," Councilwoman Verna Rollinger said at a public forum Saturday. "It is important that the council get your input."

The presentation, hosted by the Laguna chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, included the history of the proposals for the site, a pitch for some design features landscape architect Bob Borthwick and Rollinger favor, and an opportunity for the audience to ask some questions, as well as make suggestions.

"This [project] is an important issue for all of us who care about our community," said league member Vera Martinez.

The league, which had taken a position on the Village Entrance project in 1986, will have to do another study before determining its current position, said longtime league member Jean Raun, a Laguna Beach resident.

Borthwick envisions the Village Entrance project as a stepping stone to improvements in Laguna Canyon, which longtime resident Leah Vasquez said is the real entrance to Laguna.

"Almost 40 years ago, we created our Window to the Sea when we purchased the land once occupied by gas stations, shops, restaurants and other structures and developed — or 'undeveloped' Main Beach Park," Borthwick said. "The Village Entrance can be our Window to the Canyon, the entrance to our downtown and a link between our business district and the Civic Arts District."

Parameters in the draft EIR under review are limited to the site. They range from a "no project" alternative to a structure with up to 218,625 square feet, the smallest to accommodate 429 parking spaces and the largest 667 spaces, and a park.

However, Rollinger is lobbying for a smaller — and consequently cheaper — structure.

"Fortunately, the EIR allows us to go smaller, but not larger, without another environmental study," Rollinger said. "I think we have paid for too many studies already."

Parking is a major constraint. The California Coastal Commission requires any net loss in spaces to be replaced nearby.

The report's recommendations could be sent to the council as soon as the April 13 commission meeting.

"But what's the hurry?" Commissioner Norm Grossman asked.

Plans for the site have been popping up at least since the 1960s, when the Town Planning Assn. came up with the notion of a plaza with underground parking, which studies show is not an option because of the water table. Another proposal was the Hanging Garden, a building façade draped in vegetation.

"In the 1980s, we saw proposals that included one hotel and one shopping center — both covered the creek to maximize the land use," Borthwick said. "Fortunately, both fell by the wayside."

Laguna is behind the rest of the country when it comes to creek restoration, such as the one in San Luis Obispo and the River Walk in San Antonio, Borthwick said.

In 1991, after a trip to San Luis Obispo, the Planning Commission recommended including the beautification of Laguna Canyon Creek as part of the Village Entrance.

Planning for the project languished until 1995 when the council appointed the Village Entrance Task Force.

After about eight months of meetings, the task force recommended a design that embodied the scale, details and overall character of the city, but excluded residential or commercial components, Rollinger said.

"I hope that is what we come up with, but we have drifted away," Rollinger said. "I hope we get back on track."

The task force also recommended a design competition, which was held in 2001.

The winning design by the Studio One Eleven team, of which Borthwick was a member, included parking for 395 vehicles and contained the city's corporation yard.

Borthwick said that since the competition, the accepted concept for the site was to put the parking in back of a linear green park between the creek and the roadway.

"A return to a natural creek at the Village Entrance is not in the cards," Borthwick said. "But the way it looks can be changed. The chainlink fence can become a handrail. Sycamore trees, which were there in the early days, can be planted. A symbolic restoration could be wonderful."

However, in the past decade, the size of the parking structure has been increased, decreased and tweaked.

"In 2003, the council voted to move [many] corporation yard functions to the ACT V as a prerequisite for the Village Entrance project and eventually the design was modified to add parking spaces," Rollinger said. "An EIR was commissioned in 2006 for a structure with 670 spaces — more than a 50% increase in parking spaces."

"When the draft EIR was presented for council consideration in 2008, a parking-needs study showed we could only fill the garage during festival season, but not the rest of the year, and the cost was estimated at well over $50 million."

Parking fees wouldn't cover the construction costs, Rollinger said.

"That's why housing and commercial [development on top of the garage] were considered," Rollinger said.

There are no cost estimates for the alternatives in the EIR under review.

"We have to figure out what we want there and then find out what it costs," Rollinger said,

Construction costs could be borne by floating bonds paid by voter-approved taxes, as was done to buy land in Laguna Canyon, or by providing a revenue stream, as was done when the Festival of Arts agreed to put up its income to buy Main Beach, for which no public vote was needed.

Left to the voters, Main Beach might not be a park today, resident Barbara Painter said.

"The people voted against the bonds for Main Beach," Painter said.

Ed Merrilees asked if the festival, which is on city-owned property, could be tapped again as a revenue stream.

"We have funding to do our own project and we are ready to move ahead," said festival President Fred Sattler. "We hope it is the impetus to do the other side of the street."

Rollinger encouraged the folks at the public forum to get involved in the Village Entrance project.

"I hope you will join me in advocating a beautiful, cost-effective Village Entrance project that reflects our values and respects the environment with a passive park and a rediscovered creek," she said. "I look forward to working with you to make the Village Entrance a reality we can be proud of."

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