City will slow down Village Entrance Project

Laguna Beach City Council members acknowledged Tuesday the importance of moving ahead with the Village Entrance Project, albeit at a slower pace and with more public input.

The council voted 5 to 0 to pay KDM Meridian, a land surveying company, $28,300 to develop a map outlining the Village Entrance site area and accept proposals from designers, landscape architects, civil engineers and environmental consultants. The plan calls for a landscaped pedestrian pathway.

In a related matter, council members, echoing public testimony, differed on what should be done with the historic building used to store police evidence near the parking lot at Forest Avenue and Laguna Canyon Road.

Staff recommended spending up to $300,000 to renovate the building's exterior — including upgrading rickety stairways — and using an additional $1 million originally slated for the structure to renovate a median that bisects Laguna Canyon Road. The council did not approve those requests Tuesday night.

The structure known as the former sewer building is part of Laguna's historic resource inventory, meaning the building has strongly maintained its original integrity and demonstrates a particular architectural style or time period, a city staff report said.

Residents supported its preservation.

"I am dismayed at the (repetition) with which we seem to be talking about destroying what's left of old Laguna. We don't have very much left," resident Bonnie Hano said. "It is incumbent upon us to try to preserve these old buildings."

Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Assn., called the condition of the old sewer building "deplorable" and said the $1 million should be used to rehabilitate the facility for the one city employee who enters the structure daily for work.

"There are no plans to move [evidence] to a different location," Bammer said. "We have exceeded the storage capabilities within the Police Department."

Bammer referenced the $1.3 million that city staff budgeted to turn the building into a visitors' center as part of the previous Village Entrance plan, which included a parking structure and came with an expected cost of $42.3 million. The council voted in November for a scaled-down project without multilevel parking.

Staff estimates that the revised project would cost $14.4 million.

"Now that that's ($1.3 million) not being used (for a visitor center), we have a city employee going into conditions which I'm sure none of you would like to work in, day in and day out," Bammer said. "Diverting a million dollars to a median that already has money budgeted in the 10-year plan is not looking at the employee first."

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen didn't share the same sentiment about the building.

"I've never been a fan of it; I would like to see it disappear," Whalen said. "I would not support spending $1.3 million on the building. It's a mess. If you're going to spend money, you have to have a purpose, something other than storing police evidence, which can be directed to another building."

Staff suggested that renovating the existing building would save the two or three parking spaces — in a city already struggling to provide more space for vehicles — that would be eaten up by constructing a new structure for storage behind City Hall.

Whalen also weighed in on the median. He said he favored removing the grass in the median and planting drought-tolerant native plants.

Staff estimates a 30-foot-wide landscaped pedestrian pathway would be appropriate along the Forest Avenue/Laguna Canyon lot from Forest Avenue north to Tivoli Too. But exact details, including whether a section would be dedicated for bicyclists, are yet to be determined.

A designer would help the city map out possibilities, city project director Wade Brown told the council.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson wanted assurance that a project manager would oversee the various facets and that the city would ask Festival of Arts officials about collaborating on design and landscaping to be consistent with their project across Laguna Canyon Road.

Festival officials are developing plans to renovate their building's exterior facade and landscaping.

"Both sides need to be planned, and the median tied together," Pearson said. "I've never been in favor of scrapping the [former sewer] building. It's a priority; it gives character to the area."

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