The prospect of a self-storage facility being built in Laguna Canyon took center stage at Wednesday's Planning Commission meeting, but the reception was less than welcoming.
Several residents and Laguna College of Art + Design students raised concerns — from safety and traffic to environmental and area compatibility — about developer Doug Simpson's plan to construct a three-story, 97,025-square-foot, 630-unit building in the Big Bend area.
The property at 2851 Laguna Canyon Road sits between the college's visual communication building and a habitat restoration area managed by the Laguna Canyon Foundation.
The purpose of the meeting was to give Simpson feedback. The commission did not take action.
Simpson, a Newport Beach resident who has developed office and self-storage facilities in Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa, said Laguna Beach is a prime candidate. He said Laguna Self Storage, in Laguna Canyon north of Simpson's proposed project, doesn't supply enough storage space for the city.
"Statistically, you need 5 square feet of storage space per capita," Simpson said. "Laguna Beach could use 120,000 square feet of storage."
The facility would be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, according to a city staff report.
No one would live on-site. An existing driveway used by LCAD would also serve people needing access to the storage facility.
Students said they are worried that the proposed self-storage facility — and its construction — would generate parking, traffic and safety problems.
"We walk to our cars when it's pitch black outside," first-year student Madelyn Foster said. "Construction workers are mostly always men.... I like to think the best of people, but my safety is a huge concern."
Foster added that art students have computers with expensive software, making them vulnerable to thieves.
Other students said they were lured to LCAD by Laguna Canyon's lush hillsides, trees and rock outcroppings and fear that the storage project would impinge on those natural features.
LCAD junior Katie Hendrickson said she collected 305 signatures of people opposed to the project.
"The proposed building does not stimulate, nor enrich, the community," Hendrickson said. "I came to school for the environment, and possibly I would leave school for lack of inspiration from the surrounding environment."
The area is also a valuable wildlife corridor for deer, bobcats and other animals, said Hallie Jones, Laguna Canyon Foundation's executive director.
"[The foundation] is not anti-development, but we're very concerned about a development of this size," Jones said. "Big Bend is one of the most biologically important areas in Laguna Beach. The cliffs are so iconic and have been painted by plein air painters for a hundred years. It's important to protect the view corridor as gateway to the city."
Wednesday's discussion came nearly a week after the City Council approved Louis Longi's 30-unit artist live-work project, which, although smaller in square footage, generated similar protests about mass and scale.
A city staff report states that the storage project is larger in scale than existing facilities along Laguna Canyon Road.
"It has the potential to degrade the existing visual character and quality of the site and its surroundings, especially as viewed from the publicly owned parcel immediately adjacent to the site," the staff report says. "Reducing the size, scale and height of the project could help mitigate these impacts."
The building, made of non-combustible materials, would be 36 feet tall and have a saw-tooth roof line.
Commissioner Norm Grossman said the property is zoned for development — light industrial — but suggested Simpson reduce the building's size.
"The building is too big; it's as simple as that," Grossman said. "The building needs to fit in better. It has to look like it belongs. As it is now, it does not look like it belongs."
Calling the project "too massive and boxy," Commissioner Anne Johnson said the project is not zoned for or appropriate for the area.
"It's a terribly unsafe site in terms of traffic entrance and egress," she said. "We had a long discussion when LCAD went in there. I certainly agree the property owner has a right to develop property ... but this is not the project that I would approve for this particular zone."
Simpson did not specify the price he spent for the land, saying it was between $1 million and $2 million.
Construction of the project is expected to cost $9 million to $10 million, he said.