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Laguna Beach tries to map out its cultural mojo

Laguna Beach tries to map out its cultural mojo
A recent sunset in Laguna Beach. (Photo by David Hansen)

If you say you’re cultured, it’s a bit like saying you’re classy.

No one does it in polite company.

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For residents of Laguna Beach, there is no quest for culture. It just is.

It’s in the trails, reefs, surf, art, plays, festivals, music, secret parking spots, sidewalk greetings and the infinite other gems that define everyday life.

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City policies are probably not high on that list, but believe it or not, there is a plan — of course — for Laguna’s culture.

It’s been more than two years since the Laguna Beach City Council approved the Cultural Arts Plan, a 42-page consultant’s report that basically said the city could improve its culture and explained how.

Since the plan has milestones, I thought it would be a good time to evaluate how the city is doing with its cultural timeline.

Are we properly bureaucratizing our mojo?

The short answer is no.

The long answer won’t be known for another eight years or more. By then, we will have … wait for it:

  • “Thriving careers” for working artists based in Laguna.

  • Bigger and better art offerings.

  • Improved art.

  • Enhanced cultural leadership.

Most of the report, which you can download here, is spent recapping what makes Laguna Laguna. It also has specific actions. By year two, we should be well on our way to hiring more staff, doing more studies and “build(ing) community and connection among artists.”

Aside from the foundational work, there are some interesting assumptions that are required to make this plan work in the long run.

For example, the city cannot continue to lose artists, which means it has to confront affordable housing.

In order for artists to have “thriving careers” in Laguna, the city must “support development of affordable artists’ work/live and work spaces.”

In other words, in the absence of affordability, culture loses. To give an example, rents in Laguna are at an all-time high — both retail and housing — and we see the result: A different demographic moves in.

And they’re not carrying boxes of art supplies.

Even if the City Council could miraculously loosen the downtown height limit in some areas to allow for artists’ live/work spaces, it’s doubtful the rents would pencil out. With spaces going for $5 a square foot (or more), a 1,000-square-foot loft would cost $5,000 a month.

The other challenge is there simply isn’t enough inventory or land. The best-case scenario is that the city allows developers to fight it out in the canyon. Let the best plan win, keep the fees down, avoid frivolous lawsuits and pray the California Coastal Commission doesn’t get involved.

A first step should be to work with the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). Its leaders seem to know how to buy properties under the radar and fill them with students.

To its credit, the first goal of the Cultural Arts Plan recognizes that in order to have culture, we need artists.

Make this the No. 1 issue in the upcoming City Council election race. This issue alone touches on the fabric of everything that’s differentiated in Laguna: art, tourism, affordability, authenticity, beauty, character.

Every other issue is secondary to the heart of what makes Laguna great: its people.

OK, and maybe LagunaTOTS.

The point is we have culture in Laguna. The best part of this plan is not its fancy bureaucratic framework or lofty goals.

The best part is the admission that Laguna’s culture can die.

The most cynical among us say that’s already happened.

I’m still hopeful, not because of some plan, but because I still believe in the spirit of Laguna.

David Hansen is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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