Hansen: Awaken the facade of downtown

Downtown Laguna Beach is many things except one: a place to live.

No one knows exactly how many people live in downtown Laguna Beach. It's not tracked by the city, and the census numbers are not that granular. But you can almost count the number of residents on one hand.

Meet Jeff McFarland, 48. He lives above La Sirena Grill on Mermaid Street in a 600-square-foot one bedroom apartment. Single with no children, he admits his place is not for everyone.

"I had to get used to the sounds and the rhythm of the neighborhood, and to be honest, it was a little surprising at first," he said. "But I love it here."

McFarland is an exception. He considers his neighbors the business owners — not other residents because there are none.

In the downtown proper, not counting the low-income housing complex and the few random hillside apartments, there are probably no more than two dozen residents — maybe. There are three very small motel-like rooms above the Envy clothing store, 310 Forest Ave., and there are five nicer units at 243 Broadway St., above the Blue Laguna Salon and Spa.

Why the dearth of residential? Like most things in Laguna, it's complicated.

First of all, we are enamored with the historical downtown ambiance and don't want to change it.

Second, nothing downtown can be higher than two stories.

Third, parking.

In and of themselves, none of these reasons could prevent an enterprising business owner from attempting more residential development, but realistically speaking, it's probably not going to happen, which is unfortunate.

Downtown Laguna Beach is nice but it could be better.

We claim to be progressive but have a terrible live-work model.

We tout support for local businesses but don't provide more flexible zoning rules to optimize variety and land use.

We say we're environmentalists but have done little to foster alternative transportation and sustainability.

Plenty of other small downtowns have done better jobs at balancing history with reality. East Coast communities are much older and savvy at incorporating residential housing amid the grandeur of history.

The fact is, it's a necessity. Many historical districts are not just facades, clamoring for tourist dollars. They are highly functioning communities with supportive residential amenities. Laguna's own downtown specific plan concedes that residents take short shrift.

"The declining number of resident-serving businesses has affected the balance of uses in recent years," according to the plan. "Several factors have contributed to this decline. Some businesses have been lost when their leases ended and rents were substantially increased. Residents may not patronize the downtown businesses because there is an insufficient diversity of resident-serving uses."

McFarland knows these issues all too well, calling his place a deserted island. He walks to Whole Foods (when he can afford it), the pharmacy and Coast Hardware. He also, of course, has to deal with the occasional downtown drama.

"It's not too bad, just a little noisy here and there. I witnessed some real verbal knock-down drag-outs — you know, boyfriends arguing with girlfriends, crying and yelling. There's a little bit of everything," he said. "I've gotten used to the noise for the most part."

Like any downtown, in the two years he's lived in Laguna, McFarland has come to appreciate the cycles of the city, when it sleeps and wakes.

The first people to arrive in the morning are the street sweepers, who show up at about 4:30 or 5 a.m. Then the trash and delivery people come in. Every Monday, it's the sewage guys, who run a loud diesel motor.

But he's also heard and seen the goodness.

"After the bar crowd leaves town, it's actually very nice and quiet. The restaurant crowd thins out about 10-10:30," he said. "Most people are respectful and they're decent, but it's mainly the younger guys that are loud.

"I feel lucky about where I'm positioned. That one block between Forest and where I am really hides a multitude of sin. It's really a great place to live."

McFarland appreciates the nuances and sense of inclusion he feels living in a beautiful downtown.

"It's a little corny but when I walk around town I get a smile on my face," he said. "And I'll say inside, wow, I love where I live. It's great and I really mean it."

For one man, it's great but there should be more Jeff McFarlands — many more.

Downtown Laguna Beach dies after a certain hour, and during the week, that hour is embarrassingly early.

Above the businesses, in spaces that clearly could accommodate lofts and other creative housing, there are no flickering TVs or bedside reading lights.

There is no soul that simmers until morning.

Unlike our sister city in Menton, France, we have no sidewalk cafes that stay open late. We are absolutely closed for business.

It a town that prides itself on vision and artistic culture, seeing things that no one else sees, downtown Laguna Beach is a gaping hole in the canvas, waiting to be painted with humanity.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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