Out of the Blue: Land purchase means parking structure not needed

When there are so many disparate plans and elements governing a city's management, one needs a machete to hack through the morass.

We have the general plan, the Downtown Specific Plan, the Transportation, Circulation and Growth Management Element, the Land Use Element, the Vision Laguna 2030 Plan, and of course all the Coastal Development Plans.

Those who make a living in the arcana of city policy have a weapon of mass disruption — obfuscation. Thousands of pages of policies, action items and requirements must be sifted through to determine if a project is in compliance with relevant codes.

This can work against an applicant when city staff interprets an esoteric law from 1970 that denies development. And the opposite is true when city staff wishes to support a project or point of view.

Such was the case at the Oct. 15 City Council meeting, when community development head John Montgomery dug for a response to my last column. I had asserted that the California Coastal Commission no longer requires one-for-one replacement parking for new developments — like the proposed Village Entrance Project.

Montgomery stated that, according to our transportation element, "When approving changes in intensity of land uses in the CBD (Central Business District), preserve all existing parking by assuring replacement on a one-for-one basis."

Two problems with that:

1) What increase in intensity is there when you turn a parking lot into another parking lot? A change of intensity refers to projects like a retail store becoming a restaurant.

2) The site of the proposed Village Entrance Project is not in the Central Business District — where the one-for-one replacement applies. A color map listed on the city website shows clearly that the entire Village Entrance Project would be in the Civic Arts District, which does not require one-for-one replacement of parking.

I can only imagine how full a plate Montgomery has, but with all of our confusing, overlapping documents, shouldn't the location of the proposed entrance be the first order of business?

Montgomery also cited the Coastal Commission, whose members said they would be "concerned with any negative impact on parking." Of course they would be. Their job is to ensure fair beach access and also to encourage alternative transportation that would lessen traffic and congestion, in conformity with the state's climate goals and Complete Streets mandate.

The Coastal Commission encourages beach cities to be more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. It's the new law of the land. And it is working with cities and Caltrans to do just that.

Montgomery also went on to say that any reduction of parking below 190 spaces would require amending the Act V Coastal Development Permit. Amending doesn't sound like prohibition to me. And I don't believe anyone wants to lose 200 spots under any scenario.

So what's really going on here? Why are city staff defending errant policy in support of a plan that has even been demonized in the very elements Montgomery cites? Staff could have chosen to share this section from Topic 5 of the Downtown Specific Plan (parking, circulation and public transit):

"Parking areas do not contribute positively to urban design and aesthetics. Perhaps the greatest impact associated with providing more parking in the downtown is the potential to worsen traffic congestion by drawing more cars into the local street circulation system.

"Parking areas also pose potentially negative impacts by virtue of their design and appearance. Solutions can range from the simple, such as installing bicycle racks, which help encourage bicycle riding, to the complex, such as creating a downtown shuttle with peripheral parking. Parking and traffic management techniques, including the development of public transit incentives, provide the potential to reduce auto dependency and parking demands.

"An effective transit program combined with peripheral parking is perhaps the best way of handling parking and circulation problems created by seasonal and weekend tourists."

Or this from our Transportation, Circulation and Growth Management Element: "Constructing a parking structure downtown could also seriously impact existing circulation conditions by adding to the chaos and congestion of traffic flow."

And finally, how about this mandate from the Land Use Element: "Minimize the impact of the automobile on the character of Laguna Beach and emphasize a more pedestrian-oriented environment, safer sidewalks/pathways, landscaped buffer zones and alternative means of transportation.

"The proximity of some commercial and residential land uses in the city and mixed-use development are ideal for pedestrian and bicycle use. General Plan policies promote and encourage a pedestrian-oriented community by developing a system of bicycle rights-of-way and pedestrian paths, increasing alternative."

Look at that. We were in the forefront of urban planning and design 20 years ago. So how did we go from 21st century thinking in the 1990's to 1950's thinking in 2013? We are being coerced in a direction that is completely antithetical to our core principles.

The evidence keeps mounting from so many different interest groups that it's a wonder we need any public discourse at all, unless it is definitively about a different plan altogether. There's the disproportionate cost/benefit equation, the increased traffic, the ground toxicity, the maintenance and security issues, and the questionable aesthetics, for starters.

The latest compelling salvo comes from Jennifer Griffiths, who runs our fabulous farmers market. She makes it clear that the new design for the market was discriminatory against vendors who lacked the physical strength to offload their produce and materials and then park their trucks remotely.

"The plan sets up a disaster of attrition, with locals initially not finding parking and then vendors leaving due to unsafe work hardships," she has written.

And this doesn't even take into account the three- to five-year disruption during construction. Do we need anymore evidence that this is an enormously ill-conceived project?

Let's put the enmity behind us. It is not productive to assign blame. Council and staff simply misread public support and did not adequately vet the project.

Thankfully, the council made a very wise choice in recently purchasing the lot adjacent to the site of the proposed Village Entrance Project, thereby providing an additional 75 car spaces or so for only $5 million — a bargain compared to a $25 million parking structure.

With this newfound real estate, perhaps we can get back to the roots of our Laguna Beach ethos of character, creativity and charm over colossal commercial buildings.

How about just fixing the smell, replacing the ugly chain link fence and designing a beautiful tree-lined pedestrian and bicycle pathway to connect the arts district to downtown and the beautiful Forest pedestrian plaza? That would be a great start to a new plan.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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