Out of the Blue: Council makes right move with land purchase

The Laguna Beach City Council voted Tuesday to purchase the property adjacent to the Village Entrance project for $5.3 million.

The purchase was fiercely demonized by opponents of the parking structure. Accusations of overpayment, reckless spending, insider deal making and nefarious scheming echoed throughout the chambers. But why? Why fight this purchase? The council extended an olive branch to find a workable solution, and opponents treated it like poison oak.

It's time to stop the enmity and mistrust. This is a total win for everybody. Who cares about the price? The purchase gives the council — and our community — exactly what we need: a way to beautify the Village Entrance without building a Wal-Mart sized garage or borrowing a dime.

And it facilitates a far more productive and creative dialogue for next week's workshop. As Councilman Steve Dicterow said, "It may now be possible to get 200 spaces without a parking structure."

Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson added, "If there is a way to get spaces without a garage, we'll figure out a way to do it."

Many of the staunch opponents are my friends. But their vitriol is misdirected. The Shakespearean drama they have created — with Pearson as Brutus — is just unfounded hyperbole.

The council simply miscalculated the public's support of this project. They heard the public outcry loud and clear. So they had a chance to buy a property that would change the destiny of the project, and they pounced. Did they pay too much? Not if it means we don't have to spend $45 million to $65 million to create approximately 130 more parking spaces than we get with the new land.

So now we move on to the workshop on Tuesday, where the council has pledged to listen to the public and develop a new plan. Here's the critical part. We cannot consider a plan for the Village Entrance without considering the larger implications to our transportation and cultural infrastructure.

We cannot piecemeal this. Any new developments will be met with environmental impact reports, California Environmental Quality Act and California Coastal Commission reviews.

Last week, I spoke with Karl Schwing, who heads the Coastal Commission jurisdiction for Laguna, and he said, "The availability of parking remains a concern in Laguna. However, we're open to hearing about creative solutions that would address the problem comprehensively."

Comprehensive is the key word here. It makes no sense to go to the Coastal Commission with fragmented projects. We must present one holistic view where we improve access to the beaches, prepare for an onslaught of more visitors from new developments and simultaneously improve our quality of life.

Here now is a chance to connect all the dots. Pedestrian plazas and promenades on Forest and Ocean avenues must be considered, because not only would they provide critically needed public space and social commons, but also because their very existence depends on replacing any lost parking.

Can we spend the bare minimum on the project and still realize a net parking gain? Or should we consider a smaller, one-story garage and transportation hub with bike rentals and a trolley line down Ocean Avenue to get that needed parking? Or should we generate it somewhere else?

How do we facilitate more trolleys and trams, pedestrian paths, and bike trails? The council said everything is on the table, so let's develop a broader plan now that we have an awakened citizenry.

This is our inflection point. America has the least public spaces of any first-world country, and the most violence as a result of isolation. We need radicalized and accelerated change. Portland calls it the "Interactive Repair Ordinance," and as a result they have the most lovable and livable city in America, filled with repurposed streets designed for community interaction that fosters safety, creativity, civility and culture.

That the Village Entrance project may now be within our existing fiscal means does not by any stretch mean that we shouldn't borrow money for the right projects. We need big, meaningful changes with more periphery parking, more transit, more underground power lines, and less cars coursing through downtown.

We have a chance to bring more people into town who linger longer without clogging our streets. We can borrow vast sums at low cost without tapping our general fund. We have the good fortune to have Bob Whalen on the council — a man who knows how to responsibly fund cities.

So let's come together Tuesday, without acrimony, as a united community committed to making our great town even greater.

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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