Opinion: Laguna Beach – Ripe for Change?

By David Raber

The likely certification of Laguna Resident’s First “Beautiful Laguna Overlay Zoning District” ballot initiative has awakened an organized opposition from some developers. They claim that the ballot initiative will impede their redevelopment goals here. It is true that very large projects, around the size of the two new hotels being proposed for downtown, would have to win voter approval, and that some projects would have to be refined to meet reasonable size and quality standards, but it certainly does not preclude all development.
The Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative just keeps the height limits and on-site parking requirements the same as what is in effect today, no change. Do residents want block-long redevelopments, like the Museum Hotel being proposed in North Laguna? If so, let the voters decide. If it’s a project that voters like they will approve it. The LRF Ballot Initiative allows voters to decide.

The well-financed resistance to this ballot initiative is coming from those whose career is removing structures and replacing them with something that can make more money because it is taller, denser, or creates side effects that others pay for. For example, winning incremental parking entitlements from the city leads to more congestion in the neighborhoods.

The LRF Ballot Initiative spotlights the impacts to residents of new, truly large, development projects so they can be thought through before they are unleashed. Smart business people can make money in almost any environment as long as the rules are clear and the process is fair and predictable. The LRF Ballot Initiative does this by making the development guidelines clearer and more predictable.

A major theme of the Beautiful Laguna Overlay Zoning District Ballot Initiative is the emphasis on “renew and reuse” rather than “remove and rebuild.” There is a good stock of buildings in Laguna Beach right now that have land-use entitlements that will carry forward.

Next time you pass through Downtown ask yourself “Why not renew and reuse the existing stock of buildings rather than remove and rebuild something new? This is a more environmentally friendly approach. While some developers may feel more comfortable about removing and rebuilding so they can add more stories and more density to increase the rent potential, we, the residents get to ask “Is this the best thing for the community?”
Each new commercial development that we add makes it harder to rent and reuse existing buildings. The LRF Ballot Initiative helps protect the existing business from larger competitors who will likely be located within new developments. To justify the “remove and rebuild” approach, developers remind us that there are a few empty storefronts and restaurants in Laguna. There are a few, but how could building even more new, taller, storefronts and restaurants be the solution to that problem? If we truly keep “renew and reuse” in the front of our minds then we will establish a climate here so that the existing stock of commercial buildings in town get the attention they need to thrive. That is also more in line with the reason that most of us were willing to pay a premium to live in Laguna.

Take the example of the Hotel Laguna: Except for the recently reopened first-floor lounge and restaurant, the rooms have been vacant for just over three years now. Of course, it is not vacant because of the Ballot Initiative or even current city zoning. The Ballot Initiative is not even in effect yet and the hotel has entitlements that have been in place for decades now. It is vacant for reasons completely unrelated to the ballot initiative or current city zoning.

Problems for the hotel include funding interior remodel of the rooms. The more generous we are with allowing even more new hotels to be built in Laguna then the harder it becomes to justify what is needed to reopen the Hotel Laguna and to keep the renewal reinvestment in existing lodging in Laguna. The same thing applies to restaurant spaces that become available in Laguna from time to time. The more new restaurants we allow to be built, the harder it will be to justify renewing and reusing the existing restaurant spaces that may become vacant from time to time.

The possible cannibalization of Laguna’s existing commercial stock stands out in the report that City’s consultant recently did.  The consultant assumed that new, incremental redevelopment would cause a 25% reduction in growth to Laguna Beach’s General Fund “From competition to other businesses/existing commercial activity, also known as ‘cannibalization’.” This is from page 8 of the January 2022 Kosmont report to the City Council. Which of the existing local merchants, lodging operators, and restaurants will be impacted to the point of not being able to make it? Without the protections of the LRF Ballot Initiative, we will have more that is shiny and new and very likely a renewed call for even more “remove and rebuild.” By setting a reasonable standard for new commercial development, Laguna can evolve at a pace that retains the unique value of our city. Isn’t that what the vast majority of residents want?

David is a co-founder of Laguna Residents First PAC.

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