By David Raber
The recent active dialogue about the future of Laguna is one of the positive effects of the Laguna Residents First (LRF) Ballot Initiative. It’s good for all of us in Laguna to stop and consider Laguna’s future. Most residents moved here to experience living in a unique coastal community, and we paid a premium to do so. Many developers are focusing on Laguna to do what they do; increase the value of their real estate holdings by asking for, and obtaining rights to further intensify commercial uses of the existing land. This inherent conflict is not easy to resolve, especially given the financial return that can be reaped from redeveloping Laguna.
Laguna’s development community opposes zoning that would curb intensification and mitigate impacts. LRF’s initiative requires that development mitigates its negative impacts on the community, including parking and congestion. Most towns require mitigation from development. Why should Laguna’s residents be forced to subsidize commercial intensification? Development should pay its own way.
Developers tell us that mitigation could be too costly for them. Hiding the cost by implicitly passing it off to residents forces them to absorb redevelopment costs such as funding parking lots or putting up with more congestion and impacts on neighborhoods. Moreover, that short-term generosity inhibits the creative reuse of existing commercial space here in Laguna. For every additional restaurant we approve, we are making it harder for existing landlords of existing restaurants to find a tenant. People are going to avoid shopping at Hobie because it is located in an old building? Of course not! The ballot initiative focuses on use, remodeling, and upgrading existing space while requiring reasonable parking and traffic mitigation for new, incremental development projects, and requires them to scale to what is in place today.
If you have any doubts about the downside of commercial redevelopment flips, take a look at the long-term decline in redeveloped areas such as Brea, San Dimas, and Santa Monica. They are all stark examples that creating larger, denser commercial buildings is not a silver bullet. How could building more restaurants and stores in Laguna be the solution when there is already inventory to work with? The new restaurants and stores that we create will also cause economic headwinds for remodeling and reusing properties that are already here.
One solution that is discussed in urban development circles is to convert surplus retail space to mixed-use residential. The LRF initiative has no restrictions on that. LRF supports additional housing.
Converting retail to restaurants is permitted by the initiative, but requires additional parking commensurate with the intensification of use. The initiative uses Laguna’s current zoning rules that have been in place here for decades. If more parking is needed for intensification but there is no land available, then there is the Parking-In-Lieu fund that the city has already set up. This fund is supposed to collect money for the additional parking garages, but unlike most cities, Laguna has been extremely forgiving of developers when it comes to requiring funding the required additional parking. Very likely the City will eventually ask residents for a bond measure to fund what has become a very large unfunded parking deficit. This is one more reason to have LRF’s initiative, and one more reason why developers will oppose it.
Developers would have us believe that many projects they are proposing would require a public vote. The truth is that most examples they site could avoid a vote by modifying the project to conform to the height, parking, density, and congestion laws that we have in place today. In the past several years, the city has developed a track record of granting exceptions to current zoning, so developers are upset at the LRF initiative. Take parking as an example. All current parking exemptions for existing buildings are grandfathered by the Initiative. Nothing changes there. The Initiative requires that if future parking exemptions are granted, then City Council must find that the exemption is “In the Public Interest” and that it does not adversely impact parking or noise in the neighborhood. Common sense, right? Developers are telling you that it is too onerous to ask the City to actually consider whether new, incremental, parking exemptions would be in the public interest.
Rather than speculate on the fear that is being generated by the development community, see the exact wording for yourself. Find it at lagunaresidentsfirst.org/bi
David is co-founder of Laguna Residents First PAC.