Commission approves Hotel Laguna exterior modifications


After getting stalled and revised multiple times over the past year and then continued several times the last few months, a plan for the exterior modifications for Hotel Laguna – including paint trim, awning color and window styles – was unanimously approved this week by the Planning Commission.

Commissioners voted 4-0 (Steve Kellenberg was absent) on Wednesday (May 15) in support of the project. The proposed exterior changes for the hotel, located at 425 S. Coast Highway, include: Repainting of the building with revised paint and trim colors; replacement of guest room doors and windows with fiberglass systems; replacement of the fire escapes and accessways; restore the rooftop spire above the existing cupula that exceeds the maximum building height in the CBD-Central Bluffs District and requires a variance, and facade restoration which includes installing new awnings, restoring archway details, storefront fenestration systems, other historic details and stucco repair/replacement.

While commissioners still worked out some details over the two-hour discussion this week, they were overall appreciative of the applicant team’s efforts to address their previously stated concerns and suggestions.

Commissioner Jorg Dubin appreciates that the applicant took a “deep dive” on this and did nearly everything commissioners were looking for at the last meeting.

The applicant team came back with a highly detailed and thorough plan for the exterior, he said. They listened to commissioner comments from the previous meeting and stepped up the plate. They were promised a comprehensive plan for years, he added, and they never saw it, so it’s commendable that it’s finally been brought forward.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Dubin commented.

Now they actually know what they’re going to get when the renovation is complete, he added.

“The community’s been waiting a long time for this, (for) this hotel to come back to life,” Dubin said. “When I look at what’s been presented, I think, generally, the community is going to be very happy with what they see when this is finally done.”

Although commissioners may have pushed a bit beyond their purview at the previous meeting in March with their suggestions and the applicant team might have been taken aback from the level of input, Commission Chair Ken Sadler appreciates the extra effort the applicant team has made to try and incorporate everything they suggested.

“It’s ultimately going to make this project so much better than it would have been if we had just hastily approved your initial plans,” Sadler said. “Hopefully the community appreciates it at all. I’m sure they will when it’s completed.”

They focused on the details, both at prior meetings and this week, because those are the things that make the difference in such an important and iconic building, commissioners agreed.

“It’s the little details that make it all come together,” Sadler said.

Overall, the quality commitment presented is exactly the right level, agreed Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin.

“There’s a real passion on the part of the team to do a renovation, even though it’s not technically a ‘renovation’ that’s what we see,” she said, adding that the team was very cooperative about every request from the commission.

“It’s going to be a great project, so let’s get going,” Whitin added.

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Art by Oatman Architects/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the proposed changes to the exterior of Hotel Laguna in the style approved by the Planning Commission

The item was first heard by the Planning Commission on Jan. 4, 2023. During that initial review of the project, a decision was delayed as commissioners agreed they wanted a more complete concept that more accurately represented a specific decade in the building’s “period of significance.” There were a number of issues that still needed to be addressed and they wanted to see more of an overall plan (with a more complete color scheme, including awnings). Also, although the historic preservation consultant determined the period of significance to be a range between 1930 to 1950, commissioners wanted the project to focus on the style of the 1930s to early 1940s, including that the windows appear more wood-like. They also asked that an architectural embellishment (as seen in early postcards) be added above the main entrance of the hotel.

In a letter to the Heritage Committee, Laura Oatman, a principal at Oatman Architects (the applicant for the project), noted that the building qualifies as a “rehabilitation” under the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. That provides flexibility in the interpretation of the period of significance, which is from 1930-1950 for this building.

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More recently, Oatman and a new applicant team brought the item back to the Commission on March 6. After more than three and a half hours of discussion, they unanimously agreed to continue the exterior renovation plans until their April meeting, allowing the applicant team to work on a number of details and suggestions from the commissioners. At the time, the applicant didn’t want it continued at all (they preferred approval that night), but rather than risk a vote that might result in denial of the project, they agreed to a continuance to the soonest possible date, which was April 3. The applicant team later requested a continuation from that date until April 17. It was on the agenda for the later April meeting, but city staff requested it be continued until May 15 to allow the applicant additional time to provide requested information.

This is a fresh start with the new team and revised plans, Oatman said at this week’s meeting.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that this project comes back to life,” she said. “That poor old hotel. We’ve been on this project for a year now and, in that year, we’ve watched it physically deteriorate – the windows, the stucco.”

“It’s just sad to see the way that it’s disintegrating and right before our eyes,” she added.

They’ve got to get moving on this project, Oatman said.

In March, commissioners were encouraged by the submitted proposal, but couldn’t approve the plans based on what they saw in the presentation. They emphasized that the details were important and needed to be included in the plans, but not much had been addressed since the January 2023 meeting.

Ultimately, commissioners agreed in March on a laundry list of items the applicant team needed to work out, including: Wood windows and doors at street level; other window and door details and material specifics; elements added around the fire escape; color options for the trim and (solid color) awnings; possibly adding a small Juliet balcony above the front entry; adding an architectural element at the top of the east elevation; restoring weathervane and finials/spire; period appropriate door and more.

This week, Michael Kluchin, a representative of the ownership group of Hotel Laguna, commented that the team has tried to address all of the issues raised by commissioners in March.

“We’ve worked diligently to take in your comments from our last meeting and to address the concerns and the details that you were seeking. (We) put in a lot of time and effort (and) I think it shows forth on the proposal and in the report,” Kluchin said.

Commissioners provided some good suggestions that they took to heart, Oatman added.

“You really sort of held our feet to the fire, made us go back and really look at what we were doing at that ground floor level and, in fact, made a much better project,” she said.

The applicant has primarily incorporated everything that was requested from the Planning Commission at the last hearing, with the exception of the installation of the Juliet balcony and the fire escape enclosure on the Laguna Avenue side, said Principal Planner Martina Caron. The plan is now more comprehensive, she added.

She noted that the corner planter was removed and a landscape plan provided, wood windows and doors are now proposed along the street level, the spires are slated to be restored on top of the tower and there are operable windows at the corner. Additionally, the project has been expanded to include restoration of the rose garden facade and it includes doorway restoration of the archways along the main hotel lobby corridor, she added.

Modifications made by the applicant to the exterior renovation plans include:

–Demolition of the corner planter box to provide a lower planter.

–Incorporation of wood windows and doors on the street/lower level.

–Plaster details around the arches.

–Updates and revisions to the delivery and service area.

–Restoration of the decorative moldings atop the tower.

–Restoration of the finial/spire atop the cupula tower (which requires a variance).

–Replacement and restoration of the historic fenestration operation/system (meaning operable windows on the first floor).

–Restoration of courtyard archways and clean-up/repair of arches near beach.

–Restoration of the “crest/medallion” above entry.

–Switchboard/equipment screening.

–Notes indicating re-roofing the flat areas of the roof.

They also proposed two different paint schemes for the commission to consider: Pebble gray or gunmetal gray for the windows and doors and sapphire blue or terracotta red for the color of the awnings.

The commissioners were split on the awning color. The red awnings are too reminiscent of what is currently out there, Whitin commented, and blue offers more of a coastal style. Awning color can change over time as well, several commissioners pointed out.

Although they agreed that the window and door color was the more important choice and they all liked the lighter pebble gray.

Ultimately, a majority of commissioners liked the first option with a warmer, lighter gray and the sapphire blue.

The applicant is also proposing to restore the rooftop spire above the existing cupula based on photos from the 1930s. The spire will be constructed 14 feet above the cupula roof and measure 87 feet above the lobby finished floor. Because this new element does exceed the city’s height limit, a variance is required, Caron explained.

Commissioners agreed that they can make the findings for the variance for the spire.

“When it was originally built that’s what was up there,” Dubin said. “Having that detail, it’s like a lot of the other architectural details that we’ve been discussing, adds a value to the renovation of the hotel itself.”

Dubin also emphasized that he strongly feels the medallion architectural art piece should be a tile feature and not painted on.

Although they found the word “painted medallion” in historic drawings, they have some leeway since it’s a rehabilitation, Oatman answered. Working between the Arts Commission and the historic consultant, they can come up with some decent parameters for design, materials and budget, she added.

Ultimately, it was included as a condition of approval to recommend that the Arts Commission consider tile for the piece that will go in the space for the Art in Public Places program.

The crest/medallion above the entry could be part of the city’s Art in Public Places program, Caron confirmed. It’s open to interpretation, she added.

“It’s nuanced in that it is probably an architectural feature and part of the historic character of the building, so certain artwork may not be appropriate, but if it was deemed to be appropriate with the historic character of the building, I think it could constitute as Art in Public Places,” Caron said.

Oatman confirmed that the restored medallion would be proposed as the location for the Art in Public Places program. They would propose that the city cultural arts director develop appropriate guidelines for design in conjunction with their historic consultant, she added.

Although this project is a rehabilitation, they are proposing to restore a significant number of items to their original state, Oatman said.

They are using the original drawings that they found as a basis for most of the elements that will be restored, she explained, and, in some cases, improving upon them. For example, they are planning to raise the height of the door and make it flush with the building (instead of in-set).

All restored moldings are to be made of run plaster, which they discovered from the original drawings. Also, all stucco may need to be demolished to ensure a continuous, consistent historically accurate finish, Oatman noted.

They can definitely consider restoring the Juliet balcony out front, the applicant team confirmed, answering a commissioner question. The structure was the main reason they were looking to avoid making that change, but after further investigation and discovering the extent of degradation of the stucco, it’s now an option to be able to tie in to that structure more feasibly. There is an issue with drainage, so they may design a “faux” balcony instead.

All of the commissioners were in favor of somehow restoring the Juliet balcony, even it’s non-functional. It really helps with the articulation of the building, particularly as people just drive by, Whitin said.

“It’s a pretty flat building and all of that detail, along with the widened awnings, will make that whole elevation come to life,” she said.

Commissioners ultimately added a condition of approval for a Juliet balcony, or a faux-Juliet balcony with a cap, to be installed above the front door.

Whitin also suggested replacing the rhaphiolepis (Indian hawthorn) evergreen shrub, which she found out is a modern hybrid plant, with something more appropriate. Period appropriate plants would be interesting, she said.

“I think that the overall flavor of what you’re trying to do is in the spirit, which is what we’re looking for,” Whitin said. “After all this historic restoration work that’s being done, the landscape should honor that.”

The intent was to be as accurate as possible, answered David Salkowitz, a landscape architect with LandCreativeInc., working on the project. Looking through the old black and white photos, they had to make some assumptions, but they stayed in the same period, he added. They’re happy to replace the Rhaphiolepis with another understory, border plant that’s also flowering.

The roses are also period appropriate, Salkowitz commented.

“(They are) reminiscent of the rose garden that used to be there, which, at some point, we hope to also restore and really bring that historical flavor back,” he said.

The aim would be to apply the same extent of historic restoration utilized for the rest of the project all the way to the landscaping level, Salkowitz explained.

Whitin also suggested widening the awnings so they’re a bit more substantial.

Commissioners also agreed to a condition of approval to require a historic monitor on-site and conduct periodic reviews.

Another condition of approval notes that the window systems that have the integrated wood mullion will be replaced with plaster (replicating the existing mullion).

The applicant has not yet submitted an application for the signage plan. The city has received and is processing applications for separate project components, including room renovations, interior remodel work and replacement of the flat roof.

A handful of people spoke during public comment, including several local residents who appreciated the effort to address issues raised previously and noted that the plans were well defined, but still had concerns (primarily about piecemealing, window materials and roof style). They emphasized the importance of the hotel to the community and the need to get this project right. A few members of UNITE HERE Local 11 spoke in opposition of the project and questioned if it should be considered a major renovation and whether or not it is in compliance with local and state code.


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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