Commission continues Hotel Laguna exterior, applicant to focus on details

By SARA HALL

After more than three and a half hours of discussion, the Planning Commission this week unanimously agreed to continue the exterior renovation plans for Hotel Laguna until next month, allowing the applicant team to work on a number of details and suggestions from the commissioners.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (March 6) to continue the project until April 3.

The proposed exterior changes for the hotel, located at 425 S. Coast Highway, include: Replacing exterior doors, windows and fire escapes throughout the exterior of the building (in the existing locations); modifying the paint and awning colors and restoring archway details around the street level café windows located at the northeast corner of the building.

Overall, they are encouraged by the submitted proposal, said Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin, but she – and a majority of her fellow commissioners – couldn’t approve the plans based on what she’s seeing in the presentation.

“I couldn’t approve the project, it’s too vanilla. There isn’t enough detail that’s been shown,” she said. “This is just a glorified, very plain building and the detail is everything.”

Although this is just the “first blush” of the concept, this is all they will get to officially see as a commission, Whitin pointed out, so they want to ensure that they get the details right. They have a long list of specific items they want to see included and it should be part of the approval, she added.

“I don’t want to be meddlesome, excessive and I certainly don’t want to hold up the project – but on the other hand – this is one of our great icons, it’s important that we get it right,” Whitin said.

The last time they heard this project, in January 2023, they asked for a comprehensive plan that included a lot of what they were again asking about this time around, Commissioner Jorg Dubin pointed out. All of these details are still missing, he added, and it would be nice to actually visually see an update project to know exactly what they’re getting with the proposal.

The building itself, if you remove all of the architectural elements, is a square box, Dubin commented. These little details matter in a project like this, he added.

Commissioners agreed on direction for the applicant on a list of items:

–Wood windows and doors on the ground level.

–Remove the planter by the front corner window.

–Details on the fire escape, and the entire element to have the same color paint as the trim.

–Explore the possibility of adding the balcony and architectural embellishments under the fire escape on the north elevation.

–Improve the corner at the beach end of the building.

–Consider a porte-cochere awning at the front door.

–Investigate the possibility of adding the small “princess balcony” above the front entry.

–Add a design back into the inset at the top of the building, above the main entry.

–Make the awnings a solid color (some preferred a rusty red color but asked to see options).

–Add the architectural element or finial at the top of the east elevation.

–Provide options for the window trim color (some commissioners didn’t like the proposed dark bronze, although others didn’t object to it).

–The door should be period appropriate.

–Include the weathervane on top of the cupola on the roof.

–Refining the cap with additional details, possibly fluting and officially incorporating them into the pilasters on the east elevation.

–Replace the street level windows and doors with wood materials.

–Explore the possibility of having operable windows at the café.

These directions and suggestions aren’t mandates, clarified Patrick Donegan, an associate with Best Best & Krieger LLP, the law firm that provides city attorney services to Laguna Beach. If there are legitimate reasons why these items aren’t possible, not allowed by a specific code, for example, the Planning Commission wants to hear the reasoning, he explained.

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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

Although the continuation is not the outcome the applicant wanted. Michael Kluchin, a representative of the ownership group, reiterated that the project included four key elements and asked for approval with conditions regarding the details, since there seemed to be agreement on the dais on those items.

“Respectfully – I appreciate all of your comments and consideration, everybody spent a lot of time on this – we ask for approval with conditions and we would not like to come back,” except to update the commission on certain items, Kluchin said.

Although Kluchin felt that they didn’t have a choice, commissioners commented that they could vote on Wednesday night on the proposed project, but that would likely result in denial. That decision could then be appealed to the council. Alternatively, commissioners offered him a continuance, to allow the applicant team to work out the details commissioners asked about with consideration to their comments and concerns, and return with design options and a more comprehensive plan. Kluchin eventually agreed to the continuation to April 3.

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Moving it to April is not the end of world, said Commission Chair Ken Sadler, particularly considering how important this project is for the town as a whole and how long the project has already been in the works.

“The bottom line is there’s enough stuff here that we’re throwing out and asking for you to consider that I’m – nor I don’t think the majority of us are – (not) comfortable conditionally approving this tonight,” Sadler said.

There was a lot of discussion on Wednesday about the level of rehabilitation required and how accurately they want the renovated hotel to match the historic building, which is what prompted a number of the detailed directions ultimately suggested by commissioners.

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.

“We’re not trying to do an absolute restoration, but a renovation,” Dubin said, “to visually make it look like it was from the ‘30s, but be functional for the times we’re living in.”

He explained the difference between fully restoring a historic property to its original condition and rehabilitating it so it’s functional, but still maintains its historical value. There is a need for a balance between property rights and preservation, he noted. Considering modern day standards and the treatment the hotel qualifies for under federal criteria, compromises need to be made in order to move forward, he said.

“Hotel Laguna is a renovation [rehabilitation] due to the fact that it has been modified many, many times over its history. The goal is to have it appear as it was back in the 1930s glory days, but with a functionality associated with contemporary and long-lasting materials,” Dubin said. “We need our landmark property brought back to life.”

While it is a rehabilitation project, they are trying to achieve as much of the historic appearance as they can, Dubin said.

During the applicant presentation, there was some contentious back and forth discussion between commissioners and Robert Chattel, president of Chattel, Inc., the historic preservation consulting firm for the project.

Chattel emphasized the differences between restoration and rehabilitation projects. Rehabilitation puts the property back into a state of utility, which is what this building needs, he said, while restoration is more invasive. Chattel questioned if the commissioners actually understood the difference.

Later in the meeting, Commission Chair Pro Tem Steve Kellenberg reiterated that while they understand the difference between restoration and rehabilitation, and what the project is classified as under the SOI’s standards, they can request more. Although even a slight upgrade on dilapidated windows might be an improvement, that’s not good enough for this community, he commented.

“We do have the discretionary ability to ask for something better than the lowest level of rehabilitation – and I think you’re hearing some of that – and we’re going to do that without any hesitancy,” Kellenberg said.

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Courtesy of Laguna Beach Historical Society/City of Laguna Beach

A historic photo of Hotel Laguna

Much of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around the material for the windows.

They looked extensively for the “perfect window,” Oatman said at the meeting this week, which was as close to the historic wood windows as they could get. The goal is to replace the existing non-historic windows with something that matches the historic windows in composition, design, color and texture.

After reviewing historic documentation and photographs from the 1930s, Chattel found that most of the original windows and frames were previously replaced.

Plans call for all existing second- and third-floor guestroom windows to be removed and replaced with new windows similar in appearance to those shown in the early documents. Guestrooms at all elevations would have new paired Marvin Essential bronze-color fiberglass double hung windows separated by an integrated mullion. Windows would have a new trim and sill to match. Previously infilled windows would remain clad in stucco.

Existing windows at the fire escapes at the north, south and west elevations would be replaced with a single wide bronze fiberglass hung window. All deteriorated fire escape balconies and ladders are proposed to be removed and replaced similar to the existing equipment, but conforming with current code.

Chattel explained in the historian’s assessment that the new proposed windows would help return the historic appearance of the windows, but in a compatible material more suited to a coastal environment.

The project proposes to retain all existing doors at the primary east elevation (facing Coast Highway), including at the main entrance, row of four storefronts to the south, and corner retail space to the north. Existing non-original placards and light fixtures at the pilasters flanking the main entrance would be removed. Plans also call for cleaning up, repairing and painting certain features.

The key issues raised regarding wood windows relate to maintenance, cleaning (possibly requiring scaffolding if they can’t be cleaned from the inside) and a narrower view field from the rooms.

A majority of commissioners agreed that wood windows are not the best option for the upper-level guest rooms.

Kellenberg asked the applicant team if they would consider enhancing the street level windows, which speak to the quality of the retail experience, with wood or a more elaborate design.

“In my mind, some windows are more important than other windows,” he said, and the ground-level windows facing Coast Highway are the top priority because that’s where closest encounter is between pedestrians and the hotel.

They’re making a trade-off for the room windows, Kellenberg commented, to instead invest the “richness and detail” into the storefront and street level windows and doors.

They would be amenable to considering wood and other ideas for the first-floor windows, Kluchin answered.

“We have our position on what we are proposing on the windows for the rooms, but if the question is on the first floor and the retail space and the corner space, would we be open-minded? I think the answer is yes,” Kluchin said.

Whitin also asked for the front door to be an original or period appropriate.

“That’s your first impression and it’s not a good one that exists there now,” she said.

They are “absolutely” open to having further discussions about those welcoming areas, Kluchin replied.

After some more discussion and commissioners asking if the applicant team would consider various other suggestions and ideas, Kluchin reiterated that they are willing to be flexible in some aspects of the project, but they stand by their submitted plans.

“To be honest, I don’t know if this is a negotiation,” of agreeing to this and that,” he said. “We’re open-minded to it, but again our proposal is our proposal.”

Although there is a lot that they are willing to do for the front-facing first floor, he added.

They are trying to reach some compromises, Dubin replied, in order for the project to move forward.

“It’s a little give and take at this point, in terms of what’s going to happen,” he said.

There was also some discussion on the paint colors.

According to the historian’s assessment from Chattel, all exterior elevations would be painted using classic light buff with a Morris room grey accent. Though the specific location of paint colors on the facade do not need to exactly match historic to be in conformance with the Secretary’s Standards, historic documentation including photographs and postcards are being used as inspiration for design, Chattel noted. All replacement windows at the second and third floor would have a bronze frame. Existing window and door frames at the first floor are proposed to remain, and be primed and painted a matching bronze color.

The assessment notes that the proposed colors are in line with Chattel’s recommendations and are reflected in historic documentation and paint color analysis. He also explained that bronze was chosen to achieve the desired contrast with the lighter stucco and due to the limited colors available from the window manufacturer.

New awnings are also proposed to be added back to original locations on the east and north elevations based on historic documentation. The four retail storefronts at the south side of the east elevation and all the arched storefronts at the east and north elevation corner café would have new striped awnings in classic light buff and rustic red colors. At the main east elevation entrance to the hotel, a new entrance awning in a rustic red color would be installed.

The back corner also hasn’t received much attention and is the weakest point in the proposal, Kellenberg said. The applicant should address the issues in that area and return with a refined plan, he added.

“You’re really good designers, come up with something. Help us make that something we’d be proud of instead of embarrassed of,” Kellenberg said.

He asked the applicant to look at the area in its entirety. Improvements like public art or changing the doors to the trash facility or adding some architectural enhancements to the “mish-mash” back there, he said.

They definitely plan on cleaning that back corner up, Kluchin confirmed. It holds some back of house uses and is a delivery space for the hotel. The plan is to make it presentable for people walking by, he added. Answering a commissioner question, Kluchin said they are open to an idea utilizing some public art as well.

It should be something that shows they actually care about the space, Kellenberg noted.

A concept review of Hotel Laguna was presented to the Planning Commission on Dec. 1, 2021, and although there weren’t a lot of specific details for the commissioners to comment on at the time, they did discuss the importance of renovating the iconic hotel to align with its historic appearance. Commissioners suggested that the applicant provide historical research and documentation with any future formal applications.

The exterior plans were initially heard by the Planning Commission on Jan. 4, 2023.

At the time, a decision on exterior paint colors and upper floor windows for the hotel was delayed as commissioners unanimously agreed they wanted a more complete concept that more accurately represented a specific decade in the building’s “period of significance.” They also asked the applicant to consider adding an architectural embellishment (as seen in early postcards) above the main entrance of the hotel (which was not included in this week’s proposal).

They’ve worked hand-in-hand with the city for many months to address any concerns and adopt practical solutions to ensure they can rehabilitate and open this hotel “in a manner that represents the excellence that the grand old lady commands.”

They plan to match the interior to the exterior in terms of elegance, luxury and historic nature, Kluchin said.

“We know how much Hotel Laguna means to the city and the community and we want to make sure the inside and the outside reflect that,” he said.

During public comment on Wednesday, a majority of the nine speakers were enthusiastically in support of the project. Several were excited to finally see the plans start to come together, especially considering how contentious the project has been in the past. A number of speakers urged the commission to pin down the details and several ideas were suggested. A few commenters also made a case in favor of wood windows.

The building is the “queen of the coast,” said resident Christy Miller.

“Let’s restore her and bring her back to her former glory,” Miller said.

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


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