Commission reviews early draft of commercial design guidelines


The Planning Commission this week reviewed an early draft of the proposed commercial design guidelines for the city.

Commissioners provided feedback and direction on Wednesday (April 18) to city staff on the document, which is in the very early stages of development. Commissioner comments will be incorporated into the first full draft of the commercial design guidelines, which will go up for review by the commission at a future hearing.

Chair Ken Sadler thanked staff and the subcommittee for their work on the project.

“We’re on the right track,” he said.

It’s a good idea that they are finally bifurcating the commercial design guidelines from the residential guidelines, said Commissioner Jorg Dubin, there have been commercial projects in the past that have tried to follow along the residential guidelines.

“It’s a different beast all together,” he said, “I’m glad that we as a commission, as well as future commissions, will have something more concrete to apply to commercial projects versus having to try to decipher residential guidelines.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The commercial design guidelines would essentially apply to the commercial zones fronting Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street (outside of Downtown)

Much of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around providing clear and objective standards for commercial projects.

The intent here is to create something that’s more objective, said Commissioners Susan McLintock Whitin, who sits on the subcommittee along with Dubin that’s tasked with working with staff on the project.

“In understanding it, one of the things I came to realize was this is to be our version of the design review guidelines. So, it would make it more of a checklist kind of situation and less broad and subjective,” which can be pretty confusing, she said.

Commissioner Steve Goldman agreed that the more objective standards the city sets, the less proposals they’ll receive that are so far outside the box that they just don’t work.

“We, as a commission, I think, are arbiters on the objectivity,” Goldman said. “We can comment and color around the lines, in terms of what the guidelines are. So, I think the more clear we make them and the less ambiguous, for those who are going to be putting things in front of us, it gives us more latitude within the lines of it to comment and steer it along.”

It’s a difficult task to take on, added Chair Pro Tem Steve Kellenberg, trying to create flexibility, allow architectural creativity and individual solutions, but at the same time provide guidelines that are clear and somewhat objective.

He agreed that they should be “less fuzzy and subjective.” A lot of money is spent on designs, and architects and builders often want to have clear guidance and definitions, Kellenberg said. Because they are “guidelines,” there’s room for variety and flexibility in terms of how they’re interpreted for decision-making, he said, but the actual text should be fairly clear and straightforward so architects know what to do.

“It should be as clear and definitive as possible,” Kellenberg said.

As staff adds specifics and substance to the guidelines, it should be clear what they’re striving for, which is the village character, he said, with designs that focus on pedestrian-scale, diversity and eclecticism.

“It’s a little hard to comment because the meat isn’t on the bones yet,” Kellenberg said.

As they flesh out the details, they also want to ensure they avoid outlining a “master-planned look,” Whitin noted.

“The intention here is to create guidelines that allows for us to continue to have eclectic architecture here.”

Not so eclectic to the point of chaos, she added, but adding on to the existing scale and character, and still allow for the architect to put their own personal interpretation into a project.

“It’s intended on one hand to allow flexibility and yet, on the other hand, to make it clear what the guidelines are, both for the applicant and for the Planning Commission,” Whitin said.

Laguna Beach is not a planned community, Dubin agreed. Varying architectural design and style can make for a more interesting streetscape, he said.

New commercial development is always going to look different compared to buildings constructed decades prior, he noted, what was previously considered good design might be very dated today. They need to ensure that the guidelines don’t have too many restrictions on various design styles, he said.

“Different architectural styles can, in fact, enhance not only pedestrian enjoyment, but can also create an interesting visual impact for the community, while still respecting scale and history,” Dubin said. “The goal is the great guidelines that will enhance our community without pigeonholing us with one specific architectural style. Laguna is a very different city than those around us; the creation of these commercial design guidelines will help keep it that way well into the future by baking in specific goals and objectives, while at the same time allowing creative solutions without overbearing restrictions.”

The city is developing the commercial design guidelines to assist with the design review process by clarifying and expanding upon the design review criteria within the context of a non-residential or mixed-use project.

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The project kicked off in July 2022 through action taken by the City Council as part of their motion to introduce an ordinance that regulates large scale development, explained Principal Planner Anthony Viera. Council directed staff to establish commercial design guidelines that would complement the new development standards.

“We have reached a point in the lifecycle of the project where the general approach and framework are now starting to come into focus and before we take the next step to start crafting each design guideline, we wanted to pause at this early milestone and invite early Planning Commission feedback before we proceed,” Viera said.

On Wednesday, staff presented an outline of the guideline document, including the mission statement and introduction, an early draft and mockup of the parking guideline, and excerpts from two sets of guidelines used by the cities of San Jose and San Francisco, which were influential to the approach being considered for Laguna Beach.

Whitin also noted that the guideline examples staff provided from other cities are enticing because of the aspirational aspect. They’re extremely high-level thinking, she noted, and she’d like to see that in Laguna Beach.

The commercial design guidelines will aim to provide a more well-rounded understanding of the design review criteria within the context of a commercial project. They hope that the final product can match the utility of the residential design manual, Viera noted, which is an “invaluable tool” that the Design Review Board, city staff and applicants all utilize regularly.

“Philosophically, staff and the subcommittee are aiming for a sweet spot between providing a clear vision of what the commercial neighborhoods need to aspire to, while also creating space within the guidelines for architects to design with their own unique voice,” he said.

They don’t have an estimated schedule, Viera said, as staff is working on other advanced planning projects that take priority. They don’t want it to lie dormant, he added, and thought this was a good time for an introductory presentation and get some preliminary feedback. Although it likely won’t return to the Planning Commission very soon.

The guidelines are proposed to be organized around a series of topics, each representing a different element of the building or site design or an urban design concept (lighting, pedestrian orientation, building diversity, balconies, etc.).

Staff is proposing to divide the document into three sections: Purpose, background and the actual commercial design guidelines.

The section for “purpose” will include a brief introduction that acts as a mission statement followed by four guiding principles for the built environment, Viera explained.

“You can think of these principles as a sort of DNA for the project that should be felt throughout the entirety of the document,” Viera said.

The forward guiding principles are:

Cultural heritage and identity: To accentuate the city’s unique character and culture.

Human-scale development: Places to be designed for people.

Be a good neighbor: Good architecture cannot reach its full potential without contextual sensitivity.

Prosperity: Enhance the local economy.

Prosperity as a guiding principle is a bit unusual for design guidelines, Kellenberg noted. Although commissioners often comment on the economic viability of a proposed project, he commented, it’s worth discussing whether or not it should be specifically identified as a directive.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t,” include it in the guidelines, Kellenberg said, it might be acceptable, referencing an example from a previous Planning Commission decision, but they might not be experts on what would or wouldn’t enhance the local economy in a particular product market. “I don’t want us to overstep…our expertise.”

Viera appreciated the feedback and direction on the issue and confirmed that they can work on the language.

“The intent with that principle, which we could certainly replace or simply remove, was to tie in good design to successful projects,” Viera said. “But in your decision-making process, we do try to make it clear – to your point – that economics do not tie into the required findings and it’s not a basis for your decision-making.”

Kellenberg also suggested that retail continuity be addressed in the guidelines. That is also related to prosperity and the economic viability, he added.

They can elaborate further on the mission statement, including the guiding principle of prosperity, Whitin said.

“There does need to be the right balance between objectivity on one hand (and) clear guidelines on the other,” she said, “and then a recognition of the character piece of the city, which has got some building blocks that are widely recognized – the walking scale, the eclectic architecture, etc.”

Section one will also describe how and when the guidelines will apply to commercial projects, Viera added. Essentially, they would apply to the commercial zones fronting Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street outside of the Downtown Specific Plan.

The background section will map and describe the different commercial neighborhoods that fall within the scope of the design guidelines, Viera explained. The intent will be to highlight both positive attributes within the neighborhoods and areas that future projects can improve upon, he noted, so that applicants do not simply design to what exists within their immediate surroundings, which may not always be consistent with the city’s vision for the future.

The draft document currently identifies a total of 19 guidelines which are organized into two topic areas: architecture and site design. Each guideline will state the city’s design goal, followed by a range of means that an applicant can employ to achieve compliance.

“The document will emphasize that the guidelines are not to be considered prescriptive and projects may satisfy a guideline by applying one or all means, or by taking a unique approach that meets the intent,” Viera said.

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach 

An early draft of what the commercial design guideline for parking could potentially look like

Staff also provided an early review draft of what the parking guideline may potentially look like. The mock up follows the general format that staff is considering using for the rest of the final document. The draft parking guideline notes that “careful site and architectural planning is required to integrate this element into the urban fabric. While designing within the site constraints, priority shall be given to minimizing the visibility of parking infrastructure and parking access from the most primary street abutting the property and carrying the highest pedestrian volumes.” It covers access to on-site parking, garages, concealing ground level parking, integrating landscaping and screening, and more.

Commissioners also asked for the guidelines to have more photos and illustrative graphics. Viera noted that might require help from an outside consultant, which commissioners encouraged staff to consider.

There also needs to be better clarity in other sections, Kellenberg noted, like pedestrian orientation, building diversity in architecture, and adjacent building height and character.

Goldman asked about enforceability of the guidelines, particularly since there is some flexibility and an element of subjectivity.

While it depends on what’s outlined in the final document, design guidelines are typically enforceable as long as the decision is not arbitrary and capricious, said Patrick Donegan, an associate with Best Best & Krieger LLP, the law firm that provides city attorney services to Laguna Beach. As long as the decision makers rely on something “in the record” to make their findings and not simply that they “don’t like it,” he added.

Although there were no public comments, commissioners agreed they would have liked to hear input from the community on the draft document.


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

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