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Downtown Specific Plan changes get green light from Coastal Commission


The California Coastal Commission unanimously approved changes to Laguna Beach’s Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) this week, primarily aimed at relaxing parking restrictions and allowing more uses in the neighborhood. 

Commissioners voted 7-0 on Wednesday (Dec. 15) in support of an amendment to the city’s Local Coastal Program regarding the Downtown Specific Plan. 

The DSP is a planning document that serves to guide growth, design and development standards in downtown. The updated plan was adopted by the city council in July 2020 but needed the CCC’s certification before it can be implemented.

On Wednesday, commissioners commended the public process and commented that the changes to the DSP would help improve the area. 

It sounds like there was “excellent” process, said Commissioner Katie Rice. The modifications will go back to the council, she pointed out, so people who objected can raise their concerns at the local level.

She supported the DSP changes and the city’s efforts to invigorate the area. 

“I appreciate the content also, of the IP amendment, and what the city is proposing doing as they look forward for their community and their residents toward greater vibrance, (of an) inclusive, 21st century city and downtown,” Rice said.

Commissioner Mike Wilson commended the city’s effort to relax the parking constraints.

“Parking requirements often create blight and this is a way to address that,” he said. 

On Thursday (Dec. 16), Mayor Sue Kempf said in a prepared statement that she was pleased with the CCC’s decision. It will enable the city to attract high quality retailers with innovative businesses, fill empty storefronts and provide more flexibility to longtime retailers.

“These revisions support rapidly changing resident and visitor needs and will enhance the city’s vitality, while maintaining the special qualities of our downtown,” Kempf said.

The update to the Downtown Specific Plan strikes a balance between allowing greater flexibility in land uses with a streamlined review process, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis explained in the message. 

Coastal Commission-approved updates to the plan primarily: Add new parking requirement of three spaces for each 1,000 square feet of gross floor area for certain non-residential uses, such as office, retail and food service in downtown; allow most uses in downtown as permit-by-right rather than require a local Condition Use Permit to streamline and reduce barriers to new business; allow the city to change the “Allowed Uses and Permit Requirements Table” by city council resolution on an as-needed basis rather than through an LCP amendment; and allow for the re-use of public parking in downtown.

Dupuis emphasized that the updated DSP does not include any new standards or provisions that would allow nonconforming structures to be replaced or reconstructed up to the original height, nor does it specifically allow or promote second-story additions to historic buildings. The updated DSP does not modify the city’s Historic Preservation Program and retains a list of properties in the downtown that are on the city’s historic register and those eligible for the national and state registers.

Downtown Specific Plan Forest Ave

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna Beach

On Wednesday, Kempf spoke to the CCC and emphasized that she was the only member of city council speaking officially on behalf of the city. This amendment has support of the majority of the council, she noted. 

There were 20 public meetings at the time, said Kempf, who was on the Planning Commission for much of the process.

“I don’t think we could have vetted this anymore if we tried,” she said. 

The previous DSP was well-intentioned, she added, but was overly restrictive and resulted in a direct negative effect on the downtown. It discouraged high quality tenants, innovative businesses and caused a lack of property investment, she said. 

“We have a situation here where the parking requirements are so difficult to achieve that each site would have to be developed with a multi-level parking structure,” Kempf said. 

 It was last updated in 2008. It’s now out of step with visitor and resident preferences, Kempf said. 

“As a city, we’re taking steps to create more parking in our downtown,” to lessen the burden on business owners and making it easier for people, Kempf said. 

Both George Weiss and Toni Iseman spoke (as individuals, not representatives of city council) opposing the amendment as written. They raised concerns about parking and historical significance

Several other commenters echoed their points, suggesting that the amendment return to the city level for further public review. Not all of the modifications before the CCC were included in the previous public discussions, several people pointed out. 

The new modifications have been sprung on the community and they are still trying to determine the potential ramifications, said resident Judi Mancuso. 

How this amendment will impact downtown is still unknown, several people agreed, particularly regarding historical buildings. 

Some speakers worried that the changes to DSP would drastically reduce protections to historic resources, which would be detrimental to the community character. Reducing the parking requirements could eliminate an incentive for property owners to preserve their buildings and place them on the historic register, a few commenters noted. 

Longtime resident and Village Laguna board member Ann Christoph urged the commission to consider the “lack of provisions” to protect the historical resources of the downtown. The DSP amendment is less diligent on this issue, she said. 

 “One hundred years of history can be experienced in our city,” she said. “At the same time, this is a living, active downtown; proving that we can not only live happily within a historical setting, we can thrive and offer a unique perspective for our visitors and residents.”

Other speakers heard concerns regarding building height and the land use definition. 

Downtown Specific Plan Broadway

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Broadway Street in downtown Laguna Beach

On the other side of the issue, in support of the amendment, several speakers noted that the DSP would more likely encourage property owners to improve and restore their historical buildings. The less restrictive parking regulations are needed to make the downtown more attractive to both business owners and the public, some agreed.

Kent Russell, a downtown property owner, said the current code is limited and restricts new businesses and new ideas from coming in. They want to maintain Laguna’s character, he said, but also adapt with the times. 

“Our downtown is at a crossroads,” Russell said. “This is about making our downtown viable.”

Retail is struggling right now, it’s difficult out there, Russell said. This DSP amendment would create more flexibility with the process and a more adaptable parking code, both of which would help create a sustainable downtown. Part of that is ensuring that both residents and visitors have a positive experience and enjoy coming downtown, he added. 

“We as a town love the fact that we’re unique, we love the fact that we’ve got charm, all of us do,” Russell said. “The real risk is if we stay where we are, we’re going to…get stale.”

Others agreed about the need for the downtown to adapt in order to remain vibrant. 

Many of the buildings were constructed long before any of the current parking problems were an issue, noted Jeff Redeker. These changes are a flexible solution to help attract businesses to the downtown, he added. 


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


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