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Council approves interim use programming for South Laguna campus


An interim use plan for a closed Catholic school property that the city recently purchased was approved this week, but not without some disagreement on the timeline.

Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday (Jan. 24) and approved an interim use plan for the former St. Catherine of Siena School campus at 30516 Coast Highway. Councilmember George Weiss dissented, saying that he liked the idea but thought it was premature.

Weiss’ comments were echoed by several public speakers, who urged the council to wait until after the scheduled open house events in February to approve an interim use plan. The city should first get community feedback and learn more about the local recreational needs, some of the speakers agreed. 

While other residents and a majority of councilmembers were excited about the use plan and wanted to quickly make use of the new property.

“When we bought the property, it was clearly outlined by the city manager and staff at the time that there was going to be an interim use and a long-term use, and so this is not new,” said Mayor Bob Whalen. “None of these are long-term uses that we can’t end in a period of a week or two.”

 The programming is essentially allowing immediate use of the gym and the already established facilities, he commented, and they heard from residents on Tuesday that there is a big need for that type of space.

“Let’s get it going,” he said.

The city spent $23 million on the site, they want to get use out of it immediately, agreed Councilmember Alex Rounaghi.

“I don’t think anyone here [on the dais] is thinking that the uses that we’re picking today are going to have any impact on the decision that we make in the future.

“We have to involve all the different stakeholders and make a really good decision,” Rounaghi said. 

Long-term uses of the property will be considered as part of a comprehensive city facilities master plan.

Council approves interim use programming St Catherine aerial

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Photo by Steven Georges/Diocese of Orange

City council approved an interim use plan for the former Catholic school campus in South Laguna

The approved use plan takes advantage of the available office spaces and recreational areas without making any structural changes on the property, which provides approximately 39,500 square feet of indoor space.

Assistant City Manager and Chief Financial Officer Gavin Curran said staff tried to make the best use of the what’s existing at the campus.

“With the interim uses, we tried not to modify the property,” Curran said. “We really just wanted to take advantage of what was at the facility.”

The plan calls for opening the gym building four days a week with hours subject to change based on final programming. The recommendation included the immediate use of the two offices for recreation staffing and the remainder of the building for recreation programming. 

Rounaghi suggested working to keep the gym open for use seven days a week, possibly partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to help staff it.

“There’s so much demand for gym space,” he said. 

The program for the gym and the large performance stage could begin in the spring or summer with limited hours. Proposed programming could include: Adult drop-in basketball; indoor pickleball with temporary lines and nets; youth recreation classes and cultural arts programming on the stage. By summer, there could be portable skate ramps in one of the courtyard areas, wedding ceremonies performed in the chapel and opening the facility for extended public hours.

The gym could also provide space for fire and police training and a safe refuge location for residents forced to evacuate from their homes during an emergency.

In the main building of the campus, city staff suggested using the administrative area, the first floor of the building, and the employee lounge for city operations, which could include fire administration and an emergency operations center. The kindergarten room, library, and three classrooms on the second floor would remain available for community youth and programming.

No interim use was proposed for the lower building (the former middle school classroom area); staff recommended that the city allow nonprofit and other organizations to use the classrooms daily, weekly, or monthly through a use license agreement. Tuesday’s action also authorized the city manager to develop an interim rental program and fee structure with an agreement that is mindful of any long-term uses prioritized as part of the facilities master plan.

The outdoor area includes a basketball court, play structure and tables. The plan calls for programming the space for summer or spring recreational activities, including a small mobile skate park.

Councilmember Mark Orgill suggested staff interview some young skaters before installing the skate park to ensure that the style of equipment is what they would want and would be used. 

It’s definitely going to get utilized, noted Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf, because there’s a big demand for a skate park.

The mobile skate parks are very flexible, Curran confirmed. 

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City Manager Shohreh Dupuis also noted that they will work with the Recreation Committee on the project, since they’ve received a lot of input about it over the years. 

The grass field/parking area has two single-use restrooms connected to the rest of the campus with stairs and an elevator. 

Staff suggested that the area be modified to provide approximately 70 parking spaces for overflow parking or parking for larger events. The field would need a material like gravel, pavers, or engineered pervious material concrete. 

Ultimately, councilmembers agreed to remove that recommendation from the motion.

“We don’t know what, ultimately, we’re going to have down there and whether (or not) we need the field,” Whalen said. 

They shouldn’t spend $100,000 to take those improvements out, he said. 

Tuesday’s action also appropriated an additional $10,000 from the general fund for maintenance and cleaning, and increase estimated recreation fee and rental fee revenue by $15,000; and authorized the addition of one full-time maintenance worker position and one full-time recreation supervisor position to the fiscal year 2022-23 adopted budget to program, manage and maintain the property.

The property also contains many books, equipment and other materials not needed by the city, which would need to be either disposed or donated. The city will encourage local nonprofits and other community groups to attend the open house days and place their contact information on an interest list for the items. Popular items will be managed through a lottery-type process.

Council approves interim use programming St Catherine sign

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Photo by Steven Georges/Diocese of Orange

Some residents asked the council to hold off on approving a plan until the community could tour and provide feedback on uses and needs

During public comment on the item, several speakers were excited to use the property, but wanted to wait before approving an interim plan until the city could gather feedback from the community.

Resident Jacob Cherub was very upset and disturbed about the item, he said. 

It’s going to cost millions of dollars and the public doesn’t know what is going on over there, he said. The “bare bones” staff report was a waste of time and money, Cherub added, it could have been done so much better. 

Cherub and several speakers asked the council to only approve the clean-up process, a maintenance worker and a recreation supervisor. They urged the council to hold off on approving a programming plan until after the open house events scheduled for February.

“This is the cart absolutely in one area and the horse is not even on the field,” Cherub said.

Village Laguna board member Johanna Felder said they are looking forward to the community open house events so that the public can see the property, which for many will be the first time.

She suggested decisions on interim uses be deferred until after the open house events, so that the community’s comments on potential use can be based on a well-informed assessment of the property.

“Interim uses tend to morph into permanent ones,” Felder said. 

Cindy Prewitt, founder and president of Laguna Beach Live!, agreed and raised a concern that there hasn’t been enough thought to the needs for the cultural arts. Being able to see the property would help them understand how it could potentially be used, which would feed into how the city prepares the site and what action or purchases need to be done.

“We’d like to, as a public, have more input before this is cast into stone,” Prewitt said. “Even though interim is (what’s) mentioned that still often becomes the final decision as well.”

Later, during council comments, Weiss agreed. He didn’t know that an interim use plan was going to be proposed from the city, he said. He thought council had directed staff to start by first connecting with residents to find out what they wanted.

“You have to ask the community what they want, (but) we’re not asking them. I don’t mind any of these things, I think they’re fine,” but they need to confer with the community first, Weiss said. “I find this to be disrespectful to the community.” 

The programming doesn’t start until spring and an open house is slated for February, he pointed out, they could wait to approve a plan. 

Weiss questioned if some of the proposed interim uses, like adult drop-in basketball, would actually be wanted by residents. He just doesn’t see it happening.

Although the plans for the interim use aren’t coming out of thin air, staff explained, they were developed based on knowledge and previous feedback from experts.

The recommendations for the programming come from a lot of experience of the recreation staff working with residents and the Recreation Committee on understanding the needs of the community, Dupuis said. 

A team of city staff from all departments met several times and carefully developed the interim use plan, according to the staff report. 

Director of Transit and Community Services Michael Litschi said the adult drop-in basketball program was offered prior to COVID, but current court availability is limited. At the new campus, the gym already has six hoops ready to go, he pointed out.

Several other public speakers liked the proposed programming, noting specific needs that would be met under the temporary plan.

There are a lot of great interim uses proposed that will cater to families and youth, Elizabeth Hanauer said.

“There’s room for improvement in offering more brick-and-mortar recreational facilities for kids and families and I think this is a great start,” she said. 

Hanauer noted that the recommended gym hours might not be long enough for the demand. It would be good if the city could see what the needs are and then shift the times accordingly.

She also opposed turning the field into parking as there are some youth groups in town that are lacking field space. 

These are permanent needs, Hanauer noted, so while the interim use plan is great, they need to keep the needs of families and local youth in mind when they plan for the long-term use of the site.

“This site is a great opportunity to develop some great things for the city,” she said. 

There are a lot of things that they can collaborate on, commented Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach Area Director Hans Laroche. There is a need for game and recreational space, he noted, and there’s a lot of aligned interests between the club and the city.

Overall, there was more agreement on the project in the decision that led up to this week.

Prior to closing escrow on the property on December 28, the city went through a long process to purchase the closed Catholic school in South Laguna.

In a rare agreement, council unanimously decided to move forward on July 19 to study possible uses, gather more community feedback and directed staff to develop a detailed financial plan to purchase the 6.5-acre property. 

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on August 16 to approve the purchase and authorize the city manager to make a formal offer to the Diocese of Orange for $23 million for the purchase of St. Catherine of Siena school property, with an escrow period up to 120 days.

The August action adopted a financing plan that includes appropriating $23.5 million for the purchase of the property using $4 million from the Future City Facilities account, $2 million from the available American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds designated for city facilities, $3 million from the General Fund mid-year savings, $2 million from Vehicle Replacement Fund mid-year savings and $1 million Insurance Fund mid-year savings.

City Councilmembers wore multiple hats during a dual meeting on October 18 and in both roles they unanimously approved lease financing $12 million to finance a portion of the purchase. 

Although the process and their responsibility as the Laguna Beach Financing Authority, as well as the roles of city treasurer versus the LBFA treasurer, caused some confusion both on the dais and with some city staff. It was settled after some clarification from a consulting attorney and some back and forth between city staff members.


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

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