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Volume 15, Issue 45  | June 6, 2023Subscribe

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Aquatic center, school district facilities hot topic with board, parents, neighbors at study session


The local board of education and a passionate crowd of parents, coaches, students and neighbors discussed the future of the district’s facilities during a meeting last week, with most of the conversation focusing on a proposed aquatic center for the high school.

During a study session on March 23, the Laguna Beach Unified School District BOE reviewed proposed updates to the district’s 10-year facilities master plan that addresses facilities needs at all school sites. The presentation covered existing and anticipated student and program needs, including the transitional kindergarten program, upgrades to outdated athletics facilities, and demand for social and emotional support programs.

By far, the most-discussed item of the night was the potential aquatic center at Laguna Beach High School.

More than two dozen people spoke during public comment on the facility study item, nearly all speakers mentioned the aquatic center (a majority were in support of the plans).

In favor of building an aquatic center, speakers emphasized that the existing facilities are outdated, too small, and in need of an upgrade to adequately support the student and community activities. It’s a disservice to the kids, said one commenter.

The aquatics community is dominant in Laguna Beach and the city is even home to several gold medalists, a few people pointed out. Local athletes have to play important matches at other schools and drive out of town for practice. 

SchoolPower Executive Director Sarah Durand was part of the committee that was tasked with assessing current facility conditions and reviewing existing and future programs. As part of the work, they walked each of the school sites and discussed needs with the executive staff.

“Many things were brought up at the different sites, (they were) always student-first thinking. I’m happy to see the current plans reflect so much of what was discussed,” Durand said. “Most importantly, I’m energized to see our administration thinking big about our school facilities.” 

Students will benefit from improved athletic facilities, expanded counseling space and modernized classrooms, she added. 

“I am hoping the community as a whole can be open to working together to execute some of these big ideas that will benefit our students,” Durand said. “Whether or not it’s exactly the plans presented tonight it will take open minds and an overall community mindset to put our kids first.”

There were also quite a few speakers who emphasized the need for better pool facilities for the water polo team.

Resident and parent John Schneider said they moved to Laguna Beach in 2014 and were quickly introduced to the sport of water polo. Since then, they’ve spent the majority of their weeknights and weekends at various pools across California.

“Our experience in the sport has been nothing short of life-changing,” Schneider said.

Over the last 10 years, his daughters have developed a high level of self-esteem and self-confidence, in large part due to their involvement in the sport in Laguna Beach. They have been inspired by the coaches and Olympic players they come into contact with every day in the pool, he said.

Although there have been challenges with the local facilities.

“Pool space has been a problem from day one,” Schneider said.

Students have been injured because of the pool size, he said. They often have to drive to different pools in neighboring cities and practiced until late.

Sai Bassett, an LBHS senior and water polo player, urged the board to move forward with the aquatic center plans. It’s necessary to make these upgrades, he said. 

Even though he and many other current students won’t see the benefit of the new pools, they can provide the next generation a chance to make their city proud, Bassett said.

Aquatic center school district facilities pool rendering

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by Ruhnau Clarke Architects/Courtesy of LBUSD

A preliminary rendering of the proposed aquatic center at LBHS

Although not everyone was on board with the aquatic center idea or the project overall.

Speakers opposed to the proposal cited an intensification of use and that it’s not the right location for a facility that large. It doesn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood, several agreed. Some noted the need for a new pool, but that this wasn’t the right way to go about it.

Steve McIntosh, 41-year resident of Laguna Beach and a neighbor to the high school, said he realizes they need a new pool – and they’ll get that somehow – but looking at the bigger picture of the proposal it seems too large and expensive for Laguna, particularly since enrollment numbers are low.

“There’s no way to cost justify $100 million project that will benefit a small percentage of students,” he said. “This project seems like a large Irvine or Riverside recreational commercial complex than a small-town school district facilities upgrade.”

He asked the board to “scrap” the plan. This proposal was “out of nowhere,” he added. 

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“And yes, we understand that because of a ridiculous state law school districts are exempt from city regulations, design review, traffic studies, etc., and that you can build any damn thing you want, but as a real partner to the community, this is just not the thing to do,” McIntosh said. “An intrusive project of this scale will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the life of the neighbors, the beauty of the neighborhood in the town, and will negatively impact the value of our homes and properties. Let me ask you guys, would you want any of this in your front or backyard or neighborhood? I don’t think so.”

Longtime local resident Steven Chidester agreed that the proposal essentially equates to the district taking something from the residents.

“You’re talking about taking the quiet enjoyment of our homes for whatever purpose – for pools, for tennis, for water polo – you’re taking,” he commented. 

He also commented that the local residents have not had an opportunity to be heard. The plan itself is also too big for the available space and will “terribly” impact homeowners, he said. 

“It’s just simply not right,” Chidester said.

Board President Jan Vickers thanked the audience members for attending and sharing their comments, but reiterated that the meeting and ideas presented were in the very early concept stage. 

“I would just remind you that this is a very preliminary start to this planning,” Vickers said. “It’s a starting point and I hope that you will keep that in mind as we listen to the presentation tonight.” 

The point that the study session was very early on in the overall process was reiterated by several board members, district staff and the consulting architect.

Board member James Kelly noted that there’s a lot more to do.

“It’s going to have a long way to go before it ever comes to fruition, with a lot of your input,” Kelly said to the audience. “I think there’s great ideas here and I think we need to work them out as a community, as far as what’s the best for the neighbors, what’s the best for the students, what’s the best for the community.”

This is the very first step in the update of the facilities master plan, LBUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Jeff Dixon replied to a concern from board member Dee Perry about the district not reaching out to the neighbors sooner.

This is the first time the board has seen the concept plan and the next steps include community engagement, Dixon said. It’s a long process to go from a master plan to actually getting projects approved and constructed.

“It’s a long runway and we’ve always made it a point to do our best with engaging all of our neighbors and be good neighbors and this would be no different,” he said. 

Aquatic center school district facilities site plan

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Rendering by Ruhnau Clarke Architects/Courtesy of LBUSD

A preliminary site plan proposed for Laguna Beach High School

The first iteration of the 10-year facilities plan was established and approved in 2015, Dixon said. From that point on, staff provided annual updates to the master plan and would bring it to the board as an action item every year. The larger projects were part of the capital improvement program, but, after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they hired Ruhnau Clarke Architects in 2021 to review the feasibility of the remaining projects on the list from the 2015 plan that had not yet been addressed.

In 2022, the initial feasibility study was presented to the board and had found that the high school administration offices needed to be expanded primarily to deal with the increased need of counseling and support spaces for students. The study also covered the district office and the transitional kindergarten program.

The board then created an ad hoc committee to take a comprehensive look at the update to the master plan. The committee was tasked with identifying long-term demographic trends, assessing current facility conditions, and reviewing existing and future programs to identify all anticipated facility needs.

Board member Kelly Osborne, who served on the committee, said it’s been quite a long road.

The facilities committee worked to identify where the facilities are not meeting the needs of students, she said. As a board, they have to prioritize representing the best interest of the students and utilize every inch of available space.

Last week’s meeting was the first time they’ve returned to the board with the findings from the comprehensive approach that they were tasked with, Dixon said.

“We anticipate several opportunities to engage and modify with this plan, as it is just a plan. These are not drawings, these are not specifications, and these are not projects. This is a plan that we use to set the stage and build forward so that we can address the needs and eventually get to…design. But, again, this is the first of many, many steps and we anticipate that we would continue our engagement,” Dixon said.

Roger Clarke, principal and president of Ruhnau Clarke Architects, also emphasized that the master plan is an effort to identify certain projects and certain scopes of work. There are no buildings designed or anything determined yet, he emphasized. The conceptual renderings are just to help imagine how the project would impact the viewscape. There is still plenty of time to look into more alternatives, Clarke said.

“There were multiple alternatives that were studied and certainly there can be multiple alternatives that can be studied in the future,” Clarke noted. 

The process will include reaching out to the community to get input, both from a planning perspective and from a designing perspective of what should these buildings look like, he added.

“I hope no one gets hung up on some feature of that building or that doesn’t match the existing campus – that can all be done later,” Clarke said. 

Clarke also shared some “very preliminary” ballpark numbers, which estimates total construction costs at about $88.3 million (not including soft costs like testing, inspection and legal fees). The aquatics center is estimated to cost $20.77 million.

Aquatic center school district facilities audience

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Scott Brashier

A full audience of parents, students, coaches and neighbors during the study session on March 23 

Some of it is, essentially, spearheaded by the aquatic center, in terms of the impact and ensuring it’s the right size pool facilities for the district, Clarke said. 

Considering the LBHS administration and district offices, field improvements, sports facilities, parking needs and other modernizations previously identified in the master plan, they examined where everything could be placed, Clarke said, including a CIF-quality aquatic facility, which can’t fit in the existing pool location. There are only so many places where that can fit, he noted.

“It’s just a matter of how do we do that and how do we maximize the utilization, but also provide the facilities that are desperately needed,” Clarke said. 

That led the team to consider moving other facilities around and make the most out of the footprint. The goal is to address those needs at the high school for the administrative functions for the student services, to replace those classrooms, to make space for that aquatic center. 

“That’s really the linchpin of this is making a space for that (aquatic center),” Clarke said. 

By having both a 25-meter and a 50-meter pool, there can be multiple practices happening at the same time, Clarke noted.

“(That will) provide a world-class facility for your community and for your school,” he said. 

The pool is at about the same elevation as the existing tennis courts, Clarke explained, so there’s no elevation change. 

“You’re not raising that up, you’re not putting anything right in the middle of someone’s yard,” he said. 

The pool opened in 1994 and its aging is definitely showing, Osborne noted. 

“It’s at the end of its life and I think we heard many comments about that. The pool does not meet the needs of the students anymore,” she said and they need to get creative with the new facility. “That’s one of the critical pieces of this whole puzzle,”

Perry said she doesn’t want students, younger kids in particular, practicing late into the night and then have to go home from an out-of-town facility.

“We’re doing so much to try to work on social and emotional health and physical health and then to blow and have them stay up too late and not get enough sleep, it doesn’t make sense.”

“I really agree that we need an aquatics center, that we need a big pool. I feel badly that our kids can’t have home games,” Perry said. “But what other spaces did we look at to do the pool?”

She mentioned looking into the bus barn and St. Catherine’s.

Both of those locations were considered, staff confirmed. 

The district expressed interest in working with the city on the former St. Catherine’s site, but the city did not take the district up on their offer, Vickers said. The short-term use list of priority projects does not include a pool, she noted. Although she’s unsure what the city is considering for long-term use of the property, the district has asked to be involved.

Osborne added that the St. Catherine’s campus site likely couldn’t accommodate the size of pools the district is looking for without demolishing some of the buildings, which are relatively new.

The district is fully utilizing the bus barn at this point, Vickers said. At the committee level, they didn’t consider that location for the aquatic center because that would mean having to relocate the bus barn, she added. 

 While the large crowd emptied out of the meeting room after the aquatics center and high school discussion, Clarke also presented a preliminary scope of potential work for Thurston Middle School, and Top of the World and El Morro elementary schools.

At Thurston, the scope of work includes creating outdoor learning areas in multiple locations, main courtyard enhancements, gym expansion and seismic upgrades, maker space re-design, theater upgrades and new security fencing.

Total preliminary cost estimate for construction (not including soft costs) is about $4.79 million.

At Top of the World, the scope of work includes new restrooms, new lunch shelter, outdoor learning areas, maker space, UTK with playground and playfield upgrades. 

Total preliminary cost estimate for construction (not including soft costs) is about $7.28 million.

At El Morro, the scope of work includes a new two-story classroom building, playfield upgrades, outdoor learning areas, administration expansion, MPR modernization, UTK and kindergarten and other site improvements.

Total preliminary cost estimate for construction (not including soft costs) is about $19.84 million. The biggest portion of the cost estimate is for the new two-story classroom building.

Board member comments covered turf versus natural grass on the fields, emphasized the need for shade structures and/or trees, lighting, outdoor learning space, compliance with TK regulations, the low enrollment numbers, and kitchen needs and nutrition.


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

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