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Council selects three potential affordable housing sites to study further 


Following a presentation this week detailing affordable housing candidate sites, City Council directed staff to further examine three potential sites.

Council unanimously agreed on Tuesday (Jan. 11) for city staff to study three possible locations: Vista Aliso (21544 Wesley Drive); Laguna Beach Unified School District bus depot (2003 Laguna Canyon Road); and parking lot #3 (243 Ocean Ave., behind Bushard’s Pharmacy).

The analysis on all three sites will return at a future meeting, along with an outline of the entitlement process, should the city decide to pursue any of the selected locations.

Mayor Sue Kempf liked the Vista Aliso location and thought the bus yard site was adequate.

“None of these sites are exactly perfect,” she said, but they’re the best options available.

They can discuss the issue for hours, Councilmember Peter Blake noted, but there will always be at least one person who opposes any potential location.

“But we just have to find two locations and just get the shovel in the dirt and start building,” Blake said.

Blake noted that the Ocean Avenue site could be interesting for senior housing. There are a lot of local benefits, including nearby groceries, pharmacy services and shopping.

“It’s just a really incredible situation,” Blake said.

It’s a good idea to have some affordable housing downtown, Kempf agreed, but the cost is high and the space is limited so it might be challenging.

The other primary candidate sites presented were: Act V lot (1900 Laguna Canyon Road); Pepper Tree lot (322 Forest Ave.); and parking lot #10 (725 Laguna Canyon Road).

The Planning Commission reviewed the sites on August 25. Commissioners expressed concern about the current design of both downtown sites and recommended the council give particular scrutiny to the integration of parking into each project design.

Planning Commissioner and longtime urban planner Steve Kellenberg gave the presentation, noting that it’s one strategy of many concepts that can be utilized to address housing issues. Affordable housing needs to be on the scale that it can receive outside funding and can actually make a dent in the need, he said.

Kellenberg went over each site in detail, highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of each potential location. 

Council selects three beach houses and hills

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

A discussion this week revolved around affordable housing in Laguna Beach

It’s important to have an action plan, said Housing and Human Services Committee member Barbara McMurray.

“We need specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (or S.M.A.R.T.) goals,” McMurray said.

They’ve spent hundreds of hours crafting these recommendations, she added. Like the rest of the committee, she wants to see forward movement on affordable housing in this city.

“We all agree that we don’t want Laguna Beach to become just a weekend playground for wealthy people who own second homes here or a day-tripper beach destination for inland residents,” McMurray said. “We desperately need to fill in some of the missing middle housing so that regular people can afford to live here.”

They should have made accommodations for this decades ago, she admitted, but they didn’t, so the work needs to be done now.

Resident John Thomas said he supports affordable housing, but noted the extreme cost to develop these projects, not even including the land, can be incredibly challenging.

“The financial challenge to do these things is just mind boggling,” Thomas said.

There are other strategies, like Accessory Dwelling Units or adaptive re-use, Thomas said, reiterating Kellenberg’s earlier point.

“You really have to look at the whole ball of wax,” Thomas said. “While there is merit to doing this kind of project, just from a cost standpoint, a lot of the other (options) are a lot more feasible.”

Housing and Human Services Committee member Jacquie Schaefgen had a positive outlook on the situation.

“It is a very complicated process to get a project through to the point that it is feasible and all the financing pieces are put into place, but it’s doable and I feel like we should try,” she said. “I think we can do it.”

In 2019-20, HCD awarded 958 grants and loans totaling more than $2.5 billion to create 19,471 new affordable apartments and single-family homes in California. The funds also went to preserve 16,481 housing units, subject to affordable rent or homeownership requirements and rehabilitate 986 substandard housing units.

This is just the starting point, she emphasized. They aren’t looking to build thousands of units, they’re looking to consider what this approach can add to the city’s affordable housing stock as one prong of the solution.

“These sites deserve some analysis for what is possible,” Schaefgen said.

Other public comments supported the bus yard site, cautioned against the Vista Aliso location as it could have the potential to be a school again, and noted the need in South Laguna.

In another housing-related item on Tuesday’s agenda, council unanimously approved adopting a general plan amendment for the 6th Cycle Housing Element.

The Housing Element needs to be updated every eight years. The 6th Cycle covers the city’s 2021-2029 planning period and assesses the current and projected housing needs for all economic segments of the community. It also includes policies and action programs that further the production of housing.

The city doesn’t need to construct the 394 units identified as part of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, but has to ensure that there are adequate housing sites and zoning standards to accommodate the required number of units.

The Housing Element must be adopted and submitted to the State Department of Housing and Community Development by February 12.

Some of the key programs in the document that facilitate special needs residential housing development include:

–Rezoning the 340 St. Ann’s Drive church parking lot to institutional to allow unlimited density with the approval of a conditional use permit.

–Initiate phase two of the Downtown Specific Plan update to allow for residential development and provide permissive development standards as incentives specific to special needs residential housing (e.g., increased height, reduced parking, etc.).

–Update the Laguna Canyon Specific Plan to potentially allow for residential development in light industrial areas and allow for work/live units not restricted to artists.

–Consider mixed-use and work/live units along the Coast Highway corridor.

–Amend the zoning code to allow more flexible development standards to facilitate special needs residential housing at 30 du/ac or higher density.

–Amend the R-3 zone to allow multi-family special needs residential housing by-right.

–Promote ADUs by creating a comprehensive handbook and information on the website.

–Outreach to religious institutions to assist in development of special needs residential housing. 


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


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