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Split Council approves updated Downtown Specific Plan


A split City Council approved an updated and modified Downtown Specific Plan this week, with some concerns raised about parking requirements that are overly flexible and the possibility of businesses changing use from retail to restaurant.

Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday (Jan. 25) to approve changes to Laguna Beach’s Local Coastal Program and other code amendments regarding the DSP and accept the modifications made by the California Coastal Commission. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented.

The Downtown Specific Plan is a planning document that serves to guide growth, design and development standards in downtown. An updated plan was adopted by the city council in July 2020.

The Coastal Commission unanimously approved the DSP-related changes to Laguna Beach’s Local Coastal Program on December 15. The changes are primarily aimed at relaxing parking restrictions and allowing more uses. CCC also made some modifications that corrected and clarified ambiguities and ensures consistency with the Coastal Act. 

Tuesday’s action by the council accepted the CCC’s modifications and approved the LCP amendment. It will head back to the CCC for final approval by the executive director and concurrence by coastal commissioners. 

Some of the modifications suggested by the California Coastal Commission include: Changes to the parking, circulation and public transit policies to ensure public access is protected; update language in the Central Bluffs District section of the DSP to maintain protection of coastal bluffs and ensure consistency with public access policies of the certified Land Use Plan; adjust the Arts District boundary to maintain consistency with the certified LUP map; require an administrative LCP amendment for changes to local land use permitting requirements; add a new definition for civic-related uses and other minor clerical modifications. 

Staff also recommended that a table in the DSP be modified to include the requirement for a Conditional Use Permit for formula-based eating and drinking establishments. 

The updated DSP allows for most branded retail stores to be permitted-by-right but limits the total number to 20 in the DSP area, said Senior Planner Wendy Jung.

“Staff believes it is important to the character as well as the quality of the downtown that the updated Specific Plan still require a Conditional Use Permit for formula-based eating and drinking establishments,” she said. 

There are special findings required for approval of a CUP that were carried over from the original DSP, Jung added. This provides the city with more discretion when considering formula-based eating and drinking establishments in the downtown, she explained. 

Iseman raised a concern if this would “encourage” formula-based establishments.

It’s not encouraging them, Jung clarified, it’s simply noting that the permit is required. The current DSP more or less requires a Conditional Use Permit for almost all uses, she said. 

“With the update to the Specific Plan, we were trying to create some flexibility and a lot of uses were allowed to be permitted by right, a lot of restaurants, including take-out and full service that didn’t include alcohol service,” Jung said. “We always had special findings for formula-based food businesses, so we wanted to include and be clear that formula-based food service uses would still be subject to a Conditional Use Permit, just as they always have been.” 

Split Council approves Forest Ave

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Promenade on Forest Avenue

Much of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around parking requirements in downtown.

Some points of concern are accurate and others are more hypothetical, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said. 

“We all know we have a parking issue,” he said. “There’s always been a parking problem in Laguna Beach.”

But the DSP update is not causing the problem, it’s been building over many years, he noted. 

“We’ve got to look at the problem holistically, we’ve got to (consider)…collective parking,” Whalen said, “but tonight is about approving this DSP.”

Whalen pointed out that the CCC, in their updated modifications, acknowledged the city’s five-year, multi-phase parking rate structure plan for all public parking.

“This is a significant and positive change,” Whalen said. 

By adding that language and following the CCC’s approval of the plan in 2020, the city can implement the previously approved parking rate increases, Whalen pointed out. 

Weiss noted that despite a study conducted by IBI Group that indicated there is sufficient parking downtown to meet demand, during special events in the peak summer season it can be nearly impossible to find parking. Now, with the promenade and parklets taking up parking spaces, Weiss questioned if those spaces will need to be made up in order to get CCC approval. 

If the promenade and parklets remain permanent, the city will need a Coastal Development Permit and the CCC may require the city to offset the loss of parking somehow, Community Development Director Marc Wiener confirmed. 

There are about 3,400 parking spaces in the downtown area, about half are public. Wiener noted. The study looked at the occupancy rate of those spaces, he explained. It did find that public parking was “stretched” during the peak summer hours, he added. 

Parking was also a key concern for several public speakers on Tuesday.

Resident Johanna Felder worried that the reduction in parking requirements will enable developers to intensify use without mitigating the impacts they create.

“These changes serve as an incentive to intensify and serve as a boon to developers because they save a fortune and make more money,” she said. 

That means that these changes to the DSP make it more profitable to replace small shops with more intense uses, such as bars and restaurants, Felder said. Intensification of use is what’s behind the increase in traffic, parking demand and congestion, she added, and this will only exacerbate the problem. 

This might lead to increased pressure for a parking structure, something residents have long opposed, she said. 

The direction the city is going in regarding parking is making quality of life worse and worse for residents, added Jacob Cherub. With projects being approved with reduced parking requirements, cars are getting pushed into the neighborhoods, he said. 

“This is another example of not paying the piper when it is due,” Cherub said. “(Don’t) kick the can down the road so that it just becomes so difficult, so ornery that the only thing that the council may look to and say ‘Look what we’ve done, we have to have a parking structure.’”

Split Council approves parked cars

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Cars parked in downtown Laguna Beach

Weiss and Iseman echoed some of the concerns mentioned during public comment, including parking getting pushed into residential neighborhoods and that these changes could result in more bars and restaurants downtown. 

It’s a precarious situation that could turn Laguna’s unique downtown into a “food court,” Iseman noted. Mentioning several recently approved projects, she said the situation is close to getting out of hand and residents are not being considered. 

“We should have threaded a needle and we didn’t thread a needle. What we have in front of us is, I think, a runaway train,” Iseman said. “It’s very serious and we have to recognize the impact of stacking these things week after week after week.”

It’s a concern that it would allow for a change in use from retail to restaurant without any parking requirements, Weiss said. 

“The landlords would have an incentive to move to bars and restaurants,” he said. 

The updated DSP requires three spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial floor area for most uses, so a retail shop could be converted to a restaurant and it does not increase the parking demand, Wiener confirmed. 

The parking standards aim to provide more flexibility with changing uses for existing buildings, he said, but new construction would have to meet the updated parking standards. 

And any establishment that serves alcohol, whether it’s a bar or restaurant, would still require a CUP and certain findings have to be met, including that the commission has to look to balance the mixture of uses in the downtown, Wiener replied. 

“The good thing about this updated DSP it gives us the ability to monitor it and see what type of business proposals we get,” Wiener said. “I do think the market will take care of some of it, will dictate what types of businesses open in the downtown.”

If there are any issues, they can address it quickly, he added.


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


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