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Council comes to rare agreement on moving forward with purchasing closed school property in South Laguna


City Council unanimously decided to move forward this week to study possible uses, gather more community feedback and direct staff to develop a detailed financial plan to purchase a closed school property in South Laguna. 

On Tuesday (July 19), council discussed a concept use plan and financial strategies for 30516 Coast Highway, former home of the St. Catherine of Siena parish school, which closed in 2019. In a 5-0 vote, council directed City Manager Shohreh Dupuis to continue seeking public input and return to council on August 16 with a detailed financial purchase plan and possible partnership opportunities. 

In a rare phenomenon, there was agreement on the dais and in public comment on the item. 

“Having been 10 years on this council, this may be the first time we’ve got unanimity, I think, in public comment,” joked Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen. “Wow, we should do a mic drop and walk out.” 

It’s a once-in-a-multiple-generation opportunity, Whalen said. 

“We should do it, we should move ahead,” Whalen said. “Get good public input on long-term use, but it’s great that it’s so usable in the short-term for us. I’m looking forward to our next step.”

Echoing a few public comments, Mayor Sue Kempf said it would be unwise to pass up such a good opportunity. 

“It would really lack vision if we didn’t buy it,” Kempf said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

If the council decides to purchase the property after hearing a more detailed financial report, Dupuis suggested they go through a comprehensive, likely multi-year process to develop a master plan for the future use of the property.

“I think we really need to cohesively look at the vision for all of the community serving facilities, for all of our administration offices, for safety department buildings,” Dupuis said, noting the various properties the city owns. 

The short-term, immediate usage would require a different process to gather community input, she added. 

Councilmember George Weiss had some doubts about the property some time ago, but was bowled over by the workmanship and architecture of the buildings. 

“I like the idea of purchasing this site,” Weiss said. “I think it’s getting people excited about what it could be and how it could be used.”

Rare agreement St. Catherine view 1

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The city is discussing purchasing the property at 30516 Coast Highway, former home of the St. Catherine of Siena parish school

In 2021, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County contacted Laguna Beach officials to determine if the city was interested in acquiring the property, Dupuis explained. Staff has since been discussing the term and price of the sale with the council in closed session.

A few months ago, the diocese reached back out about the property. It took some time because the diocese had to get approval from Rome to confirm they wanted to sell the property, she noted. 

“They were specifically wanting to make sure that the property would continue to be used to provide community benefits,” Dupuis said. 

They have tentatively offered to sell the 6.5-acre property to the city for $23 million based on appraisals conducted by both the city and the diocese. 

On June 21, council directed staff to develop a concept use and high-level financial strategy for discussion. Staff returned with some preliminary ideas on Tuesday and asked for input from council and community members. 

This has been a long process and there is still work to be done, Whalen said. 

“Talk about city bureaucracy, well, going to Rome is no easy feat,” he said. 

City staff believes the city has the financial resources to fund the purchase through a combination of cash contribution with either internal or external borrowing.

The city could use funds already appropriate for future city facilities, use savings from fiscal year 2021-22, or borrow temporary surplus funds from other funds (vehicle replacement, insurance, etc.), explained Financial Director Gavin Curran. 

External funding options could include lease revenue bonds, an iBank loan, or a loan from a commercial bank, he noted. 

They will end up spending a lot of money there, Kempf noted, not just the purchase price but also the comprehensive usage plan, so she doesn’t mind having strategic partners within the master plan.

Laguna Beach Unified School District also submitted a letter to the city indicating that they are open to a potential cost-sharing arrangement and partnership to acquire the property. Dupuis will return with more details about what the deal might look like and what LBUSD could contribute, she said. 

He’d love to partner with one or more entities that could shoulder part of the investment and risk, Weiss added, and the local school district would make sense. 

The property includes four buildings which provide approximately 39,500 square feet of indoor space, Capital Program Manager Tom Perez explained. 

A large, indoor gym has a multipurpose court and a performance stage, along with a kitchen, bathrooms and class space. It could also be used for pickleball courts, a community meeting site, a safe refuge site for evacuation, or an emergency incident camp for first responders, he said. It is wired for a sound system, Perez confirmed. 

It’s a large gym and an amazing building, Weiss noted. The entire site is really well done, he added. 

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Other buildings on the property could be used for community meeting rooms, a library extension, technology center, pre-school/transitional kindergarten or day care facility, an Emergency Operations Center, public safety substations and training center, or a city administration annex.

It’s a very flexible site, Perez said. 

The 1,000-foot chapel could be used for civil marriage ceremonies, as a meeting space, or a training space, Perez suggested. It has an adjacent garden space, he added. 

There are also multiple outdoor spaces, including a basketball court, grass sports field, playground structures and picnic areas. The grassy area could provide up to 70 spaces for overflow or summer parking needs.

It provides an opportunity for people to gather and spend time together, Perez said. 

Considering the good condition of the buildings on the property, which were constructed in 2010, many short-term services could kick off immediately.

Staff suggested a few possible long-term concepts, including a community pool, parking structure, permanent skate park, city hall/civic center, or a cultural arts building. Given the size and the “strong bones” of the site it provides the city with a lot of potential opportunities, Perez said. 

All the uses outlined are good ideas, Weiss noted. They should find out where the demand is, he added. 

“It’s a beautiful site, so many uses for it,” Weiss said. 

These long-term uses would likely trigger discretionary approvals (like parking requirements) in addition to building permits, Perez explained. 

“There would be a lot of work that would go into it,” he said. 

These are just preliminary concepts, Dupuis emphasized. 

“It’s just to give you some ideas of how this property could be used, what community benefits could potentially be made,” she said. “This is the beginning of the dialogue with the community.”

They want to gather input from residents before the council decides whether or not to pursue the purchase of the property, Dupuis said. 

Rare agreement St. Catherine view 2

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The closed school site offers a variety of possible community uses

During public comment, there was agreement among all the speakers that they shouldn’t let this opportunity pass them up. 

They’ve never had an opportunity like this in the nearly 50 years he’s been in town, said longtime resident Samuel Goldstein.

“This is truly a dream come true,” he said. “I’m 150,000% for it.”

It’s a tragedy that the city’s playing fields are so limited, Goldstein said, and this is a great solution. Residents and kids will love it, he said, and there are so many opportunities available on the property. 

It’s a good deal and the city will get a lot for their money, noted resident John Thomas. It’s a good idea and there are a lot of opportunities for use.

“My hat is off,” Thomas said. “This is something that is good for the residents.”

Resident Sally Anne Sheridan also supported the idea of moving forward and gathering more public input on the potential purchase. She also has history with the property and understands what it could offer the community. 

“As a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church, we were told that the school had closed and knowing this to be a first-class facility, I contacted some interested parties in the county to open a music conservatory for the people of the City of Laguna Beach,” she said. 

They met with the diocese multiple times and completed all of their rigorous requirements to prove it would be a viable use of the facility, they had to prove enough support in the community to operate the facility. They were amazed at the response and enthusiasm, Sheridan said. They had partnerships with the school district, the Pacific Symphony, and Orange County Music and Dance Society, and private funding pledges, she added.

“At the last minute, the diocese stopped communicating with us, the ending of a great project,” Sheridan said. 

Before the process abruptly ended, they toured the campus, she noted. It has great adaptability to make it a unique community facility for a range of opportunities for the city, she said. Sheridan suggested possible nonprofit offices, community pool, affordable housing, police substation, or city offices.

“Please don’t let this opportunity pass you by,” Sheridan said. “Let the bright minds expand on the opportunity of what this facility could mean to the city of Laguna Beach.”

There were also some optimistic, but cautious comments from the public. 

Resident Alex Rounaghi cautioned the council about making any long-term use decisions or partnerships prematurely. They don’t want a piecemeal a long-term approach that will force things together in a way that’s not cohesive, he said. 

They should look at it as if it were a blank slate and the city was going to build it from the ground up to address community needs, Rounaghi suggested. They should use the facilities that are ready in the short-term while they determine a master plan, he added. 

It’s rare to have an opportunity to get this kind of quality of property, but they have to be careful financially, said longtime resident Jacob Cherub. They don’t want to have excess property, but be cash-poor in case of an emergency.

“We have to think very carefully about how many projects we can actually fund while still remaining viable because there will be emergency things that we’re going have to do in the future,” Cherub said. “So be wary, please, before we go forward.”


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

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