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Food Village plans for fresh look, improvements include dining pavilion and community plaza

By SARA HALL

The Planning Commission this week unanimously approved a number of proposed improvements for the Food Village, including a new dining pavilion and community plaza. 

Commissioners voted 5-0 Wednesday (Dec. 1) in favor of the project, which includes a detached pavilion with natural gas heaters, outdoor fireplace, fencing, lighting, hardscape and landscaping. 

The action included approval of required permit and signage program amendments to allow the conversion of a portion of the shared food court to a fenced dining area with alcohol service operated by Carmelita’s. Commissioners also added a condition that an additional tree be placed in the corner planter (as the project calls for removing the existing palms and adding a Mexican sycamore).

Most of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around the location of the proposed fireplace, a potential water feature on a wall slated to be an artistic mosaic design, the loss of the trees and the narrow pathway to the other restaurants in the Food Village. Consensus was that the water feature might be a nice addition, but would go against the city’s conservation efforts, and that the fireplace might be better situated between the dining pavilion and the community plaza to be enjoyed by more people, but neither were dealbreakers for the project.

Commissioners enthusiastically agreed that the project overall will liven up the area, something that’s very much needed in the space they described as uninviting and uninteresting. 

The plaza has been fairly run down for many years, Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin pointed out, and agreed that this project will be a much-needed improvement for the very visible space.

“It’s going to be a much better aesthetic for the front row center of Laguna Beach,” Dubin said. 

This space has always been underutilized and unattractive, agreed Commissioner Ken Sadler. 

“It never really enticed me to want to go sit in that outdoor space at all,” he said. 

The project will create another courtyard space in the downtown, a priority in the Downtown Specific Plan, which encourages outdoor spaces for people to dine and gather, added Commissioner Susan Whitin. This project begins to distribute some visible, outdoor activity on the main streets, she said. 

“This is really an important project,” Whitin said. “It’s fresh, it feels current … I think it’s going to be very successful.”

Commissioner Steve Kellenberg also noted his excitement for the project. 

“That has been a sad space for as long as I’ve been in this town … there’s just been something about it that just hasn’t been very inviting,” Kellenberg said. “The idea of activating that street frontage on Broadway, that’s fantastic.”

Seeing life in that space with the fireplace and outdoor dining will completely change the character of that part of the street, he said. 

Food Village plans concept design Coast Hwy view

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by SWA/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering view from Coast Highway of the concept design proposed for Food Village 

Located at 217 Broadway St., near the corner of Broadway and Coast Highway, the highway-fronting site is developed with a Mediterranean revival style commercial building, Food Village, consisting of three restaurant tenant spaces: Full service Mexican restaurant, Carmelita’s; take-out seafood establishment, Slapfish; and a vacant space most recently occupied by Chinese restaurant Kaowok Asian Bistro. The restaurants flank an outdoor patio area with 60 seats shared by all three tenants.

The property has been significantly modified over the years since its construction around 1935, explained Senior Planner Anthony Viera.

Originally, the building incorporated an additional leg which extended from the rear of the main structure to South Coast Highway, Viera said. This leg was later removed and replaced with the on-site food court, as well as a gas station and convenience store on the adjacent parcel. The properties remain under common ownership.

Plans approved by the commission include converting approximately 1,100 square feet of the shared food court to a 32-seat fenced dining area with alcohol service operated by Carmelita’s. The balance would be reserved for a community plaza providing 28 seats, with seating shared by the other restaurant tenants.

Approximately two-thirds of the Carmelita’s outdoor dining area would be sheltered by a 12-foot-high freestanding pavilion. The metal beam structure would support an inverted gable, butterfly roof finished with grey standing seam. The detached structure would maintain approximately two feet of separation from the existing building.

The landscape plan includes a statement Mexican sycamore proposed to anchor and shade the plaza. The existing palm trees are proposed to be removed. 

The proposed lighting plan would replace all existing ground-level light fixtures with string lights at the pavilion, a wallwasher to illuminate the tile wall, downcast bollard lights for path lighting and selective use of uplights within the proposed planter areas. The proposed light fixtures share a minimalist design and black finishes for design continuity.

Existing planters, landscaping, fencing, lighting, awnings and a flagpole will be removed to accommodate the planned improvements.

Food Village plans dining pavilion

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by SWA/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the dining pavilion concept 

Carmelita’s owner Marcos Heredia opened the restaurant in 2012 with his brother. Over the past decade, he learned more and became part of the community, he said during the meeting on Wednesday. 

Heredia described meeting with Commission Chair Steve Goldman, who said he’s never been inside Carmelita’s because – as Heredia recalled the conversation – the outside is unattractive. It is a bit of an eyesore, Heredia noted. 

Goldman clarified that he called it “nondescript.” 

“There was nothing to draw me in,” Goldman said. 

That’s exactly what he would like to change, Heredia said.

“I would really like to give the people that enjoy Laguna Beach a new destination,” including longtime locals like Goldman, Heredia said.

He would like to get better use out of the plaza area more, he explained.

“It’s not being utilized to its full potential at all,” Heredia said. “It’s incredible to me because it’s right in front of the main beach.”

Most people drive right by the space either coming or leaving Laguna, he noted. If longtime locals like Goldman aren’t going in because of how it looks, there are probably a lot of visitors who avoid it for the same reasons, Heredia said. 

He’ll do everything possible to ensure people will be enticed to come enjoy a margarita in front of the ocean and have a good time, he added. 

The plaza design was inspired by Heredia’s passion and they hope it will encourage both residents and visitors to enjoy the space, added Andrew Watkins, a principal at SWA Architects, the firm handling the project. 

“(They) want to create an iconic piece on the street,” Watkins said. “A landmark, a beacon within Laguna.”

The pavilion is designed as a lightweight structure that’s transparent to the rest of the plaza, Watkins explained. It also acts as a bit of a buffer from Broadway Street, he added, and creates a room-like feel sheltered by the nearby Mexican sycamore. 

They plan to replace the pavings in the plaza and design a “rug motif,” drawing from the cultural heritage of Carmelita’s and create a fresh canvas for events and gatherings, Watkins said. 

Food Village plans plaza and wall view

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Rendering by SWA/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the plaza concept featuring the mosaic wall design 

Commissioners were split on the idea of a water feature on the back wall of the plaza (rear wall of the convenience store), something that was suggested in the staff report and discussed at length during the meeting.

The stucco wall is set to receive a Mexican-inspired tile mosaic that overlooks the community plaza and serves as the rear building wall of the convenience store at the adjacent property.

The big blank wall is kind of asking for something creative to be done with it, Watkins said. 

The idea of a water feature was discussed, but there were some concerns with maintenance and upkeep, Watkins said. 

“I’m not sure that we’re fully on board,” with the water feature, Watkins said. “We like the idea in terms of a white noise effect, but we also really like that wall in terms of an art piece.”

He’d like to give the opportunity to a local artist to use the space as a canvas, Heredia added. A water feature could cause maintenance issues and kids might disturb it if the restaurant staff can’t easily keep an eye on it, he said. 

As a city of water conservation, a water feature might not be a good idea, Dubin noted. 

Whitin didn’t support the water feature, it’s an outdated idea, she said. 

Other commissioners liked the water feature idea as “white noise” to cover the traffic noise, but weren’t adamant about including it in the plans. 

Location of the outdoor fireplace, which will be open on both sides, was also discussed quite a bit at the meeting. 

Dubin said the proposed fireplace location is in the view corridor of the beach. He suggested possibly moving it between the dining pavilion and the community plaza so that people on both sides could enjoy it.

“I get hung up on aesthetics,” Dubin said. “It just seems like more people would enjoy it that way.”

That’s the other location option they explored, Watkins said. They decided on the proposed location as a way to draw people into the plaza, he explained. Although a few commissioners noted that the suggested “location B” would potentially be more inviting.

They could definitely consider the alternative location, Watkins confirmed. 

A majority of commissioners seemed to lean toward the alternative location for the fireplace, but agreed it wasn’t a dealbreaker for the project. Either location is acceptable, several said. 

Although moving the fireplace to the second suggested location would open up the walkway a bit more, something Kellenberg noted as a concern. 

The passageway from the street to the other two restaurants is fairly narrow, Kellenberg noted. 

Part of what the Planning Commission should consider is to maintain the viability of businesses, he said. Carmelita’s is being “a little greedy” taking up space and not leaving much of a corridor for the other tenants, Kellenberg said. 

The monument sign will be redesigned and relocated to a more prominent location, near the new entry area, which will alert pedestrians to the other businesses on the property, Viera pointed out.

The only public speaker on the item, Catherine Jurca, pointed out the historic status of the property as well. That should be considered with the project, she said. 

Viera confirmed that the historian stated that the project would not impact the property’s historic character. 

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