Planning Commission continues Main Beach Park renovation project, directs staff on details, focus on original plans


The Planning Commission this week unanimously agreed to continue the Main Beach Park renovation project to give staff time to work out the details of the plan. Most of the discussion revolved around staying true to the intent of the original plans for the park and comments were focused on plants, turf, walkways and paving styles, benches and lighting fixtures.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (March 20) to continue the project until the May 15 meeting. The proposed project aims to improve pedestrian circulation, reduce water usage, and update worn and outdated furnishings at the park, located between marine safety headquarters and Laguna Avenue.

They aren’t working under a tight time constraint, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to request the project come back to the Planning Commission one more time, said Chair Ken Sadler. That will give staff time to address their comments and concerns before it moves along and the commissioners never get a chance to see it again, he said.

The plan definitely needs to return to the Planning Commission, said Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin, noting that she wasn’t comfortable approving it with conditions without the PC reviewing it again.

“This is our iconic project,” she said. “This is the most important public space in this whole city and it hasn’t been touched in how long? Why on earth would we just make comments and walk away from it without looking at it again? I just think it’s essential that it come back.”

Commissioner Jorg Dubin agreed that the plan should be refined and return to the Planning Commission.

“Because it is such an important feature of Laguna Beach, it would be hard for me to approve this with conditions and then just kind of let it go into the ether,” he said. “It’s important to get it right.”

There has been a lot of valuable input from the public and commissioners, Dubin noted, so another month or so to solidify a comprehensive plan for moving this forward would be appropriate.

Part of the capital improvement program is to systematically upgrading the parks on a 35- to 50-year cycle, Whitin noted.

“Whatever we do now, we should be thinking about the long term,” she said. “Whereas we could do a couple of band aid things right now, I don’t think we should. I think we should look at this holistically and think about this as a renovation of the park.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Main Beach Park

When the project was first reviewed in 2019, some of the concepts were very radical, said Assistant Director of Public Works Tom Perez. There was overwhelming feedback from the public and councilmembers to reduce the scope and to really preserve the existing character of the park, he explained.

Areas were identified where minimal changes could reduce some of the turf, improve or decrease water consumption, and protect the “window to the sea,” Perez said.

A concept review was presented to the Planning Commission on Nov. 3, 2021, and there was a consensus for wood or synthetic wood or recycled plastic textured to look like wood for several of the features. Something that would match the vibe of the park and boardwalk, while also withstand the environment and vandalism. Commissioners also discussed the overall theme. Specific feedback was shared regarding trash receptacles, light fixtures, and the benches – all of which were hot topics again this week.

The proposed renovation of Main Beach Park includes several key components. The landscape will undergo revitalization, with plans to renovate turf areas, planter beds and their respective irrigation systems. This initiative is designed to reduce grass areas by approximately 5,950 square feet, resulting in a 10% decrease in water usage.

To improve pedestrian circulation and accessibility to the beach from Coast Highway, two new pedestrian paths will be added, extending from the Ocean Avenue crosswalk to the existing boardwalk. These pathways will include decorative pavers and concrete to match the existing walkway adjacent to the marine safety headquarters building.

The biggest element added are the connections at the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Coast Highway, Perez said. These additions come after the public works department completed some intersection improvements in 2019, he explained. Staff is proposing two walkways that will connect people crossing the street directly towards the stairs down to the sand, Perez explained.

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In addition to landscape enhancements, various park amenities will be upgraded, including bottle filling stations, standalone showers, bike racks, benches, boardwalk lights and waste receptacles. Several existing features of the park will be preserved, including the recently renovated cobblestone area at the park’s southerly end, which serves as a gathering space and emergency vehicle turnaround. The paved cobblestone area at the middle of Main Beach Park will be reconstructed to accommodate renovation of planter areas, new irrigation, new bike racks, new benches and replace damaged concrete. All existing trees within the park will be preserved and protected in place. Planter space will be created around the large ficus tree at the Coast Highway and Ocean Avenue intersection and around the one opposite the shower area at the southern restroom building. The existing boardwalk will remain, but any damaged or worn boards will be replaced to match the existing wood type and thickness.

Comments from commissioners and the public focused on respecting the original plans and character of the park, including the specific details most discussed by commissioners on Wednesday (plants, walkways and paving, benches, and lights).

“To move forward…it would seem like the obvious thing to do is to dust off the original plans,” evaluate the entire original circulation plan and how its evolved, Whitin said, and that should drive their decision-making.

Commissioners also agreed they should look into what plants were identified in the original plans, although any new planting will depend on which species can live in the tough marine environment.

Chair Pro Tem Steve Kellenberg suggested considering keeping some of the existing plants.

“I agree with the idea of trying to maintain as many of the plants that have fought to survive,” Kellenberg said. “They fought the battle of this tough condition and to arbitrarily take them out because you might have to work around them with an irrigation line – maybe – I think I wouldn’t be quite so broad brushed.”

The plants that have survived over the years have proved their durability and should be preserved in place, where possible, Sadler agreed.

Whitin and Dubin also recommended removing the two palm trees that are that are under the canopy of the ficus.

“I don’t know when those were planted or why they were stuck there, but it didn’t seem very logical because of the fact they’re going to grow up into the canopy,” Dubin said.

The palm trees were not included in the original plan, Prez confirmed.

Much of the discussion also revolved around the new irrigation system and how much of the turf should be replaced.

The project is focused on reducing water use, so an entirely new irrigation system is proposed, Perez said. New standards require that the system does not cause overspray onto impervious surfaces, he explained, so the designer has proposed subterranean irrigation for the first three feet adjacent to the sidewalk and then installing the spray heads or rotor heads to get the field area. There is also significant sand build up along the edges, which would be resodded and smoothed out.

They should look into the turf options a little bit more by bringing in another set of eyes, Kellenberg suggested. A third-party consultant should compare completely redoing the entire turf and irrigation versus surgically replacing portions of it, a majority of commissioners agreed.

The third-party study should be specific to Main Beach Park, Whitin added, not a theoretical or generic finding. They should study what makes more sense in this particular situation, she said, a new system or partial patching.

“(That’s) money in the bank and it’s a smart approach,” Whitin said.

The findings may result in a recommendation to “scrap the whole thing” or save only certain ideas, she noted. Whatever it may be, they should look into it and fully understand what’s involved with the potential project.

The amount of turf that will need to be removed in order to place the new irrigation lines won’t leave much left anyway, Sadler noted, so it might be worth considering replacing all of it.

While the plan calls to repair or replace all the items that are “a little shabby,” like the benches and light fixtures, but the turf is also “a little shabby,” Kellenberg said. It has irregular styles, different colorations, and uneven edges over the entire area, he pointed out.

“(The turf) looks kind of beat up and a little rough around the edges,” Kellenberg said. “This is our opportunity after 50 years to clean up.”

They have the funds available now and they might not look at the park for another 50 years, he added. They should go in and refresh it, including a state-of-the-art irrigation system, to start the next half a century with a rejuvenated turf.

After researching the proposed Kikuyu grass, Sadler found that the pros outweighed the cons.

On the negative side, it tends to yellow in winter, can spread aggressively, and is prone to thatching, which may lead to insect and fungus issues.

Although there were a number of positive attributes to the proposed grass type. It’s drought tolerant, stands up in a coastal environment, and tends to be very durable (good for both foot traffic and marine safety vehicles that might park on it), Sadler said. It’s also low-maintenance and acts as a weed suppressant. It also doesn’t produce pollen the way a lot of other grass species do, which is beneficial to people with allergies, he added.

It’s also already planted in front of city hall, where it looks attractive and has been working fine, Sadler added.

The walkways and paving were also discussed quite a bit at Wednesday’s meeting.

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Renderings prepared by Stantec/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the proposed planting plan and walkways for Main Beach Park

The two new angled walkways are fine, Sadler commented. If a straight path required a handrail due to the slope (as staff indicated), that definitely would be a deal killer, he said.

Although a straight path lined up with the lifeguard tower is an interesting idea, Kellenberg noted, and it’s hard to imagine that the grade would be more than 5% and cause an issue there.

Although, he added, the proposed two angled walkways also works with the park layout and still leaves quite sizable sections of turf.

“They’ve added in the spirit of the plan,” Kellenberg said. “There isn’t a straight sidewalk in the entire park that’s perpendicular to PCH, they’re all angular, and that’s kind of the spirit of the walkway system.”

There are several areas of pavement where the sidewalks have been cracked or lifted, Perez noted, which would simply be replaced in kind.

The area outside of the shower has drainage issues, so the plan calls for minor changing grade in that area to direct the water back towards the showers and make some improvements to the water runoff. That is proposed to be replaced to match the existing paver area at the south part of the beach, he said, which was reconstructed as an emergency reconstruction a couple of years ago.

Kellenberg wasn’t a big fan of the stamped concrete idea.

“I know we’re trying to kind of keep the original idea of the 1970s plan and stamped concrete looks very 1970s – but that kind of bothers me that it does,” he said. “It seems like an opportunity on that central Plaza to do something kind of nice.”

Some high-quality pavers and an interesting design would be a better idea compared to putting in something that’s “not very exciting,” he suggested.

Whitin suggested the paving be simple concrete. Unless it’s the original, they shouldn’t use stamped concrete, she added.

Commissioner Steve Goldman agreed with the public comments related to the original paving.

“I’m a fan of less is more,” he said. “Trying to keep with the original paving, the original look and fewer differing looks, I would be supportive of that.”

The benches were also a hot topic on Wednesday.

The current wood benches are painted annually by maintenance staff or city contractors, Perez said. They tend to wear very quickly due to the high use and the location, he added.

During previous discussions, there was concern about the appearance and color, so the proposal is to replace the benches with a similar style bench using the recycled plastic lumber.

Initially, Sadler thought the benches should focus on maintenance and durability. However, after hearing the concerns and learning more about the materials, he supported the suggestion to rehabilitate the existing benches and have them stained, so they don’t require constant painting or layering of paint.

“Every effort should be made to do that, keep the original natural wood, but with future maintenance and cost in mind,” Sadler said.

The benches are a top priority, Goldman said. It’s common sense to first try and refurbish the existing furniture.

“My strong preference would be to try and work with the original benches,” Goldman said.

The next best option would be another form of wood bench, he added, like the oak that was mentioned. He strongly agreed with the comments to avoid plastic. While it is difficult to tell the difference between certain plastic styles and wood, it’s not 100%, Goldman noted.

They should strip down the original benches and try to use the existing frames, Whitin suggested. The current benches are comfortable, work fine and look good, she added.

Dubin favored unpainted (oil only) wood benches.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Current benches at Main Beach Park

Commissioners also agreed that getting the original style for the light fixtures would be best. Although the manufacturer is no longer in business, staff was able to find a mold of the original fixture style and confirmed with another company that they could be created.

Although, they may want to consider adjusting the ambient light they put out, Kellenberg noted.

“We would never pick a fixture like that today, it would always be more downward oriented,” he said, “but on the other hand, I don’t know that it’s a real problem in this location.”

It’s a commercial area, not residential, he pointed out, so the light won’t intrude into homes. Also, the lights at dusk punctuate the space for a nice effect, Kellenberg said.

Sadler supported keeping the existing light poles and replicating the current light fixtures. Although they may not be dark sky compliant, they should be grandfathered in. Also, he’s never heard a complaint about glare from the lights at Main Beach Park.

Bike racks were also discussed at the meeting.

They should place the bike racks on the periphery of the park, Kellenberg suggested.

“We’re trying to encourage people to ride their ride bikes and there’s a huge surge of bike ridership with the other advent of the electric bike, so I think we need to provide that,” he said.

Dubin suggested adding some artistic flair to the bike racks that will be placed on the outside edge of the park.

“I think something that brings a little color along there would be a nice thing to do instead of just buying off the shelf bike racks. I think I think we can do better than that,” he said.

He pointed to the racks in front of the Sawdust Festival as an example.

Several commissioners also asked about hiding the conduit or checking if it’s possible for marine safety to use a wireless conduit.

Goldman also supported hiding the conduit.

“Covering the conduit is an absolutely great idea,” he said. “They look like an eyesore and always seems that they look a bit out of sorts.”

A handful of residents spoke during public comment, with several urging the city to make an effort to stay true to the original plans. A few speakers also had specific plant and landscaping suggestions, and several requested keeping plastics out of the plans for the benches.


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

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