Public works director highlights top projects, Laguna Canyon Road

By SARA HALL

A city department head shared some recent division changes, top projects, including undergrounding on Laguna Canyon Road, and commented on the unique task of managing services and projects in Laguna Beach.

The LB Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee held a meeting via Zoom on Thursday (May 2) with the city’s Public Works Director Mark McAvoy as the featured speaker. More than a dozen people attended online.

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

Public Works Director Mark McAvoy

McAvoy briefly described the department and the type of work they focus on, including maintaining city buildings, like fire and police stations, and infrastructure like streets and sidewalks.

“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of work, and we love doing it,” he said.

For several months in early 2024, McAvoy was enlisted as the acting community development director following the sudden departure of Marc Wiener. City Engineer Mark Trestik backfilled McAvoy’s position in public works until early April when it was announced at that month’s LB Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee meeting that McAvoy would return to his role as the city brought on another temporary CDD, David Crabtree, who retired from Brea in 2019 and has similarly filled in for other jurisdictions.

Although it was an interesting transition, he’s glad to be back in his department.

“I’m glad that’s over (and) happy to be back in public works,” McAvoy said.

The department was renamed (to include utilities) about a year ago, he noted. The change was due to the retirement of the director of water quality, who headed up a special department that oversaw the wastewater system, which was in a state of disrepair in the early 2000s and needed some focused investment.

They basically merged the department in with public works, McAvoy explained. There are still the same number of employees working on wastewater and they are continuing to invest in the system and operations, he added, the only difference is that those staffers now work under McAvoy.

At the same time, the transit system (trolleys, management of parking lots, etc.) moved over into a new, combined department of transit and community services, which Michael Litschi leads. Again, McAvoy explained, the division retained the same number of employees and responsibilities, just under the city manager instead of him in public works.

“We did a little swap there, kind of kept things even, just to do a little realignment,” McAvoy said.

One of the first things he did when they merged the wastewater division into public works is a “miniature” classification and compensation study for just the wastewater system.

“We were able to right size that division,” he said, and “made it a little more robust.”

They adjusted job titles to meet industry standards and more accurately describe the position (for example, from maintenance worker one to wastewater technician).

This also benefits the city’s search when hiring, as evidenced by the job advertisements they placed last year, McAvoy noted. They’ve had a wider reach of employees from a solid talent pool.

“We’re already starting to see the benefits of that with the caliber of folks that join and supplement those that are still here,” he said. “I’m very proud of that effort because it’s the right thing to do looking to the future in our city.”

Laguna Beach, as an organization, is very unique for a city with just over 22,000 people, he pointed out. As a full-service city, with all the various service and public safety departments, and a very high daytime population, he noted, Laguna Beach acts (and has to be maintained) like a city that’s much larger, but is actually fairly small.

“It is an interesting place to be,” McAvoy said. “The civil engineering me loves the challenge because being a city of almost 100 years old, our infrastructure is old. How you maintain things today is different than 100 years ago. The rules are different today and it presents this unique set of challenges that really gets the brain of an engineer going and how we best maintain this in a cost-effective way, while also being near the coast and trying to do it in an environmentally friendly way.”

The capital improvement program in Laguna Beach is “very robust” for a city of this size, McAvoy emphasized. At other similarly sized cities he’s worked at the CIP is usually a few million dollars, but Laguna’s fluctuates between $10 and $17 million.

“That’s a lot of investment in the infrastructure, but it’s a necessary investment,” he said.

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There are other factors that make Laguna Beach unique, operationally, he commented, including having adjacent open space, two state highways run through town and external utility agencies.

“There’s a lot of interagency coordination for projects,” he said. “Getting everyone on the same page and marching forward while serving the community’s interests is a challenge – a challenge I love and enjoy doing.”

He knows a lot about those multi-agency projects and, in a small way, tries to help shape and shepherd them through the process, but he doesn’t have direct control of them, McAvoy explained. It creates an interesting situation, he added.

Recently, he’s been working on various efforts with Caltrans.

“They move at their own pace,” McAvoy said, “but believe it or not, it’d be even slower if I didn’t have staff dedicated to just hounding them.”

When the state transportation department has building projects, they reach out to the local partners and ask if they want to participate.

“A lot of cities aren’t really interested – we are,” McAvoy said. “We will dedicate someone to be at every single Caltrans meeting, at their project development team meetings, and that continues through construction.”

Currently, there are two projects on Coast Highway that have biweekly project development team meetings.

“I have staff present (at those meetings) making sure that we’re informed of what Caltrans is planning. When they make bad plans at Caltrans, we step in and tell them how that’s unacceptable – to us, to our residents, for our businesses – and it helps a little bit,” he said.

Those projects are well underway, he added.

The work between Ruby Street to the north city limit is close to wrapping up, McAvoy confirmed. They expect to demobilize on the project just before Memorial Day weekend and then return to finish in the fall. It is scheduled to be completed before the end of the year, but McAvoy is hoping for things to finish by Thanksgiving.

South of Ruby Street, the project is set to mostly demobilize before Memorial Day, except for an area near Aliso Beach in order for crews to finish working on a wall, hopefully in June before the large summer crowds come to town. They will also return in fall for that project, but it’s roughly a year behind the north project, so it will continue next year.

There’s a similar effort going on up on Laguna Canyon Road, McAvoy added.

“They’re getting close to cutting Edison loose on undergrounding the large poles, that’s from El Toro up to the 73,” he said.

Most of the road work is complete, he added, although there is a little paving still to be done. When complete, there will be two continuous lanes near the El Toro intersection, which will reduce the frequent bottleneck conditions and improve traffic flow.

They already did the intersection reconfiguration at Anneliese School, he noted, and will now work on closing off southbound left turns into Anneliese, which will also help with traffic congestion.

At some point in May, Southern California Edison will start undergrounding those large overhead poles, McAvoy confirmed. It will take about 12 months to get through the project, which will include night work this summer and 24-hour shifts after the summer season.

Answering a question about undergrounding along the canyon and the open space, McAvoy said there are a couple ways to look at that.

“There’s the side of the open space there, we need to protect it, and we’ll deal with some issues to avoid impacting it. On the other side is, if you have some minor impacts to the open space that prevent future wildfires and help mitigate some other environmental considerations, shouldn’t that be considered?” he answered. “As staff, we typically don’t take a position one way or the other. We put information together, present it to the public and then let council make the policy.”

The project is current in the project approval and environmental document phase, which includes preliminary engineering of various alternatives and then testing that information for potential environmental impacts. That information is then presented to the public for comments and feedback, which can then be forwarded to the decision makers with a recommendation of something to actually fund and construct.

A big component of this current phase is the public outreach, McAvoy noted, which should include residents, workers who commute, visitors, businesses and “everything in between.”

“We’re in the middle of that process right now and it’s very, very robust,” he said.

He also noted an upcoming community meeting on May 7 at 6 p.m. at the Susi Q Senior Center. It’s a great opportunity for every voice to be heard, McAvoy said, when it’s time for council to weigh in, they want to ensure that the discussion is healthy and robust, but also accurate and complete.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it, people who are upset about something tend to be louder than those who aren’t and so it’s important to get everyone’s input and perspective on things,” he said, “so that we have the information to really package together a complete picture.”

People who are upset may have good reason to be, it’s not staff’s role to judge, but it’s helpful when those who support something let us know that and why, or, alternatively why they don’t support it.

The city hired Mark Thomas & Company to oversee the preliminary design and environmental documentation for the project, McAvoy noted, and the firm previously has done a good job accurately portraying plans with descriptions and visuals.

“They’re an outside-the-box-kind-of thinker, which is really important in Laguna Canyon because you’ve got some big constraints there,” McAvoy said, including open space, residences, businesses, constrained roadway widths, challenging topography and everything underground that’s not visible. “You have to put all of that together and try to achieve this vision for the corridor.”

They’ve had stakeholder meetings, public pop-up presentations and an online survey.

McAvoy briefly summarized a report that studied the pros and cons of the city taking over ownership of the roadway, which was presented to council on January 9.

“To boil it down, it’s if you want overhead lines underground taking over ownership of the roadway is probably the only way you get there,” he said.

Caltrans will likely not allow the overhead electric lines to be placed under the roadway, he explained. They’ll require that they be placed to the side of the roadway, but that doesn’t work in this constrained corridor, he added. As public works director for the city, he doesn’t have those same rules because “engineers can get creative and put things where it makes sense to put them for future maintenance.” They would need to follow Edison’s standards for the lines.

“You have flexibility to get those overhead lines under the roadway if we, the city, take over ownership,” he said, but they won’t have that flexibility if the city doesn’t control the road.

In terms of the state relinquishing Coast Highway over to the city, from staff’s perspective, it’s far in the future and they aren’t close to that possibility yet. But, if council ultimately decides to pursue it, he would recommend first letting the state invest in improving the road and getting it up to standards. McAvoy also mentioned Assembly Bill 2817, which would allow a state agency to consider relinquishment of the Laguna Beach portion of Coast Highway over to the city. It doesn’t initiate anything on the city’s end, he emphasized, but it allows the discussion to eventually happen, if the city desires.

He’s also proud of helping launch the Laguna Beach Local on-demand trolley service. Litschi did the lion’s share of the work, McAvoy commented, but it was fun to contribute and he’s proud of essentially developing “our own Uber for city residents.”

It’s been beneficial to the community, McAvoy noted, and reviews have been pretty high.

“It’s been a great success and now it’s continuing to grow and expand,” he said.

He also mentioned a few other projects he’s proud of in the city that are either completed or currently in the works: New playground at Riddle Field, and the Moss Street Beach access and lifeguard tower (which ultimately became a seasonal station following an appeal).

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


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