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Commission recommends ordinance, potential ballot measure addressing building height, mass and scale

By SARA HALL

The city moved forward this week with a future ordinance and/or possible ballot measure aimed at addressing development height, mass/scale and parking.

The Planning Commission unanimously voted Wednesday (June 15) to recommend that the City Council adopt the ordinance as staff recommended with some suggested modifications. 

Commissioners approved amendments to the zoning code, Local Coastal Program, and the city municipal code related to building height, mass, bulk and directed the city to prepare a parking master plan.

The item stemmed from the recent ballot initiative tackling the same issues. 

On February 15, City Council unanimously decided to send the proposed initiative from Laguna Residents First, unaltered, to the voters on the November ballot. 

During a second, separate motion a 4-1 majority of councilmembers (Councilmember George Weiss dissented) supported directing city staff to study possible ballot measure alternatives to address some of the concerns the initiative raises. The action also directed staff to return with zoning provisions addressing height, mass, scale/bulk and parking.

Staff returned to council on April 12 with land use and parking provisions to be considered for development of a future ordinance and/or an alternative ballot measure. Council voted 3-1-1, with Councilmember Toni Iseman dissenting and Weiss abstaining.

The provisions are “similar to how the initiative is attempting to address those issues,” explained Community Development Director Marc Wiener.

Staff noted in the report that concerns have been raised in recent years that the current development standards do not protect against block-long development that would be inconsistent with the small-scale character of the city, particularly near the Downtown. 

“We have pretty good regulations that regulate scale, and character and height in the Downtown Specific Plan area,” Wiener said. 

The DSP currently prohibits lot mergers exceeding 5,000 square feet. That keeps projects pretty small, maybe a “little too small,” Wiener said. 

However, there is no limit to the size of lot mergers in the other commercial districts within the city, including along Coast Highway, Wiener explained. So the city could potentially get a proposal for a “block-long development,” he said. They received a similar proposal a few years ago for a site adjacent to the Downtown, he added, although that hasn’t gone through. They don’t get a lot of those applications now, Wiener noted, but they could in the future. 

“Staff felt it was important to draft some regulations that would help protect the area around the Downtown and the rest of the commercial corridors,” he said, “with an effort to try and preserve the character of the city, the uniqueness of it, the small-scale design.”

Commission recommends taco construction

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is working on an ordinance and addressing height, mass/scale and parking 

On Wednesday, there was quite a bit of discussion about what the standards should be for development in the nearby “buffer” zone around Downtown.

“The main point of this is that we’ve kept the scale pretty small in the downtown and if we were to not to have this type of limitation you could see a dramatic increase in scale in the adjacent areas,” Wiener said. 

Staff initially recommended a new zoning standard that would restrict the maximum lot size merger to less than 15,000 square feet for any property within 500 feet of the DSP area; and separate design standards for sites 15,000 square feet or larger within other areas of the city to break up the size of developments and help prevent monolithic buildings. 

Ultimately, planning commissioners modified the suggestion to provide council with two options: 1) Maintain the originally proposed 500-foot buffer around the Downtown Specific Plan area prohibiting lot mergers 15,000 square feet and greater; or 2) Remove the 500-foot buffer and require that the “large project” design standards apply to developments 10,000 square feet or greater throughout the city.

“It doesn’t prohibit lot mergers larger than that, somebody could potentially develop the entire block if they came in and acquired the property,” Wiener said. 

Staff also suggested that the following standards apply to developments on sites that are 15,000 square feet or larger:

–Buildings must be designed to appear from the street frontage as two or more distinctly different developments to avoid the appearance of a single large project. 

–A conceptual review hearing with the Planning Commission is required prior to full application submittal.

–Improvements are required to the public right-of-way along all street frontages per Planning Commission approval, which may include but is not limited to street trees, decorative paving and pedestrian-level lighting. 

–New development and major remodels must incorporate environmental sustainability features intended to optimize energy use, protect, and conserve water, enhance indoor environmental quality, and optimize building operation and maintenance practices. 

City staff initially recommended that the maximum length of any individual building street frontage shall be 150 feet. The recommendation was changed to 100 feet just before it was presented to the Planning Commission on Wednesday. 

“One of the reasons this is here is to create a sense of confidence in the public that large, massive buildings are not going to occur,” said Commissioner Steve Kellenberg and the 100-foot limit does a better job at accomplishing that.

Commission Chair Steve Goldman didn’t agree with the staff suggestion of reducing the length to 100 feet, but that 150 feet was at the high end of the acceptable range. He mentioned a few examples of a frontage more than 100 feet that was still in character with the town and didn’t look like “too much.”

“I think we’re somewhere in between,” Goldman said. “I’d rather have more lenient zoning because that’s hard and fast – difficult to get variances, difficult to change that – and rely on control through Planning Commission, Design Review, etc.”

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Ultimately, after quite a bit of back and forth and commissioners favoring different lengths between the two staff suggestions, they agreed to recommend a maximum length of any individual building street frontage to be 125 feet.

There are a number of older buildings in town that are longer than 150 feet and look fine, Commissioner Susan Whitin said.

“The newer buildings that are going to come along are probably not going to be ok and I think we need to protect against that,” she said. 

Looking at various projects throughout town, Whitin’s takeaway is that there are exceptions at every building length. There are successful designs that are longer than 100 feet, typically when the façade appears to be individual buildings and bad projects that are smaller. 

Replying to an example that the Montage is the only large development of that length and scale in the last several decades and it’s a good project, Whitin said that the concern is that – at that size – there are more bad designs than good.

“That’s the good one, but there are a lot more bad ones than that one,” she said. 

Commissioners named off a few other “good” developments that are fairly large, but still fit in with the character of town. 

Those few examples are the exceptions to the rule, Whitin said, most won’t fall into that category. 

Commission recommends Sleepy Hollow construction

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Commissioners discussed the acceptable length and scale of development projects

Whitin proposed the standards be applied more broadly.

“Thinking about the 500-foot buffer around the DSP area. What’s more important, I think, is along Coast Highway: This radiating zone around the DSP – It’s like a pebble in the water,” Whitin said. “But in reality, what we’re really concerned about is this pedestrian environment along Coast Highway.” 

These larger projects aren’t going to happen in residential areas or in the canyon, she said, so they’ll be along Coast Highway. And on the farther reaches of the highway, outside the DSP zone, there’s no limit on lot mergers. 

They should develop some tight standards universally, she said. 

“There seems to be some real anxiety now about future development coming down the pike and we’re not ready for it,” Whitin said. 

Although not everyone on the dais thought that would realistically happen in Laguna Beach’s future.

There aren’t huge projects “waiting in the wings to tear down large portions of our Coast Highway frontage” to construct new buildings, said Commission Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin.

“I just don’t know that those situations are ever going to (happen),” he said. 

He’s not suggesting that it’s a futile effort to set some standards, but they do tend to drill down on the “what ifs” that aren’t realistic, he clarified.

“The fact of the matter is, there isn’t a bunch of open lots along Coast Highway that are just waiting to be developed,” Dubin said. “It feels like we are trying to get into situations where we’re trying to solve problems that are never going to exist.”

Defining some standards is necessary, but they don’t want to overdo it either Dubin cautioned. 

As a reviewing body, they should have some discretion on a case-by-case basis rather than overly regulating every little thing, Dubin said. They’ve done a pretty good job applying the guidelines and dealing with things like view equity and building mass, he added. 

“Getting down to where we have no ability to work on a case-by-case basis seems like we’re tying our hands a little bit,” he said. 

After nearly two hours of discussion, planning commissioners made several other specific suggestions: 

–Inclusion of public art under required public right-of-way improvements.

–The minimum 10% courtyard space (on project 15,000 square feet or larger) is mandatory with no provision allowing the commission to reduce the amount.

–For projects 15,000 square feet or larger, include a design standard that subterranean parking be primarily below grade.

–Clarify that rooftop furniture shall be set back and adequately screened from public view from the immediate sidewalk area.

The language noting that rooftop equipment should be adequately screened from public view is too general, Kellenberg said. 

“We’re in a hillside town, I could go up on a street and look down on Downtown and see it from a public street,” he said as an example. 

It should be clarified to explain that it refers public view from the nearby area, Kellenberg said. 

“So there’s just not some little spot, someplace in town a half a mile away,” that would be considered within public view of Downtown rooftop equipment, he added. 

Tightening it up is a good idea, Whitin agreed. It should be from the sidewalk in the immediate area, she suggested. 

Staff also suggested noting in the code that development shall incorporate smaller building façades with a variety of widths, materials, color palette, roof forms and building heights that are designed in a cohesive manner. 

The item also include direction regarding moving forward with development of the Parking Master Plan.

“Parking is a continuous issue in the city,” Wiener said. 

Council recently appointed a Parking Master Plan subcommittee, which is comprised of Mayor Sue Kempf and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen. The subcommittee’s efforts to date have included a public listening session, meetings with several transportation firms to refine the approach for this effort and discussions with private property owners to lease parking lots to the city for public parking.

The city also entered into an agreement with transportation planning and engineering firm Fehr & Peers to assist with the technical tasks for the Parking Master Plan, beginning with a parking needs assessment to quantify the existing parking demand in four key districts (North Laguna, Downtown, the HIP District, and South Laguna). 

There was also some talk about the acceptable level of subterranean parking. 

“If we want this kind of active, exciting, urban land use mix, we’re going to have to find a place for the parking,” Whitin said. 

City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance on April 26 related to building height allowances for commercial structures that provide subterranean parking facilities. The Planning Commission previously reviewed the ordinance and agreed that there should be options for the developer, without being too restrictive, while still maintaining the character of the community and the retail streetscape.

A few public comments raised concern about the neighborhood impact, the parking study and necessary clarification about the intent of certain items. 

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

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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