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Council agenda includes financial strategies to purchase closed South Laguna school property, building height and mass ordinance, Red Dragon parking plan

By SARA HALL

The agenda for next week’s city council has some notable projects up for discussion. 

At the Tuesday (Aug. 16) meeting, council will consider: Financial strategies and council consideration to purchase the property at 30516 Coast Highway (formerly St. Catherine of Siena School); an ordinance related to building height, mass, bulk and parking within commercial districts; and a parking management plan for The Red Dragon project. 

Last on the agenda, but likely the most discussed item of the night, will be a staff presentation of financial strategies and council consideration to purchase a closed school property in South Laguna.

In a rare agreement, council unanimously decided to move forward on July 19 to study possible uses, gather more community feedback and directed staff to develop a detailed financial plan for the 6.5-acre property at 30516 Coast Highway (formerly St. Catherine of Siena 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, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis explained at the July meeting. 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. 

If the item is approved on Tuesday, council will authorize the city manager to make a formal offer to the Diocese of Orange for $23 million for the purchase of the St. Catherine of Siena school property, inclusive of a refundable deposit up to 3% of the total purchase price, and to enter into a purchase and sale agreement upon acceptance of the offer, with an escrow period up to 120 days.

The action will also adopt a financing plan that includes appropriating $23.5 million for the purchase of the property using $4 million from the Future City Facilities account, $2 million from the available American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds designated for city facilities, $3 million from the General Fund mid-year savings, $2 million from Vehicle Replacement Fund mid-year savings, $1 million Insurance Fund mid-year savings, and internally borrowing $11.5 million that includes $2 million from the Parking Fund, $6.5 million from the Vehicle Replacement Fund and $3 million from the Insurance Fund Compensated Absences.

“This financing strategy provides the lowest borrowing costs and the most flexible borrowing terms to the city, limits impact on city operations, does not impact city reserves and has minimal impact on the operating budget,” the staff report reads. “In addition, the city will own the property outright with sole discretion to determine future use.”

Laguna Beach Unified School District previously submitted a letter to the city indicating that they are open to a potential cost-sharing arrangement and partnership to acquire the property.

In the report for next week’s agenda item, staff explain that the district has expressed interest in leasing a portion of the property for immediate use if it meets the state standards for a transitional kindergarten facility. Those standards can include classroom size, play yard design, location of the facility to the drop-off area, self-contained restrooms and other conditions. 

“Therefore, staff did not include offsetting revenue in the financing options,” the report reads. 

Council agenda St Catherine

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The closed school site offers a variety of possible community uses 

Council and city staff previously discussed working on a comprehensive, multi-year process to develop a master plan for the future use of the property. At that time, staff will continue to pursue all partnership opportunities that align with the council and residents’ vision of the property. 

At the July 19 meeting, staff suggested a few possible long-term preliminary concepts, including a community pool, parking structure, permanent skate park, city hall/civic center, or a cultural arts building.

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

The property includes four buildings which provide approximately 39,500 square feet of indoor space. 

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.

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.

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.

In a rare phenomenon, there was agreement on the dais and in public comment on the item at the July meeting. Speakers were excited about the potential and thought it was a good opportunity for the city.

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Council agenda development ordinance

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council will hear an ordinance related to building height, mass and bulk 

Earlier in the meeting, during the consent calendar, council will consider an ordinance related to building height, mass, bulk and parking within commercial districts.

During a special meeting last month, a split council approved the introduction and first reading of the ordinance. Council voted 3-2 on July 26 in favor of the ordinance, action on which was postponed from the July 12 meeting. During the special meeting vote, councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

Unless otherwise directed by a member of the council, the second reading will reflect the same vote.

At the special July 26 meeting, council directed staff to expand the regulations pertaining to the 36-foot citywide maximum height limit.

The new language reads “Notwithstanding any section to the contrary, no building shall exceed 36 feet in height. No element of a new building shall exceed 36 feet in height, including but not limited to rooftop elevators, equipment, furniture and other design features.”

The Planning Commission unanimously voted on June 15 to recommend that the city council adopt the ordinance as staff recommended with some suggested modifications. 

The item stemmed from recently proposed ballot initiatives tackling the same issues. Council recently voted to officially oppose both measures (along with another proposing to increase hotel worker wage) on July 19. At the time, most councilmembers agreed the initiatives (one sponsored by Laguna Residents First, the other by UNITE HERE Local 11 union) were confusing, over-reaching, or unnecessary. The impartial analysis and direct arguments (for and against) for each of the three ballot measures recently became available for public review. 

On the agenda on Tuesday, the ordinance notes that lot mergers within the Downtown Specific Plan area shall not exceed 5,000 square feet. Lot mergers shall not exceed 15,000 square feet for any property within 500 feet of the DSP. The language also specifically exempts public facilities and public parking structures from these standards, something several speakers raised concerns about with the ballot initiatives. 

The proposed ordinance also includes a section that development of existing or newly created parcels requires that the building be constructed on a parcel be designed to appear from the street frontage as two or more distinctly different developments to avoid the appearance of a single large project and to ensure maintenance of the city’s small scale and village character. 

Following the recommendation from planning commissioners (after quite a bit of back and forth), the ordinance includes limiting the maximum length of any individual building street frontage to 125 feet, including those buildings which have exposures on two or more street frontages. Longer building lengths may be approved by the Planning Commission when all other design objectives of the section are met. 

Other requirements listed in the ordinance relate to public accessible open space, public way improvements, parking and sustainability.

Council agenda Red Dragon

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current property for the proposed Red Dragon project 

During regular business, council will consider a parking management plan for The Red Dragon at 680 South Coast Highway.

After being stalled for years due to a definition disagreement with a state agency, the Red Dragon restaurant project was unanimously approved by council on April 26. But the conditioned approval included direction on the plans for parking, which is returning to council for final review next week, before the restaurant at 680 South Coast Highway (formerly the Mosun restaurant and nightclub) is officially allowed to open.

At the April meeting, several public speakers and local residents agreed that it’s a worthy project, but that the parking plan wasn’t clear and there were concerns about the potential impact on the neighborhood.

The parking management plan that will be presented at next week’s council meeting includes 52 valet parking spaces located at 340 St. Ann’s and a van pool that will be provided for all employees. The plan will accommodate a total of 77 parking spaces (52 valet and 25 employees).

The valet service would be available during all hours of operation, from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Patrons will drop off their cars around the corner from the restaurant in the designated valet and Uber drop off area on Cleo Street. 

The Orange County Transportation Authority’s vanpool program include a free satellite parking area located at 5595 1/2 Walnut Ave. in Irvine. The restaurant will incur all associated costs and includes a lease agreement with OCTA to use their shuttles.

“The city met with OCTA staff, who confirmed that the proposed plan is feasible and the applicant is working to finalize the application for the program,” which needs to be confirmed before the issuance of the certificate of occupancy, the staff report explains. 

The restaurant is also considering purchasing a shuttle for the parking program to provide additional services, staff noted in the report. Parking for the private shuttle would be allowed within the OCTA lot.

Also on Tuesday’s agenda for council consideration is a resolution adopting citywide efforts to address climate change and a solid waste franchise agreement request for proposals.

The council agenda is available online here. The regular meeting begins at 5 p.m. 

Members of the public may speak in person in council chambers. A face covering is highly recommended while in the chambers.

To participate via Zoom, you may click here from your computer or smart phone. You may also call 669.900.9128 and wait for instructions. The Webinar ID is 91641723096#. If you have issues getting into the Zoom meeting or raising your virtual hand to comment, you may text the city clerk at 310.722.5051.

The meeting can be watched live on Cox channel 852 or on the city’s website at www.lagunabeachcity.net/agendas

Comments may be submitted on any agenda item or on any item not on the agenda in writing via mail to the city clerk at 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, CA, 92651, by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by using this interactive form. Email your comments to the city clerk no later than 3 p.m. on August 15 (the day before the city council meeting) in order for your comments to be submitted to the members of the city council the day prior the meeting, which provides them sufficient time to review the comments. 

You may continue to provide written comments up to 12 p.m. on August 16 (the day of the meeting). While these comments will be provided to the city council at 2 p.m. on August 16, councilmembers may not have sufficient time to review them prior to the meeting. 

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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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