The City Council spent about half of its annual retreat talking about the Village Entrance project.

A top council priority in 2012, the project was the major topic of discussion again this year at the retreat, held Saturday at the South County Water District offices on West Street.

Council members are tired of talking about it: They want action.

"Over 18 years ago, a Village Entrance task force of community members, including representatives from our Planning Commission, Arts Commission, arts and business groups — as well as Village Laguna — created a concept for the Village Entrance," said Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson.

The concept included rehabbing the historical digester building and putting it to use, creating a meandering pedestrian park, and constructing a parking garage that isn't a visual blight while adding parking spaces.

Pearson and Councilwoman Toni Iseman hammered out the compromise that moved the Corporation Yard to Act V and cleared the way for the Village Entrance in 2007, but the gateway to the city is still a parking lot.

"We need to follow through … and create a beautiful entryway into our city that includes additional parking," Pearson said.

Pearson and Iseman have been conferring this past year on how to get the concept off the drawing board.

"The Village Entrance is more than a park and a parking structure," Iseman said Tuesday. "We have to integrate the information from all the studies and reports to do things right.

"Parking, the Downtown Specific Plan, the Art District, shuttles and the transit system all have to be considered."

The project won't be cheap, but it is doable, provided the council reverts to using the city's parking fund for what it was intended — the creation of parking spaces, such as the Glenneyre Street Parking structure, according to Pearson.

Pearson has long been critical of the practice of transferring parking funds to the general fund to balance the city's budget, about $7 million in 10 years.

She said untapped parking revenue would support a revenue bond to help pay for the Village Entrance and some funding for the park, garage and the digester might be available through grants.

Mayor Kelly Boyd said Monday that it is time for the city to take action. He believes the stalled project also impacts other improvements in the area.

"I am guessing that the Festival of Arts is waiting to see what the city will do before proceeding with whatever they are going to do on the other side of Laguna Canyon Road," Boyd said.

However, Boyd's personal top priority is to put some teeth into the city's view preservation ordinance, denounced as mealy-mouthed by critics. He has organized an ad hoc committee to draft an ordinance for council approval.

Councilman Dicterow thinks the council should move on the Village Entrance.

"It is the top priority for us [the council] as a unit," Dicterow said Monday. "I want to see something approved by the end of this year."

Dicterow recommended parallel efforts at the retreat, the proposals underway by Pearson and Iseman and another that surveys the entire Downtown Specific Plan area and how the Village Entrance relates to parking, circulation and development from the Laguna College of Art + Design to Pacific Coast Highway and from Legion Street to Cliff Drive.

"I think we have to hire an expert in urban planning — more than just a land-use planner — and I don't think it can be in-house," Dicterow said.

Dicterow also expressed intent to improve community policing efforts, especially as it relates to residents.

Councilman Bob Whalen made it unanimous: "The consensus was that the Village Entrance was the top priority for the council."

He personally was charged with orchestrating a master plan for Laguna Canyon Road from El Toro Road to Forest Avenue, the Village Entrance.

"The council thought my experience as a planning commissioner would be a benefit," Whalen said.

He also is working with Iseman on permanent housing for Laguna's homeless.

"We all strongly feel a need to look at that," Whalen said.

The agenda also included a list of 2012 priority projects and how they fared and the annual evaluation of the city manager.

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