City officials on Tuesday finally took action on the long-awaited Village Entrance project, which has languished since 1995.
The City Council voted 4-1 to approve an estimated $35 million to $50 million project that includes a parking structure and a park as presented by Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, as well as elements proposed in a separate presentation by Councilwoman Toni Iseman.
"It's time," Pearson said. "Eighteen years is long enough."
Former Planning Commissioner Becky Jones said there is a reason nothing has been done.
"I have seen four versions, and we haven't gotten it right yet," said Jones, who opposed the garage, calling it a magnet for cars and congestion.
Pearson said the plan for a park and parking structure had never been rejected, although she and Iseman could not reach agreement on specifics.
Mayor Kelly Boyd arrived at the meeting wearing a striped referee's shirt, alluding to the tension between Pearson and Iseman.
"We parted company over Toni's decision to propose parking on the Festival of Arts tennis courts," Pearson said Wednesday.
Iseman said she could not justify the expense of the project as proposed and could not support one that did not first address her concerns about the odor emitted by the sewer lift station on the site.
Pearson proposed a four-story parking structure with 506 spaces and some surface parking for 602 spaces. The idea is to minimize downtown congestion and provide parking for year-round activities in the Civic Arts District. Her plan was supported by the Chamber of Commerce.
Pearson's plan also included renovation of the historic Digester Building for use as a visitors' center and a meandering park, to buffer the size and scale of the garage and provide a safe pathway for pedestrians from Forest Avenue to the Art-a-Fair Grounds.
Iseman said she voted against Pearson's plan because she thinks the park is too big and too ritzy, and the whole project is too pricey.
"I see the need for an increase in parking, but I don't think we need to spend that much money to achieve it," Iseman said Wednesday.
Iseman said a 506-space garage is not needed year-round and a smaller, much-less-expensive structure could be supplemented in the summer by converting the tennis courts on the Festival of Arts Ground into a parking lot.
There was no support for using the tennis courts from any of the 35 audience members, council members or Festival of Arts officials.
Iseman also recommended reducing the size of the park, which she estimated will cost $68 a square foot, compared with the $30 a-square-foot the city paid to renovate Heisler Park.
"It will be one of the most expensive parks in the county," Iseman said. "Do we serve the safety needs of the community when we put in a park before we underground utilities?"
Pearson and Councilman Bob Whalen, a public finance lawyer, were appointed to develop with city staff a financial and funding plan, including design and build, to be presented to the council May 7.
Whalen said Laguna can afford a $50 million debt because of the city's financial stability and excellent credit, which means it can get the lowest rates for financing projects.
Financing would have to be approved by the council; some would require four votes, others only three votes, according to City Manager John Pietig.
"I don't want to make the decision for 25,000 residents," Mayor Kelly Boyd said, although he voted in favor of Pearson's proposal.
Iseman recommended investigating the State Treasurer's Office I-Bank as a source for low-interest loans to the city for specific projects.
"We could get up to $2 million for the park, and up to $10 million for the parking structure, but not if we have already floated a bond on the project," she said.
Pearson proposed using the city's Parking Fund to finance a revenue bond. Grants might also be available and other city projects could be postponed, Pearson said.
"City spending reflects community values," Pearson said. "We have a history of putting our money where our mouth is."