Wearing red shirts in a show of unison, supporters including project developer Chris Dornin, second from left, stand outside the Laguna Beach City Council chambers before a rule to approve a 30-unit artist live-work project in Laguna Canyon during Tuesday's City Council meeting. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / April 1, 2014)

  • Related
  • Bryce Alderton Signature

Despite strong opposition from neighbors, a split City Council gave the green light Tuesday to a 30-unit live-work space for artists in Laguna Canyon.

The council voted 3-2 to approve sculptor and developer Louis Longi's apartment project. The council upheld the Planning Commission's January decision — also a 3-2 vote.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson and Councilmen Kelly Boyd and Steve Dicterow voted in favor. Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Councilman Bob Whalen dissented.

Pearson called the number of existing live-work projects "pathetic."

"We've built less than a dozen live-work units in the 18 years I've been a public servant," Pearson said.

Whalen questioned the project's size and said he believes it is inconsistent with the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan.

"Artists' live-work is a good thing, but my concern is it's too much of a good thing at this location," Whalen said. "It's too big, but I want to find a way to make it work. We're asking too much of this project. Louis has done an amazing job of persevering to get to where we are tonight. Affordable units make the project more difficult to finance."

The Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn. and a resident appealed the Planning Commission's approval, claiming the project will not fit with the area's rural, small-scale character.

After the vote, Longi took turns hugging supporters, who wore red T-shirts that read, "Support Artist Live-Work."

"Relief," Longi said.

Project proponents and opponents turned out in droves — public comments took a little more than an hour and a half.

Laguna is losing artists, thus the project would provide an opportunity for them to remain in town and align with the city's history as an artists' colony, supporters said.

Opponents repeatedly stated that they support live-work projects, just not one of that scale in that part of the canyon.

Plans call for two, two-story buildings, which include 17,243 square feet of interior live-work space on two lots totaling 36,750 square feet connected by decks above a parking garage.

The project at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road complies with existing zoning and development standards, which allow for light-industrial use, according to the city staff report.

"Thirty is a huge number of artists," Dicterow said. "I agree this project should not be put in a zone for residential. [This area] is not zoned for residential. Ultimately, this comes down to a size and compatibility issue. When we're looking at compatibility, we can't be looking at it only in the context of what's in existence there, because that is not what it is zoned for anymore. It's not zoned for housing; it's zoned for light industrial use."

Units will range in size from 485 square feet to 1,640 square feet. Eight apartments would be reserved for low-income artists for 55 years while the remaining 22 units would rent at market rates.

Average monthly rent for each of the eight units would be $916 to $1,325, as based on state income limits for affordable housing, city planner Carolyn Martin said.

Iseman questioned whether those prices are "affordable."

"I find it difficult to assume this is affordable for someone to live in 500 square feet at those rates," she said. "That's not many square feet and a lot of money."

She had other concerns as well.

"What kind of ventilation are we going to have?" she asked. "Are people with oil paints going to go upstairs? I don't understand why we don't have an EIR [Environmental Impact Report]."

Peer-reviewed studies from geologists, biologists and water-quality engineers — filed with the city — show that the project meets environmental requirements and does not need an EIR, Martin said.

As for the aesthetics and size, Boyd liked Longi and architect Horst Noppenberger's changes and does not believe the facility will create a traffic problem.

"We're talking 30 units, so maybe 10 to 15 people come into town once a day," Boyd said. "For the size, I think the redesign makes it a lot more pleasant to the eye. This project will fit the neighborhood. It might be like the Montage [Laguna Beach]. There were a ton of people against it and there were a ton of people for it.

"Guess what? Now I see those people who didn't want it, they're walking their dogs in the park, and they're going to meetings at the Montage, and they love it. Sometimes it takes time to make that adjustment."

The applicants adjusted the design after three prior Planning Commission meetings, adding pitched roofs, weathered wood siding, trees and landscaping to create a rustic feel that keeps with the canyon's character, according to the city report.