An urban planning firm faces challenges in analyzing and eventually recommending changes to improve transit, traffic, building design and land use downtown and in Laguna Canyon. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / August 6, 2014)

With the hiring of an urban planner eager for public input, there is bound to be a steady give-and-take when it comes to revamping Laguna Beach's Downtown Specific Plan, the city's planning guide.

The City Council recently hired MIG, a Berkeley-based urban planning firm, to work with the public and city on the major revitalization project.

MIG's task — analyzing existing building design and land uses downtown and in Laguna Canyon — will kick off in the fall with workshops to gauge public sentiment on certain hot-button issues, such as parking, view preservation, mobility, open space, zoning and building aesthetics.

Planning Commissioners Anne Johnson and Robert Zur Schmiede, who were part of a subcommittee that recommended MIG, stressed that the public will largely drive the discussions.

But Zur Schmiede added that it is critical the group move beyond simply gathering input.

"We're not looking to summarize the feedback [from community meetings] and call it a plan," Zur Schmiede said. "We want them to [hold community meetings], but we want them to make professional recommendations."

Topics could include height limits downtown — and whether they are practical — and the economic health of the main downtown streets.

A city staff report suggests the need for Ocean and Forest avenues and Broadway Street to be equal in economic strength but distinct in branding.

No matter the topic, one challenge for MIG, which has completed projects in Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and several cities nationwide, will be balancing Laguna's heritage with modern improvements.

In Newport, MIG helped officials update that city's general plan, revising zoning districts, adding new permitting procedures and setting standards to address outdoor lighting and view protections, according to a staff report.

This is not the first time Laguna has called on the expertise of an urban planning firm.

In 1986, the city hired Brian Maridon and Ruth & Going Inc. to help prepare the original downtown plan, Planning Manager Ann Larson wrote in an email. The firm's focus was on developing design guidelines.

"Laguna Beach is a special community," MIG Principal Chris Beynon said. "[Our company] has worked in a number of beautiful, artistic areas in the state and around the country, and there's no place exactly like Laguna Beach. The solutions we come to as a team and community must be tailored to the special character and environment of this city."

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Laguna Canyon scope extended

The planner's area of focus was expanded in May when the City Council decided to include Laguna Canyon Road north to El Toro Road.

Proposed developments in the area have met with heavy pushback from Laguna Canyon residents.

A group of canyon residents formed the Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization with the goal of preserving the rural, low-density and small-scale character of the area while protecting the integrity of neighborhoods and ensuring safety in the corridor.

The organization, which has a board of directors and a website, held its first public meeting last week and decided that one of its initial tasks will be to identify the current allowable land uses in the canyon and consider whether square footage for certain lots should be limited.

"A huge hurdle [for canyon residents] is establishing trust in the process," Zur Schmiede said. "People feel like their area is under assault. Our goal is making ways to make it more pleasant for residents."

Pedestrian and bicyclist safety on Laguna Canyon Road, which doesn't have a sidewalk or dedicated bike lane, is also on the minds of many.

MIG's analysis of Laguna Canyon could overlap with other studies underway in the area, such as the Laguna Canyon Road assessment being conducted by RBF Consulting.

On Aug. 19, the council is scheduled receive a report from RBF that is expected to offer suggestions for pedestrian and bicycle improvements on the state highway.

The development and safety concerns in the canyon are complicated by its many zones, according to Johnson.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," she said. "You look at the way it's zoned, and it's a nightmare."

MIG, which is being paid up to $300,000 by the city, will study various city documents and reports, consider the feedback gleaned from eight public meetings and take walking tours of the area to gain a feel of the town's culture.

"From the moment we arrive in Laguna Beach we will, to the extent possible, 'live like a local,' so as to more fully grasp the unique rhythms of the place," MIG officials said in a staff report. "This typically includes the following: enjoying our caffeine at the local coffeehouse, reading the local [newspapers and magazines], observing the traffic patterns, and staying the weekends."

Zur Schmiede said change is part of life and it's best to accept it.

"If you don't shape change, change will come and shape you," he said.