Sculptor Louis Longi, project manager Chris Meddock and architect Horst Noppenberger stand at Longi's studio on Laguna Canyon Road. The group wants to build 30 artist live-work units on an open plot of land in Laguna Canyon. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / October 1, 2013)

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Sculptor Louis Longi and architect Horst Noppenberger received plenty of feedback on a proposed artist live-work space project at last week's Planning Commission meeting.

Some residents favor the proposal, while others criticized the project along Laguna Canyon Road, saying the building is too big and would create traffic nightmares.

When it appeared that the commission would divide 2 to 2 on the matter, Commission Chairman Robert Zur Schmiede asked the applicants what they wanted to do.

Longi and Noppenberger decided to return to the Nov. 13 Planning Commission when all five commissioners are likely to be on hand, eliminating the possibility of a split vote. Commissioner Anne Johnson was absent during last week's meeting.

The project includes 30 artist live-work units on a 36,750-square-foot plot near Canyon Animal Hospital, Laguna Koi Ponds and the Sun Valley residential neighborhood, a city staff report said.

Two two-story buildings spanning 16,192 square feet would contain the units and be arranged around two outdoor communal work spaces, a staff report said. The live-work units range in size from 351 to 1,664 square feet, the staff report said.

The proposed development, which also includes a 45-space, one-story parking structure, is too big for the space, some nearby residents said during the meeting.

"It's too massive a design," said Ralph Haun, a 40-year Laguna Beach resident. "I don't feel it's rustic; it seems more modern. While the building is not flat, it still has a cube-like appearance."

Former Planning Commissioner Barbara Metzger is also concerned about the project's scale.

"The specific plan for this area requires maintaining a rural setting," said Metzger, speaking on behalf of Village Laguna, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to preserving Laguna Beach's village character. "This is a quiet residential neighborhood of single-family homes. The specific plan calls for small-scale development, and this project is too big."

Longi, the property owner and a 16-year Laguna resident, has planned the project for seven years. He is a joint partner with the Laguna Beach-based Dornin Investment Group.

Noppenberger came aboard last year, and the team considered how to make the project compatible with the surrounding hills.

The applicants would maintain the existing 80-foot-tall willow trees and add five sycamores to "soften the scale of the building" and "give the project a sense of belonging to the canyon setting," Noppenberger wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the Planning Commission.

"Multiple pitched roofs mimic the canyon's mountain skyline," Noppenberger wrote.

On Tuesday, Noppenberger said in a conference call with Longi that after thinking about residents' concerns, the applicants may reduce the building's scale at the northernmost point by relocating two upper units.

"Nothing is official, but we'll focus on the northern elevation because that's the part of the building people will see as they're coming into town," Noppenberger said.

"We understood that density [the square feet of habitable area divided by the size of the lot] is the greatest hurdle to overcome," he added. "We did a comprehensive analysis to find projects of similar density."

Noppenberger cited Seven-Degrees, an event venue at 891 Laguna Canyon Road., as an example of a comparable density ratio.

Seven-Degrees is 25,000 square feet, according to its website, on a 28,000 square-foot lot.

But Seven-Degrees does not come as close to Laguna Canyon Road as the proposed live-work spaces, Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman said.