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Remodel plans for Pacific Edge Hotel move forward, with conditions

By SARA HALL

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission this week unanimously approved plans to remodel Pacific Edge Hotel, with modified conditions reflecting their key concerns.

Located at 647 S Coast Hwy, and 610-668 Sleepy Hollow Ln, the project includes adding 25 rooms, building an underground parking garage, relocating the registration lobby, and adding a café with outdoor dining.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the project on Wednesday night, after about four hours of presentation, discussion, and public comment. 

The primary issues revolved around the construction schedule and staging plan (complete shutdown versus phased and partially open), parking and traffic impacts and mitigation efforts (particularly on Sleepy Hollow Lane), and employee transportation services.

Other changes to conditions include making more of an effort on sustainability and additional noise mitigation at the pool area.

There was also some discussion about the hotel’s plan to use modern trash compactors, the landscape plan along PCH, Art in Public Places Program, historical registration for one of the buildings, geotechnical concerns for the aging buildings, and the affordable units in-lieu fee of $625,000, which will go toward a coastal trail construction project.

Remodel plans Rendering 1

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by Luxigon/Courtesy of City of LB 

A rendering of the highway elevation view of the Pacific Edge Hotel project

The scope of the project includes a remodel of nine existing buildings, adding 25 rooms (total of 156 rooms), relocation of the pool and spa area (removing two existing pools and building a larger pool deck and bar), construction of a subsurface parking garage and new hotel building, restriping of the parking areas, new porte-cochère, roadway improvements along Sleepy Hollow Lane, new office, fitness center, and conference areas, a new café with outdoor dining, air conditioning, landscaping, lighting, and architectural features.

Local architect Morris Skenderian and Los Angeles-based Rocky Rockefeller are the architects on the project for Highgate Hotels, the majority owner of the property. 

The bulk of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around the construction schedule, proposed in the staff report as a complete shutdown of the hotel for one year, but revised during the meeting by the applicants to stay open, at least partially, during the year-long construction process.

Condition 48, as written in the resolution, states that the entirety of the resort shall be closed to the public for the duration of construction to ensure that all construction vehicles and materials can be contained within the existing resort parking lots.

Although during the applicant’s presentation, Skenderian said that’s no longer the plan.

“That was a consideration at one time, but I think they’d prefer not to shut it all down and start over, but to do it sequentially within the year…checkerboard fashion,” he said.

Commissioners were taken aback, given how it was written in the resolution.

“When I read that condition, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a bold approach and that’s really a good approach,’” Commissioner Ken Sadler said. “Bite the bullet and shut the place down and just deal with the construction (on-site).”

It might be a bit costly, but it would certainly help mitigate construction issues in the neighborhood, he said.

Remodel plans Rendering 2

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Rendering by Luxigon/Courtesy of City of LB 

A rendering of the proposed remodel project for Pacific Edge Hotel

If there’s not a full shutdown, which several commissioners were heavily leaning toward, the applicant needs to submit a detailed construction staging plan that keeps construction vehicles, equipment, and workers on-site with as little impact to the neighborhood as possible. At that time, Council can consider which is the best approach.

Submitting the phased plan can definitely be done, Skenderian said. They don’t want to completely let the employees go for that extended period of time, he explained.

The property should be shut down during construction and the employees fairly compensated, Commissioner Steven Goldman said. 

“I don’t want to spend money that’s not mine, but I think keeping employees paid and keeping employees on the payroll…the cost of that should be offset by the decreased time of construction as well as, probably, significant cost efficiency by closing it down and doing it all at once,” Goldman said.

Vann Avedisian, a principal at Highgate Holdings, seemed to accept the commissioners’ request.

“Reading the room, obviously the construction staging seems to be a point with the majority of the Planning Commission,” Avedisian said. “At the end of the day, if the Commission is ready to approve this project under that condition, I think we would agree to that.”

If they present a phased construction staging plan and the Commission or City Council feel that it’s a better approach, they could shift to that, Avedisian said.

“But, if around the table, the Planning Commission, people felt like a complete shutdown was the right approach, then we would live by that,” Avedisian concluded.

Staff could write in both options, along with Commissioner comments and concerns, within the recommendation to Council, Planning Manager Scott Drapkin confirmed.

Remodel plans current hotel

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current Pacific Edge Hotel in Laguna Beach

The other main concerns, regarding employee transportation and parking studies, were worked out to the Commission’s satisfaction.

Condition 21 that requires the permittee to provide “incentives” to control employee parking, is too vague, Sadler said.

The condition also states that employees shall have access to bicycle racks, showers, and lockers to encourage bicycle commuting. 

“Nobody is going to commute from Anaheim [or other inland cities] on a bicycle,” Commissioner Jorg Dubin said. “The idea of somebody riding a bicycle from out of town to come to work is just nonsense.”

Instead of OCTA and Laguna Beach Transit passes being offered as “awards for employee recognition programs” (like employee of the month), the condition should require the permittee to offer them to all employees who want one or both of the passes, he said.

Condition 25 requires that the permittee submit a parking study prepared by a traffic engineer to review efficiencies, effectiveness, and/or problems associated with the innovative parking solution (i.e. off-street ride-hailing area) at one and five years, from the date the permit is implemented. 

Commissioners agreed that the parking study should also be required at six months after implementation.

Nearly a dozen people spoke during public comment and all but one opposed the project. 

Many of the speakers were employees at other hotels or resorts in Orange County. They urged the Commission to reject the project, which several argued isn’t compatible considering the additional rooms, doesn’t respectfully consider the current employees and their commute and parking problems, and that it will create more community traffic and parking issues.

A few Sleepy Hollow Lane residents also commented, but were split on supporting or opposing the project.

Remodel plans Rendering 3

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Rendering by Luxigon/Courtesy of City of LB 

A rendering of the proposed remodel project from Sleeping Hollow Lane

Doug Garnhart said that while it would be nice to have the property revamped, calling it a “kind of an eyesore” as it currently stands, the proposed project does not offer solutions to problems that currently need to be addressed. “I think that there are some significant flaws in what they’re proposing here,” Garnhart said.

The traffic studies, and valet and parking plans all need work, he said. He’s had a number of unfriendly run-ins with the valets in the past, he claimed, and they often block the street and driveways. Parking is so limited that residents often have trouble navigating Sleepy Hollow Lane.

“Valet makes no effort to make this a friendly environment,” Garnhart said. “They’ve made no effort to be a good neighbor.”

Another neighbor, James Costa, agreed that traffic is often blocked on the street and he can’t see how this project will make any improvements to the current problem. 

Although not all the Sleepy Hollow neighbors are opposed.

Ray Fidel, who lives in a single-family residence on the street, said he supports the proposal. He spent time with the applicant and architect, learning about the project what it entails.

“They’ve been, in my experience, extremely thoughtful (and) very diligent, in terms of trying to mitigate that kind of a development next to a single-family home,” Fidel said.

Overall, commissioners praised the project and pointed out several positive aspects that outweigh their concern on the few issues that still need to be worked out. 

“It’s a really, really great example of an upgrade to an aging and inconsistent complex,” Dubin said. “(They) have really put together a program that’s going to take a resort complex and not only unify it, but make it look like something that we can all be really proud of, as far as the community goes.”

As a result of the owner’s vision and the expert consulting team, this project is addressing a number of issues, Commission Chair Susan Whitin said.

“It’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat, essentially. These are non-descript, dull buildings, they don’t make any impact at all on Coast Highway as they stand,” Whitin said. “(The project) looks fairly straight-forward and simple, but it’s really quite elegant in the way it’s been knit together into a cohesive whole,” Whitin said. “I’d say it’s a destination resort.”