Laguna Planning Commission says retail specialist would be an asset to downtown commerce

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission liked the idea of bringing a retail specialist on board to advise the city on the latest industry news.

Commissioners did not officially vote Wednesday night, but gave their takes on commercial uses in Laguna’s downtown as they discussed revisions to the downtown specific plan, a key planning document that guides development and land use.

The meeting was one in a series of hearings as commissioners move through six sections of the plan. MIG, an urban planning firm hired by the city to help with the plan revision, provided its recommendations prior to the meeting, which city staff included in its report to commissioners.

An ad hoc committee of nine Laguna residents, including representatives from the boards of Village Laguna — a nonprofit established in 1971 that opposed high-rise buildings along Laguna’s coast — and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, have met since February to discuss changes to the plan.

The committee suggested the city look into hiring or contracting with a retail specialist to recruit and retain businesses that serve residents and visitors, according to the group’s suggested draft contained in the city staff report.

Kavita Reddy, a Laguna resident, business owner and committee member, said retailers, especially those with brick-and-mortar stores, face challenges in today’s world of online shopping.

“People are not shopping in brick-and-mortar stores anymore,” Reddy said. “When they are shopping, they are not prioritizing spending on stuff. They want to go to restaurants or travel.

“I’m disappointed MIG’s analysis does not address this.”

Commissioner Roger McErlane suggested hiring a professional who is experienced in dealing with coastal cities that attract tourists, and one who has a pulse on the latest retail trends.

“It should be some kind of consultant that has an overview of that type of community [similar in size to Laguna’s population] to give an overview, advice,” McErlane said, adding the person should not be opining on applications of potential business owners.

Commissioners also favored removing the word “saturation” from the plan, an indication they did not want the city beholden to a certain number of businesses within a certain category.

“Retail operations that fall into the same retail category, such as women’s clothes or jewelry, may be specialized,” the committee’s draft said. “Specific numeric limits on a use reduce flexibility and may become permanent by default.”

MIG recommended combining two districts currently reserved as commercial and resident-serving, respectively, into one to allow flexibility of uses, but commissioners said they did not want to merge the two zones.

Commissioners acknowledged attracting new businesses to Laguna is becoming tougher, thus creative solutions are needed.

“When we’re out in other parts of Southern California, we say to [prospective business owners], ‘Have you thought about coming to Laguna?’ ” Commissioner Anne Johnson said. “They always say, ‘Will you pay my rent?’ The reality is this cute, little exciting store is going to have a hard time paying the rents down here.”

Staff and MIG will review commissioners’ comments and prepare a revised draft to be included with the full plan. Commissioners will have another opportunity to look at this section when they consider the entire downtown specific plan.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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