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A Tale of 2 Tourist Towns : Policy: Charming Laguna legislates to keep seasonal commerce in check, while funky Huntington Beach hustles for more visitor dollars.

September 12, 1993|MICHAEL FLAGG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Diane Neville wanted to open a small gift shop in artsy Laguna Beach. Her competitors persuaded the Planning Commission to say she would have to sell mostly home furnishings instead.

"It was," says Neville, "like Alpha Beta telling Albertson's not to sell soup."

Her luck might have been better in Huntington Beach.

When a couple of developers wanted to build some stores in this surfer-dude capital, the city sold them a prime parcel of land across the street from the beach for a buck.

This, then, is a tale of two cities: One clinging to its quaint charm despite an onslaught of tourists; the other a funky oil town desperately yearning for more visitors.

Tourist towns from Palm Springs to Carmel are wrestling with a similar problem: how to pack 'em in without turning the place into one big movie-studio back lot, a toy town where you can buy lots of bikinis and frozen yogurt but can't find a hardware store or a grocery.

If a resort town tips too far toward tourism, warns consultant Christopher B. Leinberger, the locals begin to despise the tourists and the tourists "get upset when they discover it's just another place selling T-shirts."

Only 12 miles of coastline separate Laguna Beach from Huntington Beach, yet all they have in common is the Pacific Ocean.

Consider Laguna Beach: For decades, if you needed a suit or a high-school letter jacket, J. E. Dawson Ltd. was probably where you went.

The men's shop has been around since 1929. In a photo from those days, the store sign boasts dry goods, men's clothes and--prophetically--"beach togs."

It took five decades or so, but the beach togs eventually took over the store. Now it sells only stuff like those colorful Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts on the rack near the door. At $65 to $78 each, there's a lot more money in moving them than in underwear and socks.

"We still get a few locals who carried over from the old men's store," says General Manager Mark Stevens, who was manning the cash register on a recent summer afternoon.

"But they don't bring enough business to support these enormous rents."

On tree-shaded Forest Avenue in Laguna's tiny downtown, the average shop rents these days for $7,500 a month--three or four times what it might cost inland. Still, so desperate are merchants to get in that there are rarely vacancies. Despite the recession, rents have not budged in five years. Some of the old shops fled; some simply expired.

Those remaining have to give the snowbirds something they can't buy in Cleveland. Rich Boitano offers them olives.

On his counter in Chase's Olive Barrel are 16 big jars of them--Mexican Hot, Spiced Green, Wine Spiced.

Two women browse while Boitano uses metal forceps to fish out a Spiced Green and drops it into a tiny paper cup for one to sample.

"Much as I'd like the business," he says to another visitor, "a lot of locals don't even want to come down here anymore in the summer.

"They think it's crowded, and they don't want to pay for parking."

*

Every year, 3 million tourists--enough to populate the entire state of Oregon--descend on this town of 24,000. Sometimes it seems as if every one of them is backed up in traffic on Coast Highway, or circling the block looking for a parking space.

Laguna was already an artists' colony and tourist town before the first World War. But by the 1980s, the sunglass shops and T-shirt stores that had sprouted along the beach were threatening to march inland up Forest Avenue, the city's first paved street. The locals were fed up. One guy running for the City Council complained that the town was becoming the "Coney Island of the West Coast."

In 1989, Laguna struck back: It adopted one of the most stringent zoning ordinances in California.

From now on, the city said, it would decide which businesses would open on Forest Avenue. That would keep the tacky stuff away from the expensive stores. Another street, Ocean Avenue, was set aside for shops that still catered to locals--dry cleaners and art-supply stores and the like.

The type of permits Laguna Beach now requires are usually aimed only at unpopular businesses like liquor stores; what makes Laguna different is that frozen yogurt shops and sunglass emporiums are fairly new targets.

Four years later, it's clear that the permits have helped save what remains of Laguna's village atmosphere.

Some newcomers complain, however, that the merchants who have already arrived on Forest Avenue use the permit process to quash competition.

Remember Diane Neville?

Neville is no stranger to bureaucracies; she spent six years on the Planning Commission in San Clemente. It was a little unusual, she thought, that she had to apply all the way to the Laguna Beach Planning Commission just to open a gift shop. Still, she figured the hearing would be smooth sailing.

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