LAGUNA BEACH — Famous as a funky, bohemian outpost of eclectic old bungalows and meandering streets, Laguna Beach would never be mistaken for a rule-bound planned community.
Yet maintaining the rakishly independent charm of this city of 24,416 involves a strict historic preservation ordinance and a long list of picky codes and guidelines. It also involves an unusually inclusive public process that has become more impassioned in recent years as '90s notions of the good life clash with Laguna's simpler past.
Though the city's demographics have changed--average household income, now $98,931, shot up more than 171% during the 1980s--its ethos hasn't. For citizens who have deputized themselves preservationists, retaining older buildings is as much about protecting a spirit of neighborliness and tolerance of eccentricity as it is about real estate.
"You have a tremendous amount of people who really care about the community intensely," says former mayor and City Council member Neil Fitzpatrick.
"They show up in droves and participate. They feel protective--they want to be able to influence how we live here and how it grows. Slowly, we hope."
Those fighting for the "old" Laguna often point to architect Mark Singer's 1995 remodeling of an old downtown market into an upscale restaurant as emblematic of a dreary future in which their city looks like any other wealthy beach town--and in which greed and indifference cancel out old-fashioned trust and accountability.
Other residents welcome such amenities as shops selling European designer clothing and restaurants offering sophisticated fare, as long as they respect the city's pedestrian scale and seaside beauty.
"Laguna 20 years ago was a place you moved to because you couldn't afford to live in Newport," says architect Morris Skendarian, whose clientele has changed over the years from teachers to professionals who don't flinch at $5-million price tags. "Now people come here as a first choice."
As new businesses step in to feed residents' yuppie tastes, "Village Laguna"--a phrase coined in the early '70s by preservationists--has begun to erode. Over the past 10 years, architects working around town have chafed mightily against city rules favoring the Village look. Small, dark, quaint buildings do not take advantage of a 20th century revolution in the use of light and space, they say, not to mention sleek new materials and finishes.
"I'd like to think the Village atmosphere was about things that transcended style, scale and massing, not little cottage-y places," says Laguna architect Horst Noppenberger.
As the kind of centrally located "little cottage-y place" that architects yearn to transform and preservationists yearn to rescue, Forest Market was destined to become a flash point in the ongoing battle over the city's future.
Opened in the early 1920s as a fruit and vegetable store, Forest Market had become a local landmark by 1940. Forty-one years later, the city put it on a new inventory of historically significant properties and gave it an "E for excellent" rating, though old photographs show a plain, flat-roofed building with a facade of wooden folding doors.
In fact, the "E" reflects the market's status as one of few remaining original businesses on Laguna's equivalent of Main Street.
Longtime residents remember how the chief of police would stop by for his daily sandwich. Locals would pop in for a cold drink, a cut of meat or a gossip update before walking down the street to pick up a prescription or buy a pair of shoelaces.
In the mid-'80s, the market changed hands again. Its new proprietor, Amos Swimmer--brother of Jules Swimmer, the current lessee--says he sank more than $100,000 into shoring up the walls, replacing rotted flooring and painting the forest-green doors white.
Swimmer installed seating, beefed up the deli counter's menu and sold seasonal novelty items. But the store depended almost entirely on tourism, which declined after the devastating Laguna Beach fire in '93.
In November 1994, six months after the market closed, Swimmer petitioned the city's Planning Commission to convert the market-cum-sandwich shop into what he called a "gourmet market and restaurant." He offered to put it on the Historic Register, which meant promising to retain the building's historical features.
In December, the City Council-appointed Heritage Committee drew up a list of 10 preservation recommendations. They included the retention of such key original features as the folding doors (to be kept "operable"), the front facade--with minor stipulations--and exterior lighting fixtures, the wood floor and the tin ceiling.
As a purely advisory body, the Heritage Committee has only one carrot to dangle in front of the owners of old buildings: a recommendation that they be exempted from city rules.