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Coast Inn renovation approved

Laguna Beach Planning Commissioners were pleased with the final details on the renovation of the old Coast Inn at their May 12 meeting — including the addition of 1920s-themed flag poles and awnings — but continued to press the developer on a public display depicting the hotel's long association with the gay community.

The location of such an interpretive center is still to be determined.

The hotel might have a retail space, or a restaurant/wine bar — or all three — at the former location of the Boom Café, a 1,200-square-foot storefront, according to architect Morris Skenderian.

"We hope to rent to a tenant," Skenderian said. "We would like to have a great hotel with a wine bar, but we don't want it to be a requirement."

The site of the Boom Boom Room — the iconic bar where Rock Hudson and other gay mega-stars hobnobbed from the mid-1900s — will become a 13-space parking garage under plans approved unanimously by the commission.

Skenderian proposed that a historic exhibit about the Coast Inn and its importance in Laguna Beach be placed either in the hotel lobby or in the restaurant/bar area; that it be prepared by an approved historic consultant and "subject to the approval" of the property owner, former AIG executive Steven Udvar-Hazy. Udvar-Hazy, one of the world's wealthiest men, has been pressured for several years to donate the property to the city as a gay community center.

Udvar-Hazy also owns Coast Liquor, across the street from the hotel, and plans to convert that location into a "liquor store, wine cafe and deli," Skenderian stated. "Hopefully, it will all work together."

Commissioners continued to press Skenderian to promise that the property's long history as a gay gathering place would be included in the historic exhibit, and some were concerned the site would be too "private."

"This building has been of tremendous importance to a community that had few public places to meet," said Chairwoman Anne Johnson. "There are couples in town who met there. A retail space is not a place to socialize and it would be very wrong to exclude that. The intepretive exhibit should be in a public area."

Skenderian reminded the commission that he also worked on the redevelopment of the historic Pottery Shack site, now known as the Old Pottery Place, which includes historic artifacts and displays in areas open to the public.

Commissioner Norm Grossman agreed with Johnson, but opined that placing the display in the hotel lobby would be public enough.

Skenderian agreed with this idea. "We want it in the lobby of the hotel or in the wine bar, but not in a retail space because it might not fit in with the tenant. We will do it in the spirit of the Pottery Shack."

Gay community activist Audrey Prosser said she was dismayed that the history of the Boom Boom Room could be hidden from view.

"We don't want to be at the back of the bus," Prosser said. "I want to visit my history. The interpretive center should be in the wine bar."

At Grossman's suggestion, the commission voted to require the developer to present the historic display to the city's Heritage Committee for a first review, and then bring it to the commission. Udvar-Hazy had failed to obtain a K-rating (as "Key" to the city's history) from the Heritage Committee, which could have enabled him to obtain valuable tax credits. The committee agreed to a lesser C (or "Contributive") rating, but the developer has apparently not given up on a "K" rating.

Commissioner Bob Whalen also urged Udvar-Hazy to come up with an appropriately public location in which to place the display. "I want a real strong effort, and I will be very disappointed if that front space is retail," Whalen said.

Commissioner Linda Deutsch concurred. "I want the gay heritage to be prominent in this location," she said.

The commission concluded, however, that they could not prohibit Udvar-Hazy from placing a retail use in the 1,200-square-foot spot since it is allowed under the zoning for the site.

Skenderian acknowledged that Udvar-Hazy would prefer a retail space in the former Boom Cafe site. "He wants a successful tenant, and he doesn't want a requirement for a tenant that may fail." But he agreed that "We will make a good faith effort to obtain a wine bar tenant."

The architect said he hopes to break ground on the project in September, adding that costs are becoming prohibitive and that the project may not be able to be built as it is now designed.

"We may have to start cutting costs," Skenderian said. "We're lucky this client has resources."

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