Cars clog the pavement as far north as the intersection of State Route 133 and the SR-73 toll road. The backup continues on the winding road through bucolic Laguna Canyon, and nearly comes to a standstill as you approach the art festivals on Laguna Canyon Road.
Along the coast on most summer days and evenings, traffic on Pacific Coast Highway — known as North and South Coast Highways in Laguna — is also bumper to bumper.
It’s the summertime jam, and it’s an annual encumbrance if you live or work in Laguna Beach or frequent the beach town’s three summer art festivals — the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Art Festival and Art-A-Fair.
Practically everyone in Orange County knows that Laguna Beach gets crazy busy and congested during the summer arts season. Traffic and parking can turn into a real headache. According to city statistics, over 6 million people visit the town each year, with over 3 million of those visitors coming to Laguna Beach during the summer. The city’s trolley system carries over 600,000 passengers during the summer season.
“It’s a really difficult time for Laguna Beach residents, because our town gets taken over, because we lose our mobility,” said Peter Blake, a longtime gallery owner and resident of Laguna for 30 years. He was also recently elected to serve on city council for a 4-year term.
“We lose our ability to go to restaurants,” he said. “We lose our ability to get around easily. I’ve heard people quite often complain about tourism.”
Yet, Blake acknowledges, as long as he has lived in Laguna, it’s always been a tourist town. “It started as a tourist town,” he said. “It was a tourist town that turned into a residential town that’s still a tourist town. Granted, the numbers (of tourists) have grown exponentially over the last few years. TV shows have splashed our beautiful beaches all over the world. It’s a beautiful place with the most beautiful weather. What’s there not to love? We don’t even have bugs.”
A major reason for the difficulty in getting around Laguna Beach and finding parking is the relatively narrow roads entering and exiting the popular resort and art town. And there are only three ways to get in or out: Laguna Canyon Road/SR-133, and North and South Coast Highway.
“We not only have the people coming to the beach, we also have the three art festivals going on, and the Pageant of the Masters,” said Cliff Wassmann, a photographer, painter and 11-year resident of Laguna Beach. He has participated at the Sawdust Festival for 10 years, and enjoyed 21-year and 20-year runs at the Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair, respectively.
“People will complain about it. I hear a lot of locals complain about it. For me, I feel like that’s what I signed on for. I live right in the middle of downtown. I wouldn’t expect it to be calm and quiet. And the benefits of tourism I think outweigh the inconvenience for a couple of months.”
Brynne Cogorno, another Sawdust artist, concurs.
“The summer is the most exciting part of the year,” said the illustrator and graphic designer who has exhibited at the Sawdust for 11 years. “I rode my bike here to work. They redid the pathways. I feel a lot more safe. There’s an area to ride. You can walk downtown. If you live in town, I don’t think you have to drive. You can carpool, you can buddy up. You can take the trolley to work.”
Lots of Lots
The city of Laguna Beach has taken measures to alleviate the traffic and parking congestion. A number of low-cost or free lots open up during the summer around the periphery of Laguna Beach. They are open through Sept. 1:
- Parking Lot 16, also known as Act V, at 1900 Laguna Canyon Road, has 239 spaces. Folks can park there for $7 on weekdays and $10 on weekends, then take a free trolley to the festivals or downtown.
- Laguna College of Art + Design at 2222 Laguna Canyon Road (Parking Lot 17) has 154 spaces. Parking is $5, but it’s only available on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to midnight. A free trolley will pick up people from this location as well.
- Mission Hospital at 31872 Coast Highway (Parking Lot 15) in South Laguna has 200 spaces available all day on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays. Parking is free.
- The Summer Breeze service features a dirt lot with more than 100 spaces at the intersection of SR-133, I-405 and Laguna Canyon Road. Parking here is free, but it’s only available on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to midnight. An OCTA bus or city trolley will pick up folks every half hour and drop them off at each of the festivals, Laguna Playhouse and the Laguna Beach Bus Depot.
Summer Breeze started in 2016 as a collaboration between the city and the Orange County Transit Authority. The service has proven to be a success over the past three years, with more than 10,000 passengers last year, according to Paula Faust, Laguna’s deputy director of public works/transit and parking.
If you want to take your chances, metered parking on Laguna Canyon Road and Frontage Road in front of the Sawdust is $1.50 an hour. There’s a three-hour parking limit before 5 p.m., and the metered hours have been extended from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. through Sept. 1. After 9 p.m. it’s free.
And if you’ve got money to burn, you could park at a metered space downtown for $4.50 per hour. Lots 10 and 11 across from the Festival of Arts and lot 12 at the Lumberyard restaurant are $20 per day after 5 p.m. and on weekends and holidays ($15 at all other times).
Private lots run $15, $20 and higher.
Help for Locals
In an effort to assist residents and visitors, the city of Laguna Beach has introduced a new Laguna Beach Parking App. The mobile app, downloadable on Google Play and the Apple Store, shows available parking in real time. Users can also pay for parking through the app, keep track of remaining time, and even extend parking sessions remotely.
“The app will reduce circling, gridlock and traffic congestion in the downtown area while showing drivers all available parking in real time,” Faust said in an email.
The list of locations is arranged alphabetically, so it can take a while to scroll down and find the exact spot you’re looking for. (There is also a search function and a “check availability” map function.) Also, the app will indicate percent availability, but won’t necessarily show you a specific empty parking space. And it can be tricky (if not illegal) to use the app and drive at the same time, especially on a mobile device.
According to Faust, Laguna Beach City Council awarded a contract of approximately $1 million to New Zealand-based Frog Parking in April to provide a smart parking guidance system in conjunction with the mobile app. This project was originally identified in the city’s Parking Management Plan as one of the strategies to deal with downtown congestion, Faust said.
To help promote the app, Lauren Conrad, Laguna Beach’s very own reality TV star, fashion designer and author, appears in a humorous public service video driving around town, looking for a place to park. “You should have used the app!” her friends and a trolley-riding stranger admonish her.
Sawdust artist Wassmann has learned to read the traffic and congestion like he reads the nearby ocean waves.
“I don’t have a problem, because I understand what’s going on because I live here and I watch the traffic, and it’s kind of like the tide,” he said. “There’s certain times when you don’t want to try and park. You just have to avoid driving and parking at certain times during the day. It ebbs and flows, even in the middle of the day.”
A Tale of One City
Even though summer is traditionally the busiest time of year, it doesn’t always benefit every business in Laguna Beach.
Blake, who has operated Peter Blake Gallery for 25 years, sees his activity slow down considerably during summer. His gallery specializes in modern, contemporary, minimalist and abstract art.
“While everybody was gearing up for the busiest time of the year, we’re gearing up for the worst time of year,” he said. “Because local collectors don’t want to deal with the traffic coming in.
“The whole model has changed, anyway. We’re doing a lot more business online and at art fairs. It’s slower for us than normal. It’s the worst time of the year for us, not the best time.”
As Charles Dickens once noted, even the best of times can be the worst of times for some. But Laguna residents just learn to adapt and deal with it.
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.