Let’s Make Downtown Great Again
Inaccurate information circulating on social media suggests the city will consider closing Forest Avenue to cars this fall.
Let me set the record straight. What a citizen’s group is recommending is a trial closure of a section of Park Avenue, a short block that dead ends in the library parking lot.
Here’s the backstory: I have been working with Chris Prelitz of Transition Laguna and Ruben Flores of the Beautification Council as representatives of a citizen’s committee that includes the Chamber and Visit Laguna. Two years ago, former Mayor Bob Whalen appointed the committee to develop proposals for trial street closures, something the City Council unanimously approved.
Back then our group recommended a trial for lower Forest Avenue (the one-way part) for obvious reasons: it’s the grand dame of downtown, with the perfect blend of restaurants (for outdoor cafes), shops, and landscaping. It even has traffic “bulb-outs” on both ends, forming the picture perfect pedestrian plaza. Now, this schizophrenic street, which doesn’t know if it’s a parking lot or a thoroughfare (that routinely backs up traffic on Coast Highway), would be a true town square that would activate our downtown core as so many pedestrian promenades have in cities around the world.
We met with city representatives and recommended an autumn trial, the shoulder season when merchants would be less sensitive to removing parking. Yet for reasons we’ll likely never know, the city went to Council with a different time frame (at the suggestion of consultants MIG), to test the closure the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September. Huh? An absolute poison pill as merchants wanted no disruptions during their vital end-of-summer / back-to-school shopping period. So MIG’s Plan B was activated: an offer for certain restaurants to erect parklets in front of their stores. Just one Italian chef said yes, believing he was doing something good, something that is woven into the fabric of his native culture: alfresco dining. We all know how that turned out.
A short time after that carnage, tireless complete streets-advocate Michael Hoag suggested to our group something others had mentioned before: instead of testing a street closure on such a contentious street like Forest, why not test it on training wheels on an innocuous and somewhat blighted section of downtown: lower Park Avenue, better known as the cut-through between Forest Avenue and the library. There’s only one merchant on this street, Adonis (the kebab house), just eight parking spaces to be sacrificed, a beautiful canopy of shade trees, and a gorgeous corridor view of the Pacific. And it’s battle-tested: Transition Laguna already closed it twice for Earth Day celebrations. They were tremendously successful and the street never looked better.
So local landscape architect and designer Scott Sebastian produced a beautiful site plan, which we then rendered into a street level drawing with a generous donation from Hoag.
Now we hope enough time has passed to take another swing at it. It has been vetted by the Chamber and goes to city staff next week to discuss implementation before it comes before the Council for a vote. We are advocating a two-month closure during October and November through to Hospitality Night, with a first two weeks kill option if it proves to be a problem. This is easier and requires less manpower than doing it sporadically. Plus it gives time for the community to adapt to it. It will be converted into a café setting, with public seating, tables, and landscaping. Attractive lighting. And hopefully themed décor from each of our sister city organizations. Finally, a place to eat your takeout, in the shade, with fresh air and an incomparable view. And a place for your kids to play safely as well.
Now, I know you’re thinking two things:
That route is your secret shortcut to bypass the congestion on Forest. Please, please take one for the greater community good and endure the two-minute inconvenience for a couple months. It’s the offseason anyway.
What do we do about the possible disruptions caused by the homeless? First off, we tolerate everyone. That’s who we are. But we can also impose decorum and time limits on usage (so everyone can enjoy), put more foot patrol in the area, post signs discouraging unsavory behavior and watch the area with webcams. Also, the owner of Adonis (who desperately wants this) volunteered staffing to maintain order.
So there it is. I hope we have the will to just try it. It’s only a test. And as former New York Mayor Bloomberg once said, “trial street closures are cheap and easy: all you need is paint and planters.” And of course the backbone to see it through with a long enough period for quantitative and qualitative analysis.
I believe Park Plaza will be such a success that merchants on Forest will ask why their street can’t be converted as well.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].