Residents who’ve envisioned more outdoor dining and pedestrian-only traffic on the block of Forest Avenue east of Coast Highway may see that vision become a reality, at least temporarily, as early as August.
Despite uncertainty about the outcome, the City Council asked urban planning consultants and staff Tuesday to proceed with plans for pilot demonstrations to close Forest Avenue to cars between Coast Highway and Beach Street in August and September for an as yet undetermined period.
At the same time, the council asked planners to fine-tune other trials, such as transforming some parking spaces into outdoor seating and dining areas or “parklets” on both Forest and Ocean Avenues, and closing a portion of Ocean Avenue on Saturday mornings in October for the farmer’s market, which will be displaced due to sewer construction.
Additionally, the council endorsed beautifying and improving pedestrian amenities along Forest Lane, the alley behind Forest Avenue.
The trial transformations arose from the hiring last July of an urban design team led by San Diego-based MIG. Their task is helping city planners update the downtown specific plan, which guides future development. In trying to improve livability and mobility downtown, MIG sampled public reaction to a brief street closure on Ocean Avenue with mini parks and displays last November.
Based on that event’s success, the council asked staff and MIG to propose new pilot demonstrations of ways to transform the downtown experience, after seeking input from various concerned groups.
They presented the fruits of their labors Tuesday.
Most residents have experienced Forest Avenue as a pedestrian thoroughfare during the city’s annual Hospitality Night in December. But this street closure trial will occur during regular business hours in August and September.
If any of the trials gain enough favor from residents and affected businesses, the city will look into the permitting required to make the changes permanent, City Manager John Pietig said.
As for the improvements to Forest Lane, “Don’t test it, just do it,” suggested Mayor Bob Whalen, questioning the need for a trial period on something that’s “really just a beautification project.” The other Council members agreed.
In addition to overhead string lighting, surface cleaning, landscaping and public art, the improvements would involve consolidating of individual trash bins to a central location. Business owners seemed amenable to the changes as long as deliveries are unimpeded.
Several restaurant owners endorsed converting parking spaces to dining areas. “Parklets are better than parking spaces,” said Alessandro Pirozzi, owner of Alessa.
Marc Cohen, chef owner of the restaurants 230 Forest and Watermarc, agreed, even offering to underwrite the parklet conversion.
Alan Hall, owner of the boutique Muse, offered a cautionary note. He said similar street closures in Huntington Beach proved a boon to restaurants, while retailers suffered. Even so, he predicted that attention to details could yield a positive experience for all.
“I’m so excited about this and I hope that it passes,” said resident Lorene Auger, summing up the enthusiasm of most residents who spoke.
Planners received generally positive feedback and support from affected business owners, reported Principal Planner Wendy Jung, although they did raise concerns about parking, deliveries and access.
“It’s a test,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow, who said that while no one knows what’s going to happen, it’s ultimately “about retaining, if not enhancing, the charm and character of downtown and it would be a major quantum leap forward if it works.”