By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
which offers readings and live performances on Saturdays in December.
A pilot street closure on Park Avenue, intended as a downtown Laguna Beach pocket-park to encourage foot traffic, will be extended through the end of the year.
The six-week closure that banned auto traffic from the short block abutting Coast Highway was to end Dec. 1, but city officials extended its life as a car-free zone until Jan. 2.
“The feedback from residents thus far is mixed, but most comments are positive,” said City Manager John Pietig. “The Park Plaza trial program is being extended.”
Park Plaza consists of café-style tables and chairs under a canopy of trees and arrayed outdoors on the asphalt of a short street that roughly parallels Forest and Laguna Avenues. The request to create Park Plaza came from the Chamber of Commerce, Transition Laguna and the Beautification Council.
Feedback over the closure included supportive comments, including décor suggestions, and also criticism about its impact on traffic circulation and parking, said Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson.
The closure will cost the city $75,000 through Jan. 2, with sign rental and lost parking revenue the biggest ticket items. About $10,000 went to landscaping and décor.
“The only recommendation has been that if it is going to be permanent, then they would like to see nicer furniture, and more signage,” said Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella.
She disputed discussions on social media about an increase in homeless activity around the Park Plaza area. Calls to police for service in the vicinity over the past six weeks are no different than in the same time period a year ago, she said.
Avoiding the creation of public spaces because they may give homeless people a place to congregate will neither deter the problem nor help solve it, said Billy Fried, Transition Laguna’s advocate for Park Plaza. “It’s the great existential problem of our time,” he said. “But limiting our own personal freedoms and quality of life by placing prohibitions on public gathering spaces is not the path forward.”
The Plaza’s original closing hour was extended until 2:30 a.m. from 10 p.m. to accommodate those sobering up after leaving downtown restaurants and bars. The city also has a live feed camera on the Plaza to monitor activity.
“The biggest concern raised by those opposed is the loss of a left-turn area to reach Park Avenue,” Pietig said. “We will summarize feedback received after the trial program is complete.”
Many local motorists had used lower Park Avenue, which forks behind the Public Library, as a cut-through to Glenneyre to avoid often slow traffic on Forest Avenue and a left-turn lane back-up on Legion Street. City staff promises to closely monitor the closure’s impacts on Coast Highway traffic, and will report findings to the City Council next year.
Community groups are also embracing the outdoor space. The Laguna Beach Beautification Council expects to add a Christmas tree to the Plaza, which is to be lit during Hospitality Night on Friday, Dec. 1. (The official city tree lighting will take place at 313 Ocean Ave., the Peppertree Parking Lot this year.) The Third Street Writers group will also share holiday stories in the plaza every Saturday in December from 10 a.m. to noon. It’s part of the Park Plaza Readers and Writer’s Saturdays, and the collection of stories will also appear in print and online in the Indy during the holiday season.
“This new space enables writers to share their work with the public in a fresh new way,“ said Amy Dechary, president of Third Street Writers.
After the Park Plaza trial period ends, the area will be cleaned Jan. 3-7. Fried hopes the city reopens it next summer, permanently.
“Invest in more beautiful and comfortable seating. Get rid of those Caltrans barriers and make something beautiful and inviting,” Fried said.