By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
The city of Laguna Beach will close a short half-block in the downtown this fall in an experimental move to create more outdoor seating and gathering space.
The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to close lower Park Avenue, a short street off Coast Highway that parallels Forest and Laguna Avenue, from Oct. 21 to Dec. 1. If the closure is going well for businesses and the city, the initial closure may be extended until the end of the year, the council decided.
“Testing street closures has been recommended in every downtown specific plan, and a majority of residents have supported this in city-wide polls,” said Billy Fried, a member of Transition Laguna, an organization that previously transformed the street for Earth Day events.
The concept, being called Park Plaza, is envisioned as an outdoor café-type setting, with tables, chairs, décor, plants and lighting. There would not be food prepared or served on site, or booths or programmed entertainment permitted. It is simply envisioned as a gathering place where people could eat lunch or have coffee, presumably purchased at downtown eating establishments. The city estimated costs to landscape and develop the park at up to $10,000, with an additional $500 per day possible costs for renting traffic signage. The city would also lose an estimated $8,400 in parking fees by having to eliminate eight parking spaces on the street during the trial period.
The request for the Park Plaza came from the Chamber of Commerce, Transition Laguna and the Beautification Council. Fried told the council the initiative is envisioned as a shared space that encourages people to linger in the heavily shaded area and creates a gathering spot for locals downtown.
“Imagine a busy soccer mom, and she wants to take a load off for a moment,” Fried told the council. “They purchase food and settle into a seat at the plaza. The kids can play and mom sees someone, and random alchemy happens.“
Many local residents transit through lower Park Avenue, which forks behind the Public Library, as a cut-through to Glenneyre to avoid heavier traffic on Forest and Ocean Avenues. City reports show initial traffic studies done on the usage of Park indicate one car turns onto the street from Coast Highway every minute. Some council members expressed concern about the closure’s impact on traffic congestion.
“Would you anticipate that is going to create a back up on Coast Highway trying to make a left turn?” Steve Dicterow asked city planners.
Bob Whalen had additional ideas. “Get rid of street parking on Coast Highway between Forest and Laguna Avenue; put a left turn lane at Laguna Avenue. We could improve the whole situation if we did that,” Whalen said.
Because Park intersects with Coast Highway, the city’s Public Works Department will have to submit a certified traffic control and detour plan to Caltrans and obtain a Caltrans encroachment permit. Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said she didn’t anticipate any trouble in getting that permit, and quickly.
“I did run by the concept by them to see if there were any fatal flaws, and they didn’t see any,” Dupuis said.
Others were less enthusiastic about the plan. Local resident Susan Elliott told council members she doesn’t think locals will use the space, and that it’s not ideal for gathering because that corner is typically overrun by tourists.
“This is a solution looking for a problem,” Elliott said. “Our problems are parking and circulation. This doesn’t do anything to help either of those. To close that street would be more minutes added to my drive.”
Police Chief Laura Farinella said downtown foot patrols will be directed in that area to stave off crime, and that the design of the plaza itself can also help deter it, by making sure the tables and chairs are functional but not conducive to encouraging people to camp out there.
The council passed the project plan but directed staff to weigh the cost-effectiveness of purchasing traffic signage vs. renting, and directed them to closely monitor the closure’s impacts on Coast Highway traffic.
“Really look at traffic impacts during the trial,” said Council member Rob Zur Schmiede. “There may be some things we can do for folks who do use this as a cut through, and maybe even make it a little bit better for them.”