After years of attempts to make Forest Avenue a more walker-friendly promenade, the first “parklet” received a wrath of criticism at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The newly built parklet, a semi-enclosed outdoor dining area, takes up two public parking spaces outside Alessa Italian restaurant, 234 Forest Ave., and angles in front of Fresh Produce, a women’s clothing shop next door.
The parklet can serve 20 diners and is the first in a pilot program to bring fewer cars and more pedestrians downtown, part of a greater effort to update policies that manage downtown traffic congestion, circulation, transit, landscaping and development.
“It’s so spectacularly horrible,” said long-time resident Bonnie Hano. “What are those big rods doing up in the air? What is the point of it? I’m afraid we’re never going to get rid of it.”
Resident Paul Bernard said it looked like a cage for a wild animal and was unbefitting of Laguna Beach.
The parklet also abuts the parking spaces on either side. “Had we known in advance, we would have made it narrower so there’s more space to open car doors,” said City Manager John Pietig. “That’s lesson one,” he said. “It’s a trial program.”
With residents criticizing as well as praising the new outdoor patio for nearly 30 minutes, the council directed city staff to inquire about shifting the structure by one parking space and reducing its size and report back.
Council members also said they were not consulted about the structure’s final design. Pietig said plans were signed off by city staff after the council’s approval of the program last June.
“That structure totally blocks my store from the street,” said Ann Krizman, owner of Fresh Produce, a store adjacent to Alessa.
Krizman showed the council photos of examples of other parklets from a city report. “There’s no steel, there’s no high beams, there’s no umbrellas, there’s no big plants,” she said. The first rendering of the design did not obstruct her store, she said, which she has operated for 23 years. “So I asked that it be moved down. It’s going to hurt my business.”
Krizman pointed out that council member Kelly Boyd requested last June that the trial program take place after the summer tourist season. Iseman asked why the program wasn’t scheduled for September, as Boyd requested.
“I don’t know how you could possibly think that by doing it now you were not going against what we said in the minutes,” added Mayor Steve Dicterow.
The merchant’s final application came before the council in October, planner Wendy Young recounted, with expectations for it to open soon after, but delays occurred. Alessandro Pirozzi, owner and chef at Alessa, was one of five downtown business owners asked by the city to participate in the pilot program and the only one to complete the process. The parklet received a temporary 60-day permit and design review approval but the final concept never came before the council, Young confirmed.
The architecturally designed structure cost $10,000, Pirozzi said. “What do people do before or after they have a glass of wine or eat dinner when they come to downtown Laguna? They shop,” said Pirozzi, who also owns Pirozzi in Corona del Mar and Mare restaurant in Laguna Beach.
“It was never my intention to get any business in trouble,” Pirozzi said at the meeting. “The clothes store next door should benefit. It won’t make or break my business. Everybody should have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
Parklet builder Eddie Duruzio, on the job from 7 a.m. to “the wee hours,” said nine of 10 passersby praised the project. “They say, ‘What a wonderful idea…we absolutely love it,” Duruzio said. “I’ve been out there on the front line. I’m hearing real comments from real people.”
Other merchants also aren’t bothered. “It’s not detrimental to our business,” Quicksilver Sports Wear’s manager Alex Bertilsson said last Friday, referring to the benefit of having more people on the street. “And it’s only taking up two parking spaces.”
From San Francisco to San Diego, parklets have been popping up since 2012, with the first one in Southern California at Lola’s Mexican Cuisine in Long Beach. Anaheim and Santa Ana are also dabbling with the idea.
Promenades historically attract more people, said local Bill Hoffman, Ph.D., an urban planner and social ecologist who leads architectural walking tours.
Pirozzi is donating 100 percent of the proceeds collected from his outdoor diners to local charities, he said, including the Laguna Beach Library, Laguna Beach Community Clinic and the Friendship Shelter. The plants and design were donated by Ruben Flores of Laguna Nursery.