By Billy Fried
Admit it. Virus notwithstanding, Laguna has never looked so good. Our classic summer weather of sun mixed with cool marine layer has continued unabated while the rest of the planet swelters under the oppressively thinning ozone. Our neighborhoods gardens are lovely because everyone is at home tending them. Garage doors are up, toys are out, with quivers galore, awaiting the next south swell. More people are using human power to get around, like electric bikes, skateboards, scooters, and feet. And are friendlier, too. The water is cleaner and more translucent than ever. On two recent swims on both ends of town, I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many fish in 21 years. There’s an aquarium underneath us.
Even the dolphins like us better now too. Last Wednesday a school was spotted lollygagging along our entire coastline, 10 feet from shore, swimming leisurely, unconcerned with the squealing humans around them. Overall, it seems the earth has been scrubbed clean by our inactivity.
Okay sure, I miss the summer festivals like mad. And live music. And feel for our artists and struggling merchants. But I don’t miss the traffic snarls, the endless line of cars and buses on Laguna Canyon Road, the dearth of parking, and the loud, drunken revelry on our streets.
Speaking of outdoor dining, have you noticed how restaurants are utilizing space that we always believed belonged to cars, or on sidewalks deemed too narrow? And doesn’t it look way more festive to see people dining under umbrellas instead of rows of sheet metal? This is how our Mediterranean town was meant to look.
Which brings me to the grand pandemic experiment known as Forest Avenue Promenade. It’s really the big summer story—this two and a half month trial converting a portion of our most storied main street into a lively, carless public plaza. Let’s review:
In the early days of the plague, Councilwoman Sue Kempf asked leaders in the community and the medical world how businesses could emerge from this crisis intact. The answer over and over was they had to move to outdoor space. And with four restaurants on lower Forest with too narrow sidewalks, the consensus was to try something that had been discussed for decades: convert the street to a pedestrian plaza and put the tables outside. A month later it was done.
The results were nothing short of magnificent. Forest was reimagined with planters, seating (both public and restaurant), lighting and art. An instant draw for strolling, shopping, dining, and taking a load off. But no one could have anticipated that the COVID curve we thought would flatten would in fact spike again, causing the unintended consequence of fearing too many people gathering too close in the plaza. Some refused to wear masks, even though the city has done a standup job distributing them, and encouraging their use. So of course many are understandably choosing to stay away from the promenade. And that sadly affects retail business.
But many stores are closing before the highest volume of activity hits the street: dinnertime. I’m sure they have their reasons, but it’s a shame because in Europe one of the most popular activities is post dinner strolling and impulse buying while drunk. And while this is a trial, it would certainly help to have a few casual food carts up, especially coffee. Moulin closes at 5 p.m. weekdays (8 p.m. on weekends), The Grove has closed, and other than Starbucks so-called coffee, there is no place to grab a cup of Joe. The city maintains that this would be competitive with existing restaurants. Really? How? This would simply bring more people. And the state has deemed street carts legal.
I asked Sue recently what the feedback has been from the merchants. Mostly good, she said. In fact some are doing great. But there is no objective way to measure sales against any other year because so many of Laguna’s attractions have been shut down, and so many residents are staying home. So in this case, only one evaluation tool can be used: intuition. Just take a look at the scores of people who are lingering longer, window shopping, and browsing stores. Where would they be, otherwise?
Thus the Council is discussing whether to extend the plaza through the end of the year at this Tuesday’s meeting. With cases spiking, no national plan or rapid testing deployment, and with a large anti mask movement in the OC, it seems wise to amortize our investment and continue outdoor dining indefinitely. If you agree, please let Council know before or during the meeting.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” Thursday nights on KXFM radioView Our User Comment Policy