By Billy Fried
Well, there goes three wasted hours I’ll never get back. I’m referring to the turkey circus last week, known as the Forest Promenade public planning session, the one where public input was being solicited for the final, permanent design.
When I walked in, I was immediately struck by how many of the opposition to the promenade were in attendance. You know, the Village Laguna, Laguna Residents First people who gingerly sidestep this one because they realize how much public opinion is against them. Yet they are still hellbent on destroying it in every tactical way possible. In this case, it was delay, delay, delay until that mighty tsunami of atrophy, Measure Q, passes. At which time, because of the loss of parking, it could be put to a public vote. Which would be no sooner than late 2023, another full year obstructing something City Council passed and the public overwhelmingly wants.
In the other anemic corner was the city, in this case, not the Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, or City Manager – the actual architects of the promenade. Instead, they sent a single city staffer and a representative of the outside design firm, RRM Design Group (but not one of their 19 principals). Also known as a buffet of roadkill that was feasted on by both sides.
The room was decorated encouragingly. Lots of interactive images taped to the walls. A giant site map of the current Promenade, laid horizontally at eye level. I naively believed we were there for a design charrette, where we would gather around the map and move prop pieces around, like dining areas, planters, stages, food carts, and art installations, to see how it might flow. I thought RRM would show us examples of other promenades around the world, including some of their own work, with data of what worked and what didn’t.
But no. We were treated like special needs children. They wanted our Pavlovian responses to design elements such as pavers, planters, lighting, and overall design aesthetics, by affixing little colored dots on the areas of our preference. Oh how I love those little colored dots. An exercise that would yield exactly nothing useful for the design firm, except to say the public was vetted.
Well, we are not circus animals, not here in Laguna. We had esteemed architects, landscapers, and urban planners in attendance, professionals who have thought about Forest Promenade for years. When Bill Hoffman, with a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and a PHD in Social Ecology, suggested to the moderators a format of questions and answers regarding overriding goals (for residents, visitors, and merchants), aesthetic considerations, circulation, information and entertainment, flex spaces, he was ignored and we were told to just “stick to the script.”
And then the obstructionists did everything in their power to derail the whole concept of a pedestrian space in the first place. Councilwoman and longtime promenade opponent Toni Iseman took the lead by questioning whether anyone knew it was a flood zone, and whether it was advisable to have a pedestrian space there – a new strategy that deviated from her normal objection that merchants would fail if customers couldn’t park right in front. Wait, that’s a flood zone? Who knew? And when the consultant overcame that objection by assuring her there would be engineering to address it, the usual “Merchants of No” hijacked the meeting and trotted out every other irrational reason why Forest worked better as a parking lot.
Sitting in the front row, with his temperature rising to a slow boil, was the only other Council person in attendance, Bad Boy Peter Blake. If it had been either of the two other council people who voted yes for a permanent promenade (Sue Kempf or Bob Whalen), I’m sure they would have stood up and calmly reminded us that we weren’t there to re-litigate something that had already passed, but to instead move the project forward. But we had Genghis Khan in the room, who started screaming into the air that the “activists” were at it again, and instead of displaying a semblance of leadership, stomped out of the room, towing his dutiful wife Stephanie behind. What a statesman.
But seriously, do we need consultants at all? They slow things down with a pedantic approach designed to justify their fees. We need a citizen design committee that brings forth a proposal to City Council, which, when approved, goes to engineering. It’s not rocket science, folks. We need to level the street with cute pavers, move the outdoor dining more to the center so that pedestrians can walk along the storefronts (to help the merchants), add lots of public seating and vignettes, amenities like coffee and street food carts, public art, a Laguna way finder kiosk, a stage, and plenty of planters. Make it all movable so we can occasionally lower the bollards and have special events, like a Wednesday evening farmers market that spills onto lower Park Ave. as well.
Let’s get rolling. This will be Laguna’s biggest achievement since the Montage and Treasure Island Beach Park, a real town center free from cars, pollution and noise. It will benefit the whole community for generations to come. And it will be beautiful. We just need leadership to get it over the finish line.
Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected].