The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously approved a $376,990 contract on Tuesday for a consultant to design and pursue necessary approvals to make the Promenade a permanent fixture on Forest Avenue.
Although the idea of closing certain downtown streets to traffic has been kicked around at city hall since at least 2007, the economic fallout of a global pandemic prodded city officials into taking a chance on creating a pedestrian mall in the heart of Downtown Laguna. City staffers expect it could take until June 2022 to obtain needed entitlements, which would include a California Coastal Commission hearing.
RRM Design Firm of San Juan Capistrano was selected from a slate of five proposals, partly because of the experience in creating public squares in California coastal cities from Pismo Beach to Ventura. RRM will assist city staff with assigning space for dining, retail stores, gathering spaces, and performance areas.
Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf recalled how empty downtown streets felt the Promenade’s installation. Now residents and visitors flock to Forest Avenue to grab a coffee, enjoy an outdoor meal, and window shop.
“We talk about monetizing tourists,” Kempf said. “One of the things we can do to monetize them is to get them to eat here.”
The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce has been one of the major champions for the Promenade. Chamber executive director Sandy Morales reiterated that support Tuesday.
“Downtown foot traffic is important to the success of area business,” Morales said. “Forest Avenue has become an exciting destination drawing people to the downtown.”
Councilmember George Weiss said one of the biggest missing elements from the Promenade are regular activities created for children ages two to 12 years old, particularly programs that incorporate science, art, and music.
“I want to Promenade to be a place where you go and don’t feel like you have to buy food or something from a retail store. That’s going to happen anyway,” Weiss said. “I guess I want the Promenade not to be designed as a commercial endeavor.”
A year ago, the City Council approved spending nearly $250,000 to create the Promenade to offer merchants some relief during pandemic restrictions on indoor activities. In addition to the dining decks and furniture, city staffers brought in security and custodial contractors to maintain public health and safety.
Those who spoke against approving the contract, including Village Laguna president Anne Caenn, appeared more concerned with whether city officials would attempt to escape conducting a full environmental impact report on the project.
“A robust CEQA process would allow the city to evaluate the impacts and mitigate them as necessary,” Caenn said. “We are concerned about the loss of parking spaces and that’s certainly something that should be evaluated.”
A permanent promenade would remove 48 parking spaces from the city inventory, in addition to the spaces eliminated with the Village Entrance project completed last year.
Laguna Beach resident Jacob Cherub noted that it’s still unclear how eliminating these spaces and closing Forest Avenue to vehicles will impact traffic patterns as the usual flow of summer visitors returns.
“I urge you do not pass this tonight. It’s premature,” Cherub said.
Weiss and Kempf both said they support charging restaurants on lower Forest Avenue a fee to use public space exclusively used to seat their patrons. Continuing to offer this space for free, would be a private benefit to a select group of restauranteurs, Weiss argued.
Kempf pointed out the restaurant owners she’s talked to expected this change and are on board.
“We’re not just going to give that to them. We did that to get the town going [during COVID-19],” she said.
The consultant will prepare two alternatives. The first would close Forest Avenue with minimal improvements. A second alternative could include removal of curbs and gutters, hardscape and landscape replacements, a new storm drain system, permanent lighting, shade structures, seating, security cameras, new pavement. Both alternatives would be presented to the City Council at a public hearing for review.
RRM has agreed to host three community meetings to solicit public input on the design. They’ve also proposed coordinating 45 to 60-minute interviews with stakeholders, including business owners and residents.
The Promenade isn’t Laguna Beach’s first experience with opening streets to pedestrians.
In fall 2017, Laguna Beach closed lower Park Avenue in an experimental move to create more outdoor seating and gathering space. There seemed to be a strong appetite among the speakers on Tuesday for outdoor dining and entertainment.
“Cities should be joyful,” Laguna Beach tour guide Bill Hoffman said Tuesday. “Cities should be places where people get together. The Promenade has injected life into the Downtown.”