Many downtown merchants left their shops this week to protest at City Hall, expressing their dismay with the proposed 13-day trial closure of a section of Forest Avenue to vehicular traffic in August.
Creating a pedestrian mall on Forest between Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street Aug. 26 to Sept. 7 was one of four pilot demonstrations that city staff and the urban planning firm MIG outlined at a workshop this past Tuesday, June 2, hoping for public feedback.
The other concepts include transforming one or two parking spaces in front of restaurants and bars on Forest and Ocean Avenues into seating areas or parklets for a month at a time and closing lower Ocean Avenue on Saturday mornings to accommodate the Farmer’s Market when it is displaced for sewer repairs. That closure would last from September to May.
While there seemed to be a consensus that both the street closure and the parklets could benefit the restaurants, many retailers vehemently opposed blocking traffic on lower Forest Avenue.
“I have a petition that most merchants have signed against this,” Michael McFadden, owner of Rock Martin Custom Jewelry, told planners. He derided the lack of any concrete plan to offset the loss of the street’s 48 parking spaces or to address traffic circulation, a concern shared by a number of fellow merchants.
As of Wednesday, McFadden said that he had roughly 200 signatures from likeminded shopkeepers and residents that he intends to present to the City Council, scheduled to review the plan Tuesday, June 16.
Every time the street is closed for any reason “my business dies,” he said, such as when the Craft Guild formerly sold wares there before moving to the cobblestones at Main Beach.
Others complained about the peak-season timing, with a few suggesting a trial mid-week in the off-season might be more palatable. They also reiterated their experience that shops suffer when special events draw more people to the streets. The Patriot’s Day Parade, for example, is “devastating” to sales, said one shopkeeper.
Here the planners exhibited some disconnect.
While Community Development Director Greg Pfost said the closure was not meant to be a special event but simply a means to test the creation of a pedestrian open space for shoppers, MIG’s Rick Barrett suggested programming activities for the space, such as food and art events. The merchants quickly saw the flaw in that plan.
And when Barrett suggested retailers might participate by holding sidewalk sales, some shot back that their higher-end merchandise was unsuitable for such displays.
For them, fear of imminent financial loss far outweighs any potential for future gains.
Resident Lorene Auger dissented with the merchants. “With due respect to the businesses, I am a resident and I want the open space,” she said.
Local resident Chris Prelitz, just returned from Italy, said that merchants in the famous hill town of Siena had resisted closing the town center to cars, but that once the pedestrian area was established they loved it and appreciated a greater volume of foot traffic. “Let’s give it a shot,” said Prelitz, an advocate of so-called complete streets that are accessible by all modes of transit.
Chris Keller, owner of the Marine Room Tavern and Juice and Shakes shop, argued that the closure had the potential to benefit everyone. If there’s a chance to improve the status quo, it’s worth trying, he said.
Some pointed out that cities with successful pedestrian-only centers also had easily accessed peripheral parking nearby.
Resident and architect John Filkins said street closures work in towns with particular configurations that aren’t present in Laguna and predicts that closing Forest Avenue would hurt the merchants.
Resident Allan Simon, who owns a Forest Avenue storefront, urged planners to postpone finalizing the proposals for the June 16 council meeting. “I think you are obligated to go back to your leaders and tell them you are not ready yet,” he said. “Tell them you have more to do.”
While Pfost postulated that the transformations might actually help downtown businesses, he urged anyone who still harbored concerns to air them at the June 16 meeting.
The trials are meant to test out concepts to make the downtown more walkable and viable as city planners draft revisions to the downtown specific plan, which guides future development.
The City Council selected San-Diego-based MIG last summer to help with this process. After MIG staged a well-received pop-up demonstration on lower Ocean Avenue last November, the Council asked MIG to work with staff on additional demonstrations.
Restaurants on took advantage of a Forest Avenue street closure during the Chamber of Commerce’s short-lived Thursday Promenade in 2009.
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