Opinion: Coachella By The Sea

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I’m still buzzed from that meta party downtown known as Hospitality Night. What a thrasher! From here forth I shall re-christen the event “Coachella By The Sea.”

And instead of dwelling on the unsavory scam that found a single booth disseminating childish anti-Biden, anti-science, and anti-democracy swag, let’s instead zero in on what a marvelous and spirited celebration of our town this was.   

Wow, what a confluence of community, entertainment, and holiday cheer. Laguna was lit, from Jorg Dubin’s sophisticated jazz band at Zinc on Ocean Avenue, to the surf music at Hobie, the rocking party at the newly renovated Hotel Laguna, the Salty Suites showcase at Rick Conkey’s fabulous Laguna Cultural Arts Center, the ongoing entertainment, music, arts and crafts at the Peppertree Parking Lot (wait, that’s a parking lot?), the tamales at the Presbyterian Church, Santa rocking the deck at the Promenade, and the live music at the big stage at the end of Forest Avenue. Man, downtown Laguna, you never looked better.

So much of what is good and special about our town was rolled into one street party.  No cars. No noise. Just people of all ages walking our luminescent streets and gorgeous promenade arm and arm, marveling at the splendor of our good fortune to be here in this moment of time. You could imagine what this promenade will be when fully activated and permanent, with a single level of pavers, and no curb. And did you notice the city installed those stainless steel bollards on the east end, where the yellow jeep used to be? They’re retractable, so now we can provide emergency access, and bring vehicles in for special events like a Wednesday night Farmer’s Market. Proof positive that a fully pedestrian downtown would be the greatest 21st century improvement to our little, previous moribund downtown.

Imagine if we got rid of all those pesky cars on Ocean, Forest and Beach, making downtown fully pedestrian. People waving and saying hello instead of honking and flipping off. How magical, joyous, and forward thinking. Could our community still gather conveniently? Of course, with the advent of free trolleys and the new Laguna Locals on-demand rideshare program (in addition to Uber and Lyft), plus electric bikes, human feet, and hopefully a multi-story parking garage at the village entrance. After all, thousands of residents descended on downtown painlessly for Coachella By The Sea with nary a parking spot in sight.

And this is important to note because by the time you read this, the California Coastal Commission will have hopefully voted to uphold our updated Downtown Specific Plan, which will relax antiquated and restrictive parking requirements, and make it easier for new businesses to get approved. Plus many new retail concepts would now only require simple over-the-counter approvals instead of those tortuous conditional use permits. Ahh, sigh of relief!

But of course standing in the way of progress are those killjoys at Village Laguna and Laguna Residents First, who are hell-bent on keeping us a mausoleum, and somehow believe that losing the parking in front of Bushards Pharmacy is pharmageddon. They organized a letter writing campaign to the Coastal Commission that played on the usual memes of fear, claiming that they were “saving our village” from assured destruction. In a Hail Mary of fear-mongering, they listed historic buildings they believe would be demolished by greedy developers under these loosened restrictions. Say what? These landlords would actually now have an incentive to keep them intact because their tenants would no longer be subject to unworkable parking restrictions. Village Laguna also warned against second story affordable housing units downtown because, while we desperately need more housing statewide, they just won’t tolerate them in our backyard.

I never understood how Village Laguna’s intransigence against the human experience squares with their mission statement of  “fostering community spirit and addressing social needs.” You can’t do that from inside your car!

This Downtown Specific Plan is a great leap forward in making downtown Laguna relevant and vibrant in the new normal, where traditional retail is being hammered by online offerings, and people crave experiences instead of stuff. The next generation of consumers (Millennials and Generation Z) are deferring home and automobile ownership in favor of ride-sharing and dining out. Laguna can relish and protect our historic character while also moving us into a future that alleviates the burden of an infrastructure that can no longer accommodate the amount of cars coursing through our town each day.

As the mayor of the great Belle Époque city of Paris Ann Hidalgo once said, “We can’t be a museum.” This doesn’t mean they will bulldoze their charming buildings, but instead she made them more livable by transforming their streets into multimodal and pedestrian passageways that make getting around more convivial and less stressful. Progress and preservation are not mutually exclusive. Our charm of a city is moving forward in the most delightful of ways. And if you don’t like the addition of more restaurants and pedestrian plazas, there’s a progressive solution for you too: Uber Eats!

Billy hosts “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio Thursday nights at 8 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected].

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