Opinion: Concerning City Council

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By Michele Monda

Just like Frank Sinatra sings, “I did it my way,” the City Council majority is singing it too. Despite residents and retailers asking to slow down the promenade planning process or start over, City Council voted 4-1 on April 23 to approve the Promenade Ad Hoc Planning Committee Work Plan.  

Six retailers spoke, the majority stating that Forest Avenue’s closure and parking loss have hurt their business. Eighteen residents spoke, most asking to slow the process down to determine if a more flexible, less expensive hybrid plan could be found. They also said that if the Promenade was to become permanent, it should be planned wisely. The council majority passed the work plan, dictating that it was to be permanent. 

So much for listening to residents and retailers. 

A brief history: Mayor Sue Kempf and former City Manager Shohreh Dupuis sponsored the rushed creation of the Promenade as an emergency measure to help restaurants survive during COVID, in conjunction with handing out $2 million to businesses. 

A 2021 city-sponsored survey included a question about a downtown plaza. The survey had flaws, according to academic survey researchers, such as the use of a convenience sample (e.g., downtown businesses, Chamber, Visit Laguna), a timing issue (sent during the holidays), and an odd 5-point Likert scale layout with the “excellent” rating on the left and the “poor” on the right which is the opposite of the standard layout. The results of this unsound survey are the basis on which the council based its claim that residents overwhelmingly voted in support of a permanent Forest Avenue plaza. 

The survey was sent to 2,307 businesses – 186 responded – a mere 8% of businesses. Of the 23,000 Laguna residents, only 2,700 households were contacted (12% of households). Just 553 completed the survey. That’s only 2% of residents commenting. Costs to create or maintain the Promenade or loss of parking revenue were never included in the question, “Do you support converting Lower Forest to a permanent pedestrian plaza?” To date, the city has spent $896,798 on the Promenade, according to Chief Financial Officer Gavin Curran. The city has no idea how many more taxpayer dollars it will spend. Annually, the upkeep of the Promenade is $150,000.  We lose $206,800 in parking fees, although we gain $100,000 in increased sales tax for an estimated net loss of $106,800. For what other needed infrastructure projects could that money be used?

Reading the staff report, residents were entirely left out of the initial promenade planning process. They would only be included in public workshops and a community survey that appeared to be scheduled after the City’s Project Team (Mayor Sue Kempf, Councilman Mark Orgill, the City Project Manager, consultants) and business owners, Chamber of Commerce, Visit Laguna and other self-interested groups had met in separate focus groups to make key decisions. There was no resident focus group.  

Twenty-eight letters were received for public comment prior to the meeting. Twenty-one (75% of letters) said resident input was needed. So, at the meeting, the staff report was suddenly amended to include residents in their own focus group. This is to include resident experts in fields pertaining to the Promenade’s design – architects, landscape architects and local experts in plaza design. Finally, our local expert voices will be heard – but not loud enough. This focus group can be easily ignored, as it’s apart from the city’s “insider” project team, which will carry far more weight. Residents need to be part of the decision-making in all of these focus groups, not just as one side group that only gets to give its opinion and ideas once. Mayor Kempf has seemed to refuse this higher level of resident participation, saying residents just need to be in a separate focus group – potentially nullifying resident input. 

If this Promenade is to be something wonderful and “make Laguna proud,” as supporters of it have said, it needs to be resident-driven. It must be for us, not for restaurants and tourists. Local expert residents must be a part of the decision-making process every step of the way. They must be included in all phases of development. Otherwise, we have two self-appointed council members with no design expertise left to dictate their own plans using flawed resident information from an outdated survey, with no costs ever outlined. These decisions will affect the very heart of Laguna forever. And residents get to pay for it.  

Why are the mayor and council majority refusing to significantly include experts in the Promenade’s planning and forcing us to have it “their way?” Whose Promenade is this, anyway? 

Please write to council members at [email protected] and tell them to include resident experts on their project team and in all focus groups.

Michèle is a 21-year Laguna resident and actively follows Laguna politics. She is the Treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities and is involved with the local arts scene. She can be reached at [email protected].

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