Opinion: Let’s Listen to All Voices on Promenade

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By Bob Borthwick

Yes, we do like eating outside!

Just because everyone enjoys eating outside, as columnist Michael Ray pointed out In the May 28 edition of this paper, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a thoughtful approach to the future of Forest Avenue and to where and how outdoor dining might best be provided in the downtown.

For decades there have been outspoken proponents of closing off lower Forest Avenue to create an outdoor mall. There have also been opponents of the closure… some because it is not consistent with the historic function of the street, but the most vocal opponents have been the business owners on the street. After City Council votes to reject the closure, there would often be letters to the newspaper calling the shop owners “selfish” for wanting to preserve the street parking and storefront visibility. This has led to a situation where some business owners feel reluctant about speaking out.

During street closure debates, Village Laguna has taken a “cautious/pragmatic” approach, and did not have the “let’s close it down” enthusiasm that some would have preferred.  Village Laguna was formed in 1971 to protect and enhance the village character of our town, and permanently closing our main downtown street has critical and long lasting importance. A functional and viable downtown, especially on our historic “main street”, is essential to our character as a town. The best solution may include street closure, or it may not. Prior to COVID-19 in February 2020, lower Forest was the most successful commercial block in Laguna, with the highest rents. Since the street closure in June 2020, the restaurants on this block have benefitted financially due to expanded seating in the public street. Yet some non-restaurant retail businesses say that they are suffering due to lack of direct parking access and visibility. We are all happy that New York City is recovering from the pandemic and is enjoying increased outdoor dining, but a populous and intensely urban area is different from a small scale town like Laguna Beach. The expanded outdoor seating in the Lumberyard courtyard and at the Zinc Café & Market are great examples of recent outdoor dining venues.

A deeper dive into what makes a successful downtown “main street” is certainly justified and necessary. Many cities in the United States tried to rejuvenate their downtowns in the 1960’s and 70’s by street closures to create outdoor pedestrian malls, but the majority failed for various reasons. I am not suggesting or predicting that Laguna’s Promenade concept is doomed to failure, but I am strongly recommending that all voices be heard from both downtown businesses and residents at-large.

Creating car-free “people zones” on lower Park Avenue (below the library) or on the former bus depot property on Ocean Ave, for pop-up dining, art venues, music, and entertainment could be viable alternatives for providing outdoor pedestrian spaces in lieu of permanently closing lower Forest Avenue, with fewer negative impacts to existing businesses. Installing retractable bollards at both ends of lower Forest Avenue to create safe and functional night time pedestrian zones for resident-oriented Hospitality Night events is another option. These community gatherings could even be held once a week, as they do every Thursday night in San Luis Obispo, and in the daytime businesses would function normally and not be affected.  A win-win for everybody.

Bob is a Laguna Beach resident and landscape architect.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Greetings Bob,
    Nice to hear from you. You were very helpful when we created the Park Plaza trial. But I have to take issue with your assertion that the “historic function of a street” is to serve the automobile. That’s a 20th century conceit. In Europe many of the streets are too narrow for cars because they were built for horses – or just pedestrians. Streets are part of the public domain and cars aren’t always the highest use. This is why Village Laguna’s stated mission of “preserve, enhance and celebrate the cultural heritage of Laguna Beach,” and “fostering community spirit and address social needs” does not comport with their actions. How in the world does a “main” street that is only for cars and doubles as a parking lot address social needs and community spirit? We have precious few places to congregate, and no town square. I think we can all agree that the deleterious effects of social isolation has created a corrosive culture of anger and vitriol – especially through social media. And that we’d all address each other with more kindness and empathy if we met face to face. And this is what I’ve never understood about the opponents to the Forest Avenue Promenade, including City Council people George Weiss and Toni Iseman. They say the promenade only benefits the restaurants. But what about us, the 25,000 residents of this town who very much want to congregate and people watch in our public square? We are no different from the residents of New York, Milan, or Singapore. We are humans, craving human interaction. Cars have killed that. People sit inside their little boxes and wage war with each other, or don’t want to be bothered with a little inconvenience of parking and strolling to their destination. Convenience has subordinated the human experience, and contributed to our overweight, unhealthy culture. Forest Avenue has always been a schizophrenic thoroughfare. Is it a street, or a parking lot? Even mayor Whalen bemoaned the fact that traffic gets backed up onto Coast Highway when a single car backs out of their spot. The 21st century function of streets is to provide multi-modal options for healthy, pollution free circulation, as well as places for human interaction. The city has done their research and a preponderance of Forest Ave merchants want this. Let’s not wait any longer. Now’s your chance to use your considerable skills to design something yummy! Thanks Bob!

  2. I have always agreed with Bob Borthwick’s suggestion to install hydraulic or moveable bollards at each end of Forest Ave. It gives us flexibility and options. Imagine July 4th, or an evacuation emergency – Wouldn’t it be wise to give Police and Fire the option to open Forest Ave to more quickly move folks from PCH to 133. Moveable bollards could even allow a ‘Hybrid Closure’ with 1/2 on each side could be raised or lowered, and give the option to close one side of Forest and still let some parking and drive thru for cold winter months when few are looking for outdoor spaces. I’m all for raising the street level if feasible, but why not ‘Future Proof’ Forest by also utilizing moveable bollards?
    That would seem to give us the best of both worlds.

  3. I once said “Build it and they will come”, they heard “If it feels good build it”. I once said “Build Bathrooms”, they heard “Build Mushrooms”.

    There are specific planning guidelines Laguna could learn from: Complete Streets by the American Planning Association (APA); Mobility Plan Guidelines Los Angeles; LB Vision 2030 Strategic Plan written by LB residents over 20 years ago.

    Until this city understands WHY we design and build guided by policy, we are doomed to ride the merry-go-round with Village Laguna and the Developers.

    Without those guidelines in place at city hall, we will forever argue “historical streets” over “eating outside”, regret “street closures” over “community space”.

    Enjoy the Ride.
    https://lagunastreets.blogspot.com/2015/05/la-planning-commission-reviews-mobility.html

  4. I agree with Billy and appreciate the multi-modal, pollution-free, healthy and human-centered approach brought to us by the lower Forest Ave closure to cars. I was a member of the now defunct city-sponsored Complete Streets Task Force, so am versed in the principles of all users needing access to our streets + mobilization. Also, I’ve lived here for 10 years and can count on two hands the number of times I actually found a parking space on lower Forest 🙂
    I also question that there is any truthful data from retail stores that isn’t now greatly impacted by a change in pandemic or post-pandemic spending habits. Is the retail on Forest still relevant to the local and visitor interests or is there a new buyer persona that needs to be better understood and fresh ideas applied by retailers to meet those new needs?
    I do not think our city should be looking at data from the 1960’s and 1970’s to make these decisions, in case you didn’t notice, things are pretty different around here now.

  5. I’m confused by the assumption that residents are craving to congregate on the Forest Avenue Promenade. Really? Data, please. For many of us, our people watching is on the sand watching the promenade on the beach, and the great surfing and skim boarding moves in (and along) the surf. As for the traditional locals-of-all-ages gathering, then that would have been the Bluebird Park music event at which toddlers rocked out with kids, teens, adults, and oldsters. We share picnic goodies, catch up on each others’ lives, and dance, dance, dance with our fellow Lagunatics. Can’t wait for the Bluebird Park music events to start up again versus the sedentary music listening events that skew to an older population at the Heisler Sunset serenades and FOA music events. The latter two are lovely, but not as family and resident-oriented as the Bluebird Park events.

  6. Billy –

    Main streets across America – including Laguna Beach – do double as friendly congregating locations and parking areas. Saying otherwise just doesn’t make it so. Folks meet on sidewalks, cars park in the street.

    There has never been a massive hue and cry from residents to turn Forest into a promenade or it looks like it would have been done so much sooner.

    I appreciate the fact that the promenade is a great congregating place, but I’m not so convinced it’s to the benefit of all 25,000 residents. Personally, I avoid the place like the bubonic plague because traffic and parking can be tough and its become much more of a tourist magnet.

    While I’ll not conjecture as to the popularity of the promenade with taxpaying residents (an unbiased independent survey would be interesting), I must point out that the blindsided public was bum-rushed into the creation of the promenade, which was presented to the City Council by current City Manager designee Shohreh Dupuis and Council member Sue Kempf, then approved by the City Council – all in a single council meeting without any previous public notification, input, cross-examination or approval whatsoever. Just boom . . . here’s our plan to shut down the street and spend an initial $350,000, let’s approve it right now. A far cry from transparency and representational governance.

    And this was done primarily as an effort to gin up tourism and help businesses (primarily restaurants) during the pandemic.

    Currently, restaurants continue to use public space free of charge while also eating up prized parking spaces and parking revenue. Meanwhile, promenade costs are rapidly escalating to one million taxpayer dollars. And that’s before the impending $377,000 promenade plan is even implemented . . . I assume we can plan on at least a bare minimum of two million more taxpayer dollars on top of that for hardscaping, lighting, sanitation measures, landscaping, etc. (I’ll not go into detail about the multimillion dollar parking structures taxpayers will be asked to pay for to compensate for all the lost parking.)

    While our residents may love to congregate like those in New York, Milan and Singapore, I submit that in land usage, we’re drastically different. A far less heavily trafficked side street may have proven a better congregating place and saved a few more highly needed parking spaces.

    Also, please be aware the the continued insidious overreach of public space misappropriation. First the promenade, then corrals around town to help other suffering restaurants, then closing down one lane on Ocean Ave. (which isn’t part of the Forest Avenue promenade). This kind of a bit-at-a-time creep is endemic of most most developers’ plans. How much more public space is going to be appropriated in the name of tourism and where?

    Maybe in your mind Forest Ave. was a schizophrenic thoroughfare, but I never had a problem dodging those 3 mile an hour cars and I loved the uncluttered, main street, home town feel – without the glitz and corrals. Again, an alternative side street for congregating may have proven more beneficial.

    Could you please provide unbiased evidence that the preponderance of Forest Ave merchants currently want the promenade? Or any financial evidence that the promenade is proving successful to the merchants as well as generating a major return to the city?

    Laguna’s City studies are always suspect. Historically, they are biased, made-to-order, tell-us-what-we-want-to-hear “studies” and “surveys’ with the City Council’s thumbs very heavily on the scales. That the current City Council is all pro-growth, pro-business and pro-tourism tells me which way they’ll be directing any research firm that they alone choose.

    If in doubt of that, please check out the primarily business-specific, tourist-focused provisions in the Downtown Specific Plan and the Downtown Action Plan. (Remember the 118 mature downtown trees they were talking about removing? A great way to add more sidewalk space for gawking tourists in the business areas.)

    Or take a look at the mind-blowingly biased $38,000 Retail “Study” that the City Council turned over to the Chamber Of Commerce to run – at least its one-sided self-servingness was finally something transparent in Laguna Beach’s politics. (Hmm. 76 pages long, only 33 unidentified residents queried [absolutely no demographics given], with only one page dedicated to their input. Hmm.)

    I have no idea what Ms. Iseman’s stand is on the promenade, but I have to question where you’re getting your information about Mr. Weiss’ position as it seems to be incorrect; I’ve heard Mr. Weiss state that he is for the promenade (he even voted for its $377,000 plan), but he’s not for taxpayers having to shoulder the entire financial burden.

    Lastly, Billy, as you are a Laguna business owner who caters to tourists, I’m afraid I must assume your perspective on what’s best for Laguna is a bit skewed.

    Be all this as it may, the promenade looks like it’s here to stay – for better and/or worse (and I do see both the pros and cons). But at least here’s been a bit different perspective with some details that seem to have been overlooked or glossed over.

  7. Chris Prelitz – “Let some parking and drive thru for cold winter months when few are looking for outdoor spaces.” Really? That will totally bastardize the design of a true plaza and wreck the conviviality with cars coursing through. Tables should be near the center of the plaza so people will walk close to the stores. If few are looking for outdoor spaces during those months, then even fewer will be looking for parking spaces. Sure, put hydraulic bollards in. But ONLY for emergency egress.

    Jerome – thanks for your considered response. Meeting on sidewalks? Not my idea of a good time. I prefer to sit. You say you avoid the place. Most people I know avoided it before it became a promenade. Yes, the blindsided public was bum rushed. Absolutely. And look at the speed with which it was done. Bravo. Sometimes it’s better to let elected officials do their job than to put it through the endless ringer of public debate. I do know that Sue carefully canvassed all the merchants, and while there was skepticism, the majority agreed it was worth trying. To say it was to gin up tourism is a bit cynical. I eat at those restaurants and so do other locals, and it’s so much better than staring at sheet metal. I also know that the city conducted follow-up research and the vast majority of merchants wanted it permanent (even the previous skeptics like the two jewelers). Yes they do have statistics on the financial impacts, and many felt they would not have survived without the traffic generated by the promenade. As for the public embrace, I don’t have current data except for my own admittedly biased surveys. But when we staged the Park Plaza promenade in 2017 my friend Bill Hoffman conducted comprehensive, quantifiable exit surveys which demonstrated huge, overwhelming public support. Half the respondents were locals. And then City Council unanimously approved making it permanent. However, we’ll gladly trade Park Place for Forest Promenade! $2 million seems like a bargain when you consider the city paid $5 million for the Christmas Tree lot to add a little parking, and tens of millions on the Village Entrance which was strictly cosmetic and changed nothing of real value. I can’t really comment on Ocean Ave being one way. That may be a mistake. But I like all the additional outdoor dining around town. How that is a secret conspiracy by developers is lost on me. As for George Weiss, it was right there in his campaign. He was against it. I was surprised, because he was an active participant on the Park Plaza. He told me the $300K being spent was wasteful because it only helped the three restaurants. That’s why I countered by saying that a public square benefits the whole community. Toni has always been against it. She’s from the “I need to park in front of the merchant” camp. Yes I have a business that caters to tourists and this has absolutely no bearing on it. Laguna’s only industry is tourism. Why is it always a zero sum game: either you’re for tourists or against them. They are coming regardless. And now they’ll have a place to sit. And so will we. We might even greet some of them and show them our hospitable ways. Win/win. The merchants should be ecstatic that we have something to offer that Amazon doesn’t: a retail and dining EXPERIENCE. But again, thanks for your measured response.

  8. Oh and Deborah, feel free to ask your husband George Weiss why he was such an ardent supporter of the the Park Plaza pedestrian space? And to provide the data we collected that supported it. Was it because sitting on the beach has no back support or shade or place to eat? And that it’s frequently windy? And that there are no surfers or skim boarders to watch at Main Beach? Or that Bluebird Park only happens 8 Sundays a year? These are false equivalencies, I’m afraid.

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