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.