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Residents Explore Changing Downtown

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“Do you think this preliminary idea for Cliff Drive merits further exploration?” reads a poster taped to a wall. Hand-written yesses filled the relevant column underneath the query, while the “no” and “maybe” columns remained pristine.

Mayor Bob Whalen, left, absorbs comments on downtown land use ideas from resident Penny Milne.Photo by Jennifer Erickson.

Mayor Bob Whalen, left, absorbs comments on downtown land use ideas from resident Penny Milne.Photo by Jennifer Erickson.

The scene was a dance studio at the Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Center that Monday night did double duty as an interactive workshop to garner public feedback on various ways to enhance Laguna’s downtown.

The mirrored walls above the balance bar were blotted with maps, photos, plans and blank paper with questions, and about 60 locals armed with pens and self-stick notes roamed the room, variously posting comments and discussing options with fellow contributors.

Many also shared their two cents with the city officials and planners on hand for just that purpose about the ideas that emerged, such as remaking the streetscape of Ocean Avenue and redeveloping park areas on the downtown’s periphery with below ground parking.

Mayor Bob Whalen, City Manager John Pietig, Community Development Director Greg Pfost, and planner Wendy Jung rubbed elbows with the locals, along with MIG consultants Chris Beynon and Rick Barrett. The urban planners a year ago took on the job to assist in updating the city’s downtown specific plan that sets the parameters for development downtown.

Beynon outlined their process, floated concepts for consideration and then fielded questions in a community room before the crowd moved to the transformed dance studio.

MIG’s team has been analyzing existing conditions and gathering public input about how residents and businesses envision the downtown, said Beynon, and they are now starting to outline a draft plan that they will fine tune by fall and expect to complete early next year.

Feedback so far had informed them that preserving Laguna’s historic charm and artistic heritage remained a high priority for most residents, said Beynon. There was also strong support for more outdoor dining and community gathering opportunities. Other areas drew mixed responses, he said. For example, some people like the current retail mix downtown, others don’t. To that end, residents are encouraged to participate in a retail survey posted on the city’s web site.

Such divisions, in fact, upended a recent proposal for a trial closure of Forest Avenue, when stiff resistance from merchants trumped less vocal supporters.

“More and more we are feeling it is not our downtown,” commented resident John Thomas. But when asked for a show of hands of who agreed or disagreed with Thomas, the room was divided.

Even so, another resident drew applause when she expressed her hope that Laguna would “continue to be a real place.”

Beynon noted that residents’ earlier feedback informed the preliminary ideas and observations his team laid out Monday. “Nothing is cooked, nothing is baked,” he said, prefacing subsequent proposals with “What if…,” followed by, “We want your thoughts on this tonight.”

He talked about changes related to land use, housing, the retail mix, parking, and stormwater and also identified key sites ripe for improvement, such as Broadway Street, Cliff Drive and Ocean Avenue. Even Forest Avenue, which “is a gem of a street,” is dominated by cars and has room for improvement, he said.

Beynon urged residents to consider ideas as varied as a pedestrian scramble (where all vehicles stop as pedestrians traverse diagonal crosswalks) at the intersection of Broadway Street and Coast Highway, improving creek capacity in the canyon and the relocation of the library.

“What if we start to think of Ocean as more of a green connector” linking the canyon to Main Beach, Beynon asked, introducing one of the most popular ideas that evening. He described a “shared street” remade without curbs, more landscaping, an attractive surface, and perhaps two-way access on upper Ocean. With a traffic count of just 3,000 cars a day, Ocean Avenue is a good fit for such a streetscape that will slow traffic, he said.

Residents agreed, marking the “yes” column that asked about exploring such a transformation on Ocean.

MIG also seemed to hit a home run with their proposal that the park along upper Cliff Drive could be improved and two-level parking for 220 cars could be constructed beneath it. Along the same lines, the parking lot next to Las Brisas restaurant could potentially be transformed into a surface park with a garage below, said Beynon – a concept the property owner has already expressed a willingness to explore.

“It is very rewarding to me to see how many people are willing to consider some changes to our downtown, recognizing that there are some things we can do to make what we have even better,” said Whalen, who began the push to combine an urban planner’s expertise with community consensus over two years ago. “I feel at last like we have some positive momentum and some great feedback from the community,” he said.

 

Photo by Jennifer Erickson

Mayor Bob Whalen, left, absorbs comments on downtown land use ideas from resident Penny Milne.

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