The city is a step closer to converting lower Forest Avenue into a permanent pedestrian plaza for outdoor dining and shopping in downtown.
By Lou Ponsi | Special to the Laguna Beach Independent
The City Council on Tuesday unanimously agreed to seek proposals for analysis and design of the project, located on Forest Avenue, from Coast Highway to Glenneyre Street. Proposals could go before the council in April, when the five-member panel would choose a firm to perform the analysis and design.
In the meantime, the council approved a new temporary use permit to keep the pedestrian plaza open through January 2024.
“What I want to do is start the process, gather the information, understand the cost,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “I don’t think we technically are approving the conversion tonight because that has all got to be analyzed. The project would be approved through our normal entitlement process.”
Project analysis and design will include traffic and circulation studies, parking studies and construction design plans. The project would also need to be approved by the Planning Commission before going back before the council.
“When we come back to address the project again and how we want to move forward, we are going to have choices, I assume,” the mayor said. “We are going to have the information that we need to make choices and evaluate next steps.”
The council also approved $145,000 for continued maintenance of the temporary promenade through June 30.
The cost of conversion to a permanent promenade would be about $3 million, according to a report staff reports.
“This is a very expensive project when you add all the costs together,” Councilman George Weiss said. “It seems to be worthwhile. “I want to approve the extension for a year till we get out of COVID and we have the designs and get the public involved and we proceed from that vantage point.”
The council’s action gives the residents some degree of certainty that a promenade will be fixture in the city, Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said.
The promenade was originally opened on June 15, after the council approved the Promenade on Forest to provide a safe outdoor environment for dining and shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are not very many good things that have come out of COVID,” Kempf said. “This is one of them. People love it and they want to see it in the future.”
Councilmember Peter Blake said the promenade has been better than anything he had envisioned.
“I couldn’t imagine a more successful experiment than the one we just went through,” Blake said. “I’m voting tonight for a vision, for a town square, for a piazza for a place that all of the residents can go and see each other and enjoy each other’s company. We’re going to have this incredible opportunity to make these changes. I for one am 100 percent behind them.”
In other business, after considering a staff recommendation to add two additional members to a subcommittee tasked with studying plans to make Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements along Coast Highway, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously decided against making the change.
The five-member panel also voted to make the subcommittee meetings public.
As part of the project, Caltrans is planning to make improvements along 2.4 miles along Coast Highway, from Moss Street to Fifth Avenue sidewalks.
Construction is expected to begin in late 2021.
Improvements include upgrading curb ramps, sidewalks and driveways, along with relocating parking meters and utilities. The project will also include improved signage and striping and pavement rehabilitation.
After receiving a presentation from Caltrans and listening to comments from the public at its Nov. 4 meeting, the Planning Commission voted to form a two-person with commissioners Steven Goldman and Ken Sadler.
The subcommittee will study the project and confer with Caltrans to make improvements prior to issuance of a Coastal Development Permit by the Planning Commission.
The subcommittee is expected to hold a public meeting on Feb. 3 to receive more comments from the public and a least two more public meetings after that before making their recommendation to the Planning Commission.
“We need everybody’s best thinking on this,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “It’s an important project.”
Caltrans has budgeted $23 million for the project.
The City Council originally voted to contribute up to $10 million, but then reduced the amount to $1.8 million in April after the COVID 19 pandemic resulted in reduced revenue for the city.
“I think the Planning Commission is perfectly capable of handling this,” Kempf said. “There have been a lot of meetings. I think we should just let the usual process run. This is what we do on every single project when we have a subcommittee. I think it is just better to go with the process and it will get thoroughly vetted by the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is a good group, and they are going to get good input.”