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Are We Premature On Street Closures?

By Billy Fried
By Billy Fried

I was watching the great architect Renzo Piano discuss his new Whitney museum on Charlie Rose recently, and was struck by how he characterized the ground floor lobby and public area as a piazza, the place “where everything starts.” He went on to say, “piazzas are the public spaces where experience comes together, diversity is valued, fear goes away and people meet people.” He calls it “the beginning” of any city or town, where you get introduced “before taking your shoes off” (metaphorically speaking).

It stoked my excitement for our future Forest Avenue promenade. That is until I heard about the June 2 meeting with area merchants, which I unfortunately missed because of a cancelled flight. Apparently, it was a rain of fire and brimstone over lost parking, lost revenue, and a potential homeless jubilee. One compared it to the Patriots Day Parade. Another to the Craft Guild that took place on Forest over 15 years ago. Both of which they said was a retail disaster.

But of course. Street closures as special events distract from the business of shopping. Patriots Day? Hospitality Night? People don’t come to shop. They’re community celebrations. Because the community has a right to our streets as well. But now we’re talking about something vastly different. A public space that takes us back to how cities thrive. Where everyone – including shoppers – linger longer.

I’m disappointed, not in the merchants, but in our urban planning consultants! How could they recommend a two-week trial over Labor Day? How could they not come prepared to address the loss of parking? Did they not know that over the last two years the city has had a net gain of 47 spaces in downtown alone, not to mention more periphery parking (like the Christmas Tree lot), additional trams, and enhanced bicycle routes? The 47 alone make up for any loss of parking on Forest. How could they recommend parklets in front of the restaurants only, when they should also be in front of other merchants as well? One should not have to order food to enjoy public seating.

And how could they recommend activating it with food, outdoor sales, and entertainment? Just the thing to scare off merchants. The message they got in our meetings beforehand was clear: no borrowed interest. Just seating, tables, planters, good lighting, and play areas for kids. And see what materializes.

A two-week trial that runs right through Labor Day is a certain recipe for failure. Any glitch in parking, congestion, or traffic flow will be squarely pinned on the street closure, whether valid or not. There will be no time to evaluate, tweak, refine, and implement the needed metrics to measure success. We need data on traffic flow, parking, retail impact for restaurants and non-restaurants, and quantifiable exit interviews with visitors and residents. Any urban planner knows this can’t happen over a two week period during peak holiday season.

Merchant concerns are valid. And while a few were quite vociferous in their opposition, there are many who are game to try this. So let’s everybody calm down, take a breath, and develop a plan that satisfies all parties. Because it’s going to happen. Mayor Bob Whalen and Council member Steve Dicterow have assured us. The other council members all voted for it as well. And Kelly Boyd was first to say let’s give it a fair, extended trial.

I say let’s kill the end of summer program and look to Fall. Perhaps one weekend and one weekday for a 12 – 16 week period through the end of the year. This is the shoulder season when parking impacts will be minimized. Perhaps the city can relocate the farmer’s market to Forest during the period when they dig up the sewer lines. Extend it to Forest Lane to activate the alley. And then keep Forest closed the rest of the day. Two birds with one stone. And try a mid-week closure on Wednesday, so we can measure the results of weekend versus weekday closures. Try the parklets on Ocean Avenue, where there are less retail merchants to feel the sting of lost parking. This would be a wonderful upgrade to a street that needs some pedestrian vitality.

Trial street closures will be on the agenda at the Tuesday, June 16, Council meeting. This is your chance to be heard, whether you are in favor or opposed. I believe the majority of people in our community favor public space, and would like to see a trial. If that’s you, please come down Tuesday and say so. It promises to be yet another lively night at Council. See you there.

 

Billy Fried is the chief paddling officer at La Vida Laguna. He serves on the board of Transition Laguna, and hosts “Laguna Talks,” Thursdays at 8 p.m. on local radio station KX 93.5. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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