People Before Parking
This weekend, grab the groms and come check out Park Plaza, Laguna’s first downtown pedestrian plaza. It’s located just off Forest Avenue and Coast Highway, the diagonal cut-through known as Lower Park Avenue. While changing the use of any street will meet its share of detractors, Laguna is long overdue in reducing its outsized dependence on cars and replacing them with some human-scaled community spaces and experiences. It’s what smart cities the world over are doing to make their streets more livable. It’s what Laguna pledged to do when signing the Enhanced Mobility and Complete Streets Transition Plan in February, 2015.
While some of you may quibble with the location and suggest you have a better one, a collective decision was made to test Park Avenue for several reasons: it has a natural shade canopy from the long-limbed ficus trees, it has a beautiful corridor view of Main Beach and the Pacific, only eight parking spaces are sacrificed, and a traffic study revealed only one car per minute uses it during afternoon rush hour.
Now if you are one of the 60 users per hour who make this your shortcut through town, you are undoubtedly pissed and skeptical that the benefits outweigh the cost for you. We apologize in advance for the inconvenience, and can only wish that if this is successful and the city chooses to make it permanent, they will mitigate your loss with an even better southbound turn option at Laguna Avenue and Coast Highway, as Council member Bob Whalen suggested. That’s a win for everyone. Plus it sets the table for the eventual conversion of Forest Avenue into a pedestrian space, if we are ever so inclined.
What is stunning about Park Plaza (besides the aesthetics conceived by Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Beautification Council), is how efficient and successful the collaboration between private citizens and public employees was. Here’s the back story:
After the city voted in 2015 to test street closures, then Mayor Whalen requested a citizen’s committee be formed to return to Council with specific recommendations. He astutely chose the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Laguna, the Beautification Council, and Transition Laguna to make sure key stakeholders were consulted. Disclosure: I am on the committee representing Transition Laguna.
But then a hiccup appeared in the form of the city’s paid urban consultants, MIG, who somehow got a seat at the table and ended up taking a proposal to Council (without our knowledge) to close Forest Avenue during the late summer months, something we would have told them was political suicide. Down in flames it went. Then the following summer MIG returned to the table with the parklet program that benefitted exactly one merchant. We all know how that turned out.
At that point street closures and public spaces were DOA. We wondered why we even go through the motions when things are so easily opposed and defeated. But then this summer a small group of determined, never-say-die Laguna advocates rose from the ashes like a phoenix and floated the idea of a public space at the less contentious Park Avenue. For a fall test. The timing was right, with merchants and locals alike hoping to breath some life into downtown. The city agencies vetted it, with the police chief opining it was likely safer than the dangerous pedestrian crossing it is now.
So Whalen fast tracked it, knowing that the fall window we proposed was fast approaching. Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson corralled everyone, and put her crack team of Ryan Hallet, Shohreh Dupuis and Scott Drapkin to work getting the necessary engineering reports and approvals from Caltrans, getting it on the council agenda and then to planning for a temporary use permit approval. In what typically takes months or even years took a matter of weeks. It’s a great example of how a private/public partnership between a city and its talented citizens (who know more about their town than any outside consultant) can thrive without an unhealthy dependence on consultants.
We hope you like it and will be moved to linger longer in our charming downtown. Perhaps you’ll even have a fruitful collision, those serendipitous encounters with someone you know or someone new that leads to good things. That’s what random encounters in public places do. And what living in a town is all about. Connecting with people.
In the coming weeks we hope to start programming the space with events, perhaps movie screenings, art exhibitions, yoga, music, and poetry readings. But we have to crawl before we art walk. And in the interim we ask all of you to give it an open-minded try, and as advocates for our city, please report any unsavory behavior that might impact other’s enjoyment of the space. We can’t prevent bad actors from using it. But neither can we sit still and not try new things because of a few misguided and perhaps broken individuals. It’s the new normal.
Laguna Beach, say hello to your new chill space, Park Plaza.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]