Temporary Plaza Defies Expectations
Last week we removed the furniture, décor and lighting from the once congenial space known as Park Plaza, and returned it to the forlorn alley known as Park Avenue. Now, instead of kids skipping from pod to pod on clever, recycled tires, pets lounging by their owners under the comfort of the giant heritage trees, live music, theater performances and outdoor movie screenings, we return to cars rumbling through and subordinating the human experience to convenience. Instead of these wonderful, life-giving ficus trees giving cover and fresh air to humans (and blocking no one’s view), they instead provide shade for eight parked cars.
You’d have to be Scrooge not to have experienced the positive alchemy of the plaza. Oh sure, it could have been prettier, but the fears promulgated by the agents of no – a homeless haven, too noisy, dirty, and cold – was pure nonsense. The plaza had a unique tranquility, with a sound barrier from the White House wall, and from cars that are naturally forced to slow down around the turns at Main Beach. It also offered a magnificent view of the Pacific, great people watching, a free place to sit and eat or drink food from any establishment, and of course the choice of sitting in the sun or shade. But you would never know any of those things unless you experienced it, because it was simply never possible before.
We built it in the dog days of late autumn and they came. Locals, visitors, merchants and city staff. They all relished a quiet, shaded place to sit and watch the world go by. Or meet neighbors. And with some late inning modifications to the furniture, plants, lighting and holiday décor, it was undeniably beautiful – once inside the barriers. It was our Tivoli Garden and, like Copenhagen, people endured the December chill to sit and take in our Laguna charm – and even outdoor movies.
None of the fears promulgated by opponents came to pass: no homeless problem, no loitering drunks, no vandalism, no smoking, no excessive noise or partying. No parking deficit and no traffic snarls. In fact, it was a boon to our police department, who not only preferred the safety of a closed plaza to a dangerous crosswalk, but also wanted it open late night as a place for people to congregate and sober up after the bars close.
Planning consultant Bill Hoffman, who has a master’s degree in urban planning, spearheaded user surveys. City staff polled residents. And the Chamber of Commerce surveyed affected merchants. Eighty percent of users rated the Plaza as excellent and 88% said it would increase the chances they would shop or dine downtown. Of those plaza users surveyed, 60% were residents. Of those, 60% said they met people they knew there. That’s what community is all about.
Of the non-user residents surveyed, 67% felt it was a good or excellent idea to make the plaza permanent. Of the people who opposed it, 9% felt Forest should be closed instead, 26% didn’t want to lose the parking, and 65% didn’t like losing the transit route. Of that 65%, more than half said they would support a permanent closure if a left turn on Coast Highway at Laguna Avenue was installed. Of 31 downtown merchants surveyed, 70% supported making the plaza permanent, with only 10% against (20% were unsure). That’s a pretty resounding yes from all stakeholders.
This was a true community effort from the get go, and a great collaboration between the city and its volunteer residents. Shout out to Michael Hoag, who first championed the idea and paid for renderings to be drawn; to the Chamber of Commerce for taking action to help its members; to the many Beautification Council members who worked tirelessly to install and maintain the furniture and landscaping; to all the artists and musicians who performed; to Barbara and Greg MacGillivray, who donated their amazing films; to the Laguna Exchange for lending their popcorn maker; to Allan “this is the best thing to happen to Laguna since I got here” Simon, for his generous and unsolicited donation; to city staff and all the daily workers who maintained the space (including Adonis Restaurant); to Councilman Bob Whalen for leading the effort, and the rest of the Council and Planning Commission for supporting it; and finally to my fellow board member at Transition Laguna, Chris Prelitz, who worked so tirelessly on this that his partner Theresa declared Park Plaza to be his mistress.
So, what now? Do we test it once again this summer to measure the impacts? Or do we go for permanent, in tandem with installing a left turn pocket at Laguna Avenue? Would that be the win that satisfies all? Or do we just pack up the carnival and not change a thing, as some would advocate? You can never please everyone in town. That’s a given. But you can make a logical conclusion, based on empirical evidence, as to what is best for the greater good of our town.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]