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Park Plaza For Good

By Billy Fried
By Billy Fried

I have written exhaustively about the profound, positive impact that pubic, pedestrian spaces have on fostering community, and how cities across the globe have retrofitted plazas to replace cars. This column will be no exception, because Laguna Beach finally has the chance to transform its downtown with a free place to sit for all, under a shade canopy of glorious ficus trees, with unparalleled ocean views. In fact, that sliver of a street called Park Avenue has the very best street-level ocean views of any downtown street. Only we never knew it until we opened it up for public enjoyment with a trial street closure last winter.

This coming Tuesday city staff will present their findings to council on the test plaza, which ran from Oct. 21-Dec. 31. Here’s a spoiler alert. It was wildly popular, enjoyed by residents and visitors alike, did not become a haven for the homeless, was unusually tranquil and clean, and did not cause “Carmageddon” traffic snarls. Families, children, dogs, shop keepers and city staffers could all be seen regularly taking a little respite in the outdoor ambience. People brought food to enjoy from all the area eateries – not just the adjacent ones. There were movie nights, daytime buskers, kids kicking soccer balls, hula hoopers and storytellers, a certainly more optimal use of the street than the 1 car per minute cut through it was before – and continues to be today.

The residents who complained forcefully that they would lose their cherished shortcut discovered that the extra minute it caused them to use Forest or Legion didn’t fundamentally diminish their quality of life. Many actually said the sacrifice they made for the public enjoyment actually improved it.

The naysayers who continue to argue we have a perfectly adequate pedestrian space across the street at Main Beach must explain then why so many people chose to use Park Plaza? Maybe it was the inconvenience of crossing Coast Highway, the lack of tables and chairs at the beach park, the wind and unprotected sun. Or maybe it’s just not a plaza that promotes conviviality, but instead a promenade, where people pass but don’t engage.

What about that fear of a homeless insurrection? Didn’t happen. In fact, several homeless folks attended the free movie nights, and behaved with dignity and respect. Because that’s the way they were welcomed. And finally, while the removal of any street carries some level of flow disruption, the city recently conducted a third party traffic study that concluded closing Park Avenue to cars would cause no negative traffic impacts, provided the left turn lanes at Legion and Broadway were lengthened. Sounds doable.

And finally, that dreaded scourge known as tourists didn’t co-op the plaza at our expense. More than half of the users were residents.

In this divisive world we live in, the only way to have intelligent discourse is to establish a baseline of facts. The facts to support a permanent plaza are compelling.

Bill Hoffman, with degrees in urban planning, surveyed 103 Park Plaza users between Oct. 25 and Dec. 24; 94% rated it good to excellent, with 90% saying it would increase their visits to downtown. The city also conducted a resident survey, with 80 random intercepts (away from the Plaza so as not to bias their responses). Two thirds supported a permanent plaza, with less than 20% believing it was a bad idea. Finally, 31 merchants were also surveyed by the Chamber of Commerce. They perhaps have the most at stake with a loss of eight parking spaces, and the possibility of traffic impacts. But 70% supported a permanent plaza, with only 10% against (20% were unsure).

This is what’s known in basketball parlance as a slam dunk. But as we know all too well, that’s no assurance of a win at council. All the usual barriers: a vocal and persistent opposition to change, and a bureaucracy that will cite innumerable obstacles such as costs, loss of parking revenue, needing more studies and outside consultants, approvals from Coastal Commission and Caltrans, etc. Translation: more staff work.

But if three members of council – your representatives – want it, that’s all it takes. So if you’d like to see a beautiful public plaza on Park Avenue with trees and fountains and permanent, attractive entries and exits (instead of the Caltrans mandated “Road Closed” construction signs), single level pavers, entertainment, live music and movie nights, art exhibits, and perhaps even food and coffee carts, please make your voice heard, either by attending the City Council meeting on Tuesday, or writing them beforehand.

Then, perhaps sometime in the very near future, a familiar and welcoming refrain will be heard throughout our town: “Meet me at Park Plaza.”

 

Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” Thursday at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5. Reach him at [email protected]

 

 

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