Free Forest Avenue
Today I am departing for that parched, dusty off-grid arts festival known as Burning Man. A lot has been written about it, but words cannot convey the magnitude of the experience. If anything can distill it down to its essence, it’s “a celebration of human potential.” A community devoid of commerce and focused only on an exchange of creativity and generosity. Not sustainable, but certainly inspiring. More about that when I return.
When we think of human potential these days – one name that comes up is Tony Hsieh, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and founder of Zappos shoes, which sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion. Like other tech stars, Tony could have taken his billion and retired to a private South Pacific Island. Instead he resides in an airstream trailer in a downtown Las Vegas RV park. He rents out another 30 to coders, friends and associates. “I see my neighbors a lot more now than I did when living in a house in the suburbs or living in an apartment building,” he told the Las Vegas Review Journal in January. He said he was inspired by the chance encounters and randomness of the Burning Man festival.
Tony also took a sizable chunk of his fortune and invested it into the revitalization of a formerly decrepit area of Vegas (he originally moved Zappos there from San Francisco because of the wealth of telemarketing expertise and manpower). Now called the Downtown Project, it has been hailed by urban planners as a model of urban vitality, with 300 businesses sprouting in just three years. The mission statement on its website says, “Our goal and purpose is to help make downtown Vegas a place of Inspiration, Entrepreneurial Energy, Creativity, Innovation, Upward Mobility, and Discovery, through the 3 C’s of Collisions, Co-learning, and Connectedness in a long-term, sustainable way.”
Oh, that we could say the same about our downtown.
The key to Tony’s vision is public pedestrian spaces where those random “collisions” occur that often spawn innovation and connectedness. People want to hang out in these spaces because of the energy and serendipity of random encounters. It is the charm of living in a community, and as we now know, more and more young people are spurning autos in favor of multi-modal, public transit anyway.
Laguna had a wonderful opportunity to test a pedestrian plaza on Forest this year, but it was opposed by a number of merchants who felt the decrease in parking would harm their business. This despite the fact that many are now claiming this summer to be one of the worst retail seasons in recent memory. You’d think they’d be excited to try anything that could give their businesses a needed shot in the arm.
Village Laguna also spoke out against the idea, stating our downtown “offers an experience like nowhere else.”
I would have to agree. No other downtown is so empty nine months a year. They also stated “it isn’t the role of our town to be up to date.” I admire their mission to protect our city from rampant development, but ridding a street of cars in favor of people seems in alignment with a group that turned a fallow commercial lot into a beautiful community garden and gathering place. We could certainly use more.
Council promised to revisit the street closures. I know they have a lot on their plate, but can we not return to the drawing board and test this concept during the off-season with some inexpensive paint, planters and lighting? We have never advocated programming it with content that would bring out revelers and deter shoppers. We just want a quiet street closure that beautifies our main shopping artery and encourages people to linger longer in a car, smog and noise-free environment.
And remember we are talking about a test. As Mayor Whalen so eloquently stated, “if you can’t live with a little change in your life for a couple weeks, I say get a grip.” For the usual taciturn mayor that is tantamount to an expletive-laden tirade.
If you agree with the mayor and what seems to be a silent majority in this town, please express your support by signing the online petition started by Bill Hoffman: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/petition-to-create-pedestrian-street-on-forest. We will be disseminating more information on this in the coming months, and don’t be surprised if you see more than few “Free Forest Ave” stickers around town. If you’d like to show your support and receive a free sticker of your own, write me. Join the movement to free Forest Avenue and make it the crown pedestrian center of our town.
Billy Fried sits on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].