Big Plans vs. Small Adjustments…
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…” Daniel Burnham. This advice from one of the designers of the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, may have been taken too seriously by our governmental policy makers. Big projects have been proposed in Laguna Beach, time after time, yet in the end the small, customized solutions have turned out to meet our needs better than the big plan.
Take flood control downtown. Twenty years ago the county proposed to build a box culvert in Broadway in order to more quickly carry floodwaters to the ocean at Main Beach. Problem was that half of Broadway would be closed for nearly a year for construction making it difficult for the businesses there to survive. There would be a huge prominent concrete outlet on Main Beach. And even after all that, the channel would only accommodate a 10-year storm. (It takes a five-year storm now and accommodating a 100 year storm is the desired level of protection.) The council then, and again more recently, decided against it.
After the downtown and canyon flooding in 2010 the council adopted the recommendations of a specially formed Laguna Canyon Flood Mitigation Task Force, including mandatory installation of floodgates for downtown businesses. These doorway dams block floodwaters from flowing inside the buildings, preventing the most serious flood damage. Enlargement of a constricted outlet under Coast Highway is in the works. A number of, in retrospect, obvious measures were also recommended including warning systems and programs to keep the existing channel clear of debris and impediments. These were all doable without a grand project and they will make a big difference in saving lives and property. But they had been overlooked for years while seeking a large simple solution.
Our village entrance parking garage controversy is another example. In 1995 the council decided to “jump-start” the village entrance project with a parking garage study. The garage became the focus of the project, growing larger and more expensive until November of 2013 when citizens’ objections to its cost, aesthetic and traffic impacts caused the council to cancel it in favor of a more modest plan with surface parking and improved landscaping.
As in the case of the flood problem, they took another look at what they could reasonably and immediately do. They instituted a parking management program to improve parking and traffic in the downtown and festival area and it was implemented for the first time this summer.
New signing that alerts visitors to parking opportunities can’t be missed. And there are many parking options—peripheral lots coupled with the popular trolleys, more private lots being made available for public parking, and even valet parking.
The statistical results aren’t in yet, but anecdotal reports are from my personal experience.
I found this summer’s traffic and parking situation surprisingly acceptable. I had appointments and errands downtown midday on Saturdays and we went to two performances at Laguna Playhouse. Each time we found parking very close to where we wanted to go, and there were no undue traffic delays getting there.
My unscientific conclusion? The parking management plan is working. Over 200 spaces that were there all along have been made available by creative management and leadership by the city. Again many small improvements combine to make a big difference without huge costs or impacts.
Now there’s a new focus: Laguna Canyon Road. Studies have been done by an engineering consultant and last week the council set up an 18-person task force to explore ways to improve safety and traffic flow. Options include adding two more lanes, or one more lane, and adding bicycle and pedestrian paths, along with safer crossings and undergrounding utilities.
The big plan—adding two more lanes—is not likely to be approved, meeting the same fate as the flood channel enlargement and the parking garage. But some small focused improvements will make a big difference on safety, and on bike and pedestrian access. Traffic flow may be marginally improved, but most likely slowed traffic will be more appreciated for the role it plays in regulating the numbers of cars flowing through and into our downtown area. Unless we can get a tollgate, that is our only control on even greater congestion in our city center. As councilmember Kelly Boyd asked, “If we get more cars to downtown, where will they go?”
Time and again we are recognizing that our natural setting constrains us; our hills, canyon and ocean confine us, forcing us to live within the boundaries they set. Rather than resenting that we cannot feasibly accomplish all the “big ideas” we can dream up, we can find joy in what we cannot change, for those constraints come with their exceptional beauty and they are essential to Laguna’s uniqueness and charm.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.