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Baby street, baby steps on Park Avenue

It’s called Park Avenue but it’s more like Park alley, a dark, neglected stub of asphalt in downtown Laguna Beach.

So when a handful of community groups banded together to propose a trial pedestrian zone, it was hard for the City Council to say no. But of course that didn’t prevent opponents from trying to squash it.

For years, pedestrian-friendly groups have been trying to close adjacent Forest Avenue to traffic, and for years, they’ve failed.

Last year, perhaps trying to break the logjam, the city approved a sidewalk seating installation in front of Alessa, an Italian restaurant. It failed, not because it was a bad idea, but because of some unfortunate design restrictions that hamstrung the project.

Plus, opponents cried over the loss of two parking spaces as if they’d never heard of Lyft.

The new proposal to close Park makes sense because, well, it should be a park — a pedestrian zone that gives tourists and residents a chance to sit down, visit and enjoy their day.

Now whether visitors will have to fight the homeless over a clean seat is another question. We know several areas of Main Beach are off-limits to families because of notorious homeless squatting and behavior.

But let’s assume Park Avenue will give cranky Laguna naysayers something to admire. Transition Laguna Beach, the Laguna Beach Beautification Council and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce are proposing a professional design with comfortable amenities.

From Oct. 21 to Dec. 1, the area will have tables, chairs, planters, landscaping, boxed trees and lighting. Unfortunately, there will not be any street vendors or live music, which is surprising.

What’s wrong with having an acoustic guitarist on a Saturday afternoon? Or a couple food trucks near the library?

Anyone who has traveled — anywhere — knows that this proposal is nice but timid.

I recently went to Eugene, Ore. It’s a college town in the middle of nowhere, a moldy river city with faded Pendletons and ratty beards, but they have a downtown that blows away Laguna’s.

It’s a bigger town, sure, with more than 150,000 people, but they have taken chances.

They have some creative traffic calming, sidewalk cafes, impactful landscaping and generous pedestrian zones. They also use their alleys for effective commercial ventures.

There is color everywhere: progressive murals, planter boxes and whimsical public art.

Downtown Eugene brims with innovation, foot-traffic and vitality well into the night.

Downtown Laguna is asleep by 8 p.m.

Why? One reason is Laguna’s real estate prices have pushed out artists and students.

We’ve throttled low-income housing. We’ve dogmatically denied any reconsideration of the height limit downtown to allow for cost-effective student lofts. We’ve systematically sold our souls to outside investors who, frankly, never visit downtown.

In other words, they will never set foot in Park alley.

Despite its good intentions, Park alley will come and go. I hope not but with Laguna’s track record, it’s hard to be optimistic.

The irony is, pedestrian zones work. They work for business, traffic and tourists. In nearly every example around the world, in study after study, thoughtful pedestrian zones improve business. More to the point, they improve everyone’s quality of life.

Do they take away street-side parking? Usually. Does that loss of parking get offset through other parking agreements? Almost always.

It’s a no-brainer to close Park — permanently. The bigger question is how long will Forest remain open to Glenneyre Street?

I’ve made no secret of my desire to close Forest to cars. Look around. Get outside the bubble of Laguna. See what’s possible and you’ll agree.

The energy you get from a thriving, safe, creative downtown pedestrian zone is like no other. You get to see the world, happy and communal. You see all walks of life. They’re not scurrying down a narrow sidewalk, fidgeting from store to store.

They’re sitting and embracing the moment talking to strangers and comparing flavors of ice cream.

They’re closing their eyes and breathing the ocean air.

They’re smiling in the heart of Laguna, a heart that’s waiting to come alive.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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