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Laguna Beach extends life of Promenade on Forest

Outdoor dining
Outdoor dining on newly built decks are one of the new features on the Promenade on Forest in downtown Laguna Beach, which opened to the public on June 15, 2020.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Promenade on Forest in Laguna Beach opened to the public nearly seven months ago, born out of the struggles of local businesses desperate from the hardship and restrictions brought on because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It started as an experiment to see how a pedestrian plaza would provide a boost to the downtown area of Laguna Beach for both restaurants and retail. Initially scheduled to go through last summer, the City Council eventually extended it through January.

Back in session for the first time in 2021 on Tuesday night, the Laguna Beach City Council considered making the Promenade on Forest a permanent fixture.

Discussion led to the council unanimously voting to continue the Promenade on Forest in its current state through January 2024.

A citywide outdoor dining and retail display program is also being extended through the end of this year. The temporary use permits for the program were set to expire at the end of April, Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said.

Jessie Rose, who has starred as a cross-country runner and water polo player at Laguna Beach High School, is holding her third shoe drive through Soles4Souls. The deadline to contribute new and gently used shoes for donation for the shoe drive is Feb. 15.

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen amended a recommendation by city staff that called for the approval of the conversion of lower Forest Avenue to a permanent pedestrian plaza.

“I think … what I want to do is start the process, gather the information, understand the cost,” Whalen said.

The council directed staff to seek proposals from consultant teams to design, conduct project impact analysis, and complete the entitlement for the conversion of the downtown street to a permanent plaza, Dupuis added.

“These are the first steps in designing a permanent plaza and this work will include design of a drainage system,” Dupuis wrote in an email. “We plan to bring the award of the contract to the most qualified consultant team for this work to the City Council in April 2021.”

Councilman Peter Blake is in favor of making the Promenade a lasting part of downtown, comparing it to a town square.

“The Promenade has been so much better than anything I even envisioned,” Blake said. “For 30 years, I’ve thought, ‘What would it take to make the downtown a better place?’ I’ve been working in the downtown for 30 years now, and I couldn’t imagine a more successful experiment than the one we just went through.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf also voiced staunch support for the Promenade on Forest.

“We all know it’s popular, and sometimes you spend money because you want it for the enjoyment of the town,” Kempf said. “The money that we spent there, I think, we got a real nugget. There’s not very many good things that have come out of COVID, and this is one of them.”

The Promenade on Forest has supplied six dining decks, 41 dining tables and outdoor retail displays since it opened on June 15. Prior to the stay-at-home order, artist demonstrations and musical performances were also seen in the downtown area.

Public comments went on for more than an hour. Business owners shared their gratitude and residents showed their appreciation for the Promenade as a place to gather for the community.

Concerns were expressed by some as to whether it would be appropriate to commit to making the Promenade permanent given the uncertain financial situation presented by the ongoing pandemic.

Others quibbled with the loss of parking that would occur if lower Forest Avenue were closed for good. City staff said that if the project were to move forward, it would result in the loss of 47 parking spaces, although the construction of a parking structure could be one possible solution.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman addressed both issues when the discussion was brought back to council, indicating that she would like to have “a better understanding of the city’s financial situation” before bringing a permanent pedestrian plaza to a vote.

As for the matter of parking, Iseman added, “We did not experience a traditional traffic summer, so I just think that needs to be part of the consideration, that people did stay home. Maybe they were at the beach, but it was always easy to find a parking place this summer.”

Councilman George Weiss was also reluctant to move toward a permanent project during the meeting.

“I don’t want to make it permanent tonight,” Weiss said. “I want to approve its extension for a year, so we get out of COVID and we have the designs, we get the public involved, and we proceed in that manner.”

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