Laguna Beach council OKs temporary Park Avenue closure to create a plaza

Three organizations received the go-ahead from the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday to close a portion of Park Avenue for six weeks later this year.

Transition Laguna Beach, the Laguna Beach Beautification Council, and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce teamed up on the proposal, which calls for the 200 block of Park Avenue to close to cars from Oct. 21 through Dec. 1.

Organizers hope to draw both residents and tourists to the space as an appealing place to sit and catch up with friends, or enjoy a meal with an ocean view.

The Planning Commission must grant the collective group a temporary use permit to use the space. City staff members indicated the commission could consider the matter at its Oct. 4 meeting.

Council members were unanimous in their support of the closure, which sparked a discussion about vehicular traffic in that part of town.

“It’s a trial period worth exploring,” Councilman Bob Whalen said. “We’ll learn some good things. These organizations are to be commended for the time and effort they have already put into it.”

The area will include tables, chairs, planters, landscaping, boxed trees and lighting, and be free of street vendors or live musical performances.

“We won’t turn it into a party or program it with entertainment,” Billy Fried, Transition Laguna Beach board member, said. “There is no perfect street to close without some sacrifices. It’s as close to perfect as you can get downtown.”

Resident Bill Hoffman liked the idea of an area to sit and enjoy lunch, such as last week when he met a friend.

“It would have been much more pleasant to sit in a nice sitting area rather than a curbside counter,” Hoffman said. “It could have great design features and be a gathering place.”

Others were not as keen on the temporary closure, not because of aesthetic reasons, but saying closing off that section of street to cars would cause circulation headaches.

The main point of the traffic discussion centered on motorists who make left turns from South Coast Highway onto streets such as Forest and Park avenues from the same left-turn pocket.

Resident Susan Elliott said she turns from South Coast Highway onto that stretch of Park Avenue to get home.

“I agree [the plaza] would be more aesthetic, but I don’t think the trade-off is there,” Elliott said. “It’s way better than going home by Cliff [Drive]. There are less signals, less stops, less turns.”

Resident Bob Chapman, a former planning commissioner, said there could be parking and circulation challenges with the closure, though he encouraged the council to consider strategies with a permanent plaza in mind.

“Will [the street closure] backup traffic onto Forest since there is not that safety valve to go onto Park?” Chapman asked. “How do we manage this? Hopefully this is not a temporary [plaza]. Hopefully this is not a pilot. Hopefully this is something leading to a permanent place.”

The city has experimented with other types of outdoor spaces. Last year the city partnered with Alessa, an Italian restaurant on Forest Avenue, on a temporary outdoor dining area that extended onto the asphalt.

Some residents welcomed the feature, but others decried it as unsightly and an unfair loss of public space — specifically two parking spaces — for a private business’s use.

The current temporary closure would force eight metered spaces to be off-limits.

The city budgeted $50,000 for the closure, including $21,000 to rent traffic control signs and equipment. Whalen requested city staff investigate whether the cost of purchasing its own equipment would save money.

Council members wondered whether there would be any hiccups with getting a permit from the California Department of Transportation since the agency owns South Coast Highway.

“I ran the concept by [Caltrans] to see if they saw any fatal flaws and they did not see any,” Public Works Director Shohreh Dupuis said.

If the council likes the plaza, it could extend its duration from Dec. 2 through Jan. 2.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce