Harlan: Costa Mesa needs a public gathering space

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, no stranger to proposing creative and controversial initiatives, recently issued an interesting challenge to other mayors across the country.

Through his charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg is offering $9 million to cities for "bold ideas that can make government work better, solve a serious problem or improve city life."

The Mayors Challenge aims to celebrate creative problem-solving and innovation in city halls, and to share these strategies with cities across the nation.

And while winning some prize money and garnering some publicity may be good incentives for a city, in this time of reduced budgets, high demand for services and rising obligations, an entrepreneurial approach to tackling municipal challenges is almost a necessity.

In the spirit of the Mayors Challenge, I'd like to suggest an idea I believe is worth exploring. Our community would benefit by having a central and readily identifiable gathering space — a place that represents the heart of Costa Mesa.

We have a dearth of true communal gathering spaces. Our malls are now the substitutes for the traditional village green or town square, where people congregate daily for a range of activities and for large community events.

I love the fact that I can get everything I need or want within a 3-mile radius of my home, but we should have a multifunctional place that can host a weekly farmers market, a summer concert or a civic debate. It should also inspire spontaneous gathering, whether it's simply a meeting place for lunch, a launching-off point for shopping or a bike ride, or just a place of respite for people watching.

We have the underlying structure for such a place already. Vacating the portion of Harbor Boulevard between 19th Street and Newport Boulevard — one of the short sides of the triangle — would open the opportunity for a modern, public plaza space. The two adjacent developments, The Triangle and the 1835 Newport Blvd. shopping plaza, could be experienced as one large, contiguous environment.

This would help to better define what people often refer to as our "downtown," which is more of a historical reference than a practical reality. But the bones of this downtown — its scale, street pattern, proximity of residential- to neighborhood-serving commercial uses — are still there and can be improved upon.

With the potential for the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to be underground at this point, this area is primed to be a true downtown where people can easily access it by walking, bicycling and taking public transit. Developing a public hub at this location also could be a catalyst for investment and improvement along the Harbor Boulevard and 19th Street corridors. Additionally, at this location we would gain a wonderful framed view to the north, with Harbor as the welcoming boulevard to downtown.

I recognize that there are hundreds of details — reconfiguring streets, managing traffic, designing and programming the space, identifying funding, soliciting public input — that would need to be resolved to make this concept a reality. But let's put more of these ideas out there and see what works for Costa Mesa.

Of course, we shouldn't solely rely on City Hall to solve our community's problems. We have a number of bright, creative and invested organizations and individuals who offer a wealth of knowledge and different perspectives to generate imaginative ideas and make things happen.

Our local well is deep and should be tapped judiciously.

But for those initiatives that do require the government's involvement, City Hall should be an open and welcoming environment. For most of us, it takes great courage to address elected officials in a public venue and share our concerns and ideas. When our offers of partnership and cooperation are met with rudeness, indifference and disrespect, the well dries up quickly.

As we begin the campaign season, I am hopeful that our City Council candidates will bring forward their own big, bold ideas.

Here's what I'd like the candidates (or any of our interested citizens) to articulate: What is an important need for our community and how would you solve it? What approach would you take and who would be involved? What are the first three things you'd do to develop the idea? Please be specific.

We've been bombarded by partisan drama for so long that it would be refreshing to hear some genuinely original and inspiring ideas. Perhaps a simple notion will resonate widely and blossom into something all of us can support. And maybe one day we'll have a new civic space in downtown where we can talk about it.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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