Last week I wrote on how to rid Laguna of traffic and make downtown more livable. Most of it will take years to realize. But some of it — the most transformational ideas — can be done now. And cheaply.
Since I arrived in Laguna 15 years ago, I’ve been dumbstruck by our dearth of public space — particularly downtown, on lower Forest Avenue. It fairly begs for it, with its narrow opening and closing at each end, framed by mature magnolias and stately eucalyptus. It’s like four tent poles needing enclosure.
As it stands now, Forest is a multipurpose road to nowhere. It fails on all fronts because it isn’t wide enough for its three designated functions: driving, parking and walking.
There is no place to pull aside when awaiting parking, so every car behind the waiting one gets stuck —and eventually backs onto South Coast Highway. That’s what’s commonly known as a parking lot, not a street.
This creates a completely inefficient thoroughfare, also known as a mess. And the dense, angled parking on each side obliterates the sidewalks on what is supposed to be our downtown walking jewel.
Sit at the indoor patios of Alessa and 230 Forest and enjoy the fresh coastal breeze — but don’t look out or you may be blinded by headlights or engulfed in a sea of grills. It’s as sterile as an Anaheim strip mall. We might as well have pawnshops, liquor stores and laundromats.
But imagine if there were tables and chairs where those cars are parked. Planters. Four charming restaurants with outdoor seating in our lovely clime. Perhaps a playground adjacent, while the parents feed. Benches and seating to watch the worldly procession. Chess and backgammon games. Debates and detente with neighbors or visitors from another country.
Perhaps some educational, edible gardens with raised beds. Maybe a speakers’ corner like Hyde Park. And low-decibel troubadours. At night, delicious, old-fashioned amber lighting, a la Paris, making the plaza glow invitingly.
This wouldn’t have any of the unnecessary adornment of the chamber’s noble attempt several years back. Too much orchestration, with Klieg lights, amplified bands and enabled boozing. It wouldn’t be a party but instead would serve the greater good of a public commons that binds us as a community because of the impromptu and serendipitous collisions.
Isn’t that the charm of locals night at the Sawdust, Hospitality Night on Forest, and even Saturday’s Patriots Day Parade? People call these the most fun days and nights of the year because we get such a concentrated dose of connection. It makes us smarter, more informed and happier to be among so many talented and interesting people.
So what’s stopping us?
The Laguna Beach City Council has always maintained there are four traffic-related problems in the city: parking, parking, parking and circulation through town.
Those 48 spaces seem to be indispensable to our well-being. First, there is the lost business to certain merchants who fear nobody will come anymore. Second, there is the inconvenience to our residents — particularly elders — who don’t want to park far from their destination. And third, the Coastal Commission would require us to replace each and every space. How do we address these concerns?
As for traffic flow and parking for locals, ask yourself if Forest really provides efficient passage into town, how easy it is to park there, and how often you choose an alternative.
As for the parking hardship on merchants, there really seems to be just a few businesses on all of Forest that require quick entry and exit, like Bushards and Scandia Bakery. And you can still park right behind them in the Ocean Avenue lots. The rest really are stores for browsing and lingering.
And as for replacement parking, we have learned definitively that the Coastal Commission no longer requires it on a one-to-one basis, provided we improve access with alternative transport (now being mandated through the state’s Complete Streets Act).
The truth is, we just don’t know how a pedestrian promenade would affect us.
So why don’t we do what former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done so successfully to transform New York into a dynamically more livable metropolis? Try things.
Change streets with impermanent demarcations like paint and planters. Just quietly close off Forest every Saturday for six months. Toss in some lawn chairs and café tables, like on Broadway. Maybe Wednesday evenings too for a second farmers market. Huntington Beach did it. Palm Springs too. If it doesn’t work, we change it back.
We talked about this at a recent Transition Laguna potluck. Councilmen Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow each signaled their longtime support for the idea. Same with Chamber of Commerce President Larry Nokes and developers Sam Goldstein, Allan Simon and Mark Christy, all stakeholders in a vital downtown economy. Mayor Elizabeth Pearson has gone even further in advocating for a completely pedestrian downtown that would include Beach Street and Ocean Boulevard.
We simply can no longer be in same-old, same-old mode and use the Coastal Commission as the excuse.
I favor testing Forest because it is always cited as our architecturally most distinctive street. It isn’t pockmarked with parking lots and loud bars, it is already beautifully landscaped and it is a clogged artery in desperate need of a stent.
But I’m also happy with Ocean or Park Avenue as an alternative plaza, or just taking out the northside parking on Forest to allow for outdoor restaurant seating. Anyway you want to slice it, I’m down for a piece.
And that’s why Transition Laguna is initiating a Free Forest Avenue campaign. If you haven’t gotten involved, join the movement. We’ll be passing out bumper stickers at Saturday’s parade, and we need your support. And if you have other ideas for downtown, please write me.
BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.