“Promenade on Forest,” a temporary public plaza on lower Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna Beach, could become a permanent fixture.

The area adjacent to Main Beach Park has been a resounding success for locals, merchants and restaurants. A city survey shows the 96% of the public supports the promenade, 87% like its present layout and aesthetics, and 53% of people surveyed said after visiting the promenade, they stay to shop and dine in the area.

The promenade – which opened in June – began as a pilot program intended to serve as a lifeline to businesses struggling from coronavirus shutdowns. Within months, it was wildly successful, drawing raves from many of its visitors. Beyond helping businesses and restaurants, it also became a de facto “town center” for locals, who used it for socially distanced meetings with neighbors and friends. Before the pilot program, city officials were already looking at turning the area along Forest into a pedestrian plaza.

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Laguna Beach City Council discussed making the temporary promenade a permanent fixture in the seaside town. Council members unanimously agreed to get bids from consultants for the project, including design ideas, traffic and environmental studies and cost analysis. The city’s early estimate is $3 million, and it could take a year to build.

The council also extended the temporary use permit for the present site through January 2022 and agreed to spend $145,000 for maintenance and security services through June 30.

“We’re voting for a vision of a town square,” said Councilman Peter Blake, who operates an art gallery several blocks away. “We’ve had this incredible opportunity and it’s been so much better than anything I ever envisioned, and I’ve been working in the downtown for 30 years.”

City staff will make project information public so contractors can submit their proposals and costs. Staff will then review the proposals and make a recommendation to the City Council in April. If the City Council agrees to continue with the project, a consultant will be chosen and the council will discuss further design details and funding.

Other steps before approval include a traffic and parking study and a review to make sure it complies with the city’s coastal development permit. The project would include leveling the street, redoing the sidewalks, new landscaping and adding permanent umbrellas with heaters.

More than 30 residents weighed in during an online and televised meeting. Twenty applauded the permanent plan, but some wondered whether now – as the city struggles with financial losses due to the pandemic – is the time to shell out more money, especially when the future remains uncertain.

“I’m questioning why the city would want to take unnecessary budget expenses at this time,” resident Anne Caenn said. “Spending $2.5 million to $3 million seems counterintuitive. This discussion needs to wait until the pandemic is resolved and citizens can attend in-person council meetings.”

Another resident, Billy Fried, said making the promenade permanent would make the downtown vibrant again by promoting a retail experience.

David Rubel, who runs a local jewelry store, told the council creating even the temporary promenade was “one of the most successful initiatives the council has taken.”

“People love it,” he said. “I haven’t gotten one person who said, ‘Hey, I don’t like it.’ It reminds me of a quaint little spot in Europe. It’s for the community; it’s become our gathering spot.”

Alessandro Pirozzi, who operates Alessa, was in full support. Two years ago, Pirozzi worked with the city to create a parklet on lower Forest. Even then, the outdoor dining deck was extremely successful and drew people into the restaurant, he said.

Now, with the pandemic restrictions, Pirozzi said the promenade had been a lifesaver to him and other downtown businesses.

“The promenade is the place to be and be seen,” he said Wednesday. “It’s become the focal point of the city. Laguna did not have a center. When people wanted to meet, there was no place to go.”

Now, he said the promenade has become so idyllic it looks like a movie set.

“It looked every day like it was fake,” he said. “A musician playing Italian songs, children playing and people toasting wine glasses.”

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