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Commission recommends “Forest stroll” design for proposed permanent Promenade

By SARA HALL

The Planning Commission reviewed concepts for the Promenade on Forest this week and unanimously agreed to recommend the more informal, meandering style “Forest stroll” design to City Council.

After nearly three hours of discussion, commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (July 5) to recommend option B to the council for further study, design review, and other required project entitlements, along with a variety of commissioner comments to be considered for future design phases. The concept features a curvilinear core walkway with 10-foot business frontage and an expanded, varied interface zone.

Staff will present the concepts and the Planning Commission’s recommendation to City Council in September.

Both staff and commissioners emphasized that this is just a concept for a potential design. Nothing is final yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done, a few commissioners pointed out.

This has a long way to go on this project, said Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin, and it may never even come to fruition. They’re not “all in” yet, she added, they’re just exploring it and it’s very tentative at this point. The current concepts are only basic diagrams, she noted, essentially choosing between a curved path or a straight walkway with their added commentary.

“We’re not designing anything at this point,” Whitin said. “There’s a lot between here and there.”

Following up on a public comment, several commissioners opined on the idea of how they define Laguna Beach.

“One of the things that’s interesting about this community is everybody has a different opinion of what that is, so it’s a little hard to drill down on,” said Commission Chair Jorg Dubin.

The answer is different than what it might have been 100 years or even 20 years ago, he noted, and things do need to evolve. Laguna can keep its character and still be modern, he added.

“Laguna is eclectic and it’s going to always be that, but it can be eclectic in a in a present day and not always be looking in the rearview mirror from what it used to be,” Dubin said.

“I don’t really know what the definition of Laguna is, but it’s not a planned community,” added Commissioner Steve Goldman, it’s unique and natural. “It doesn’t feel planned, doesn’t feel contrived, doesn’t feel like we’re copying other places.”

Commissioner Steve Kellenberg also struggled with how to make the Promenade space more Laguna-like. It should be simplified, he said, projects sometimes get over designed.

“Calming it down, simplifying it a little bit, I think helps make it more Laguna-ish,” he said.

Commission recommends Forest stroll design Forest Stroll view

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Renderings by RRM/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The entry view from Coast Highway of the preferred Forest stroll concept for the Promenade design

Considering what defines Laguna Beach also helped Kellenberg think about the purpose of the Promenade, he said, concluding that it’s a local gathering space. Heisler Park tends to be crowded with county residents, and Main Beach is where the world meets, Kellenberg said, but the Promenade is where locals can hang out, noting that he visits the area with his family.

“It’s a great experience and I’m really glad to be able to have that experience,” he said. “So, thinking about it as a gathering place for Lagunatics, does that inform the design?”

Part of the Laguna Beach “brand” is as an art colony, he added, so it should look and feel like a gathering place for an art colony.

The local and artist aspects of the space are both cues to inform the deeper design process, Kellenberg said.

Discussing whether the space should be tailored for residents or tourists, Whitin agreed that the focus should be on the style of the residents.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Whitin said. “People come here because they want to experience the Laguna lifestyle. So I don’t see any reason why we should design for the visitors, we should design for ourselves.”

This should be a place for Laguna Beach locals to gather, she said.

“This is definitely the heart of the Downtown, it’s the heart of the business area. And it would be a space that all of us would go to, the people in Laguna would all go to,” she said. “(Plan B) has the right beat to it for the city, but it needs to be Laguna-ized.”

Council created the Promenade in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jan. 12, 2021, councilmembers voted unanimously to extend the outdoor dining and retail display temporary use permit program, including the Promenade on Forest, and directed staff to solicit proposals for analysis, design and entitlement for the conversion to a permanent plaza.

The city contracted with RRM Design for design services to make the Promenade on Forest a permanent installation. The program plan approved by council on June 7, 2022, which acted as a guide to develop the design concepts.

Commission recommends Forest stroll design both concepts

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The “Promenade walk” concept (top) and the “Forest stroll” concept

On Wednesday, the two conceptual designs presented both included reconstruction of the entire area from storefront to storefront. Improvements will include new pavement, landscaping, improved utility infrastructure, improved lighting, enhanced pavement materials, public art and other improvements to create a versatile community serving space. Each option includes distinct entry points (Coast Highway, Glenneyre Street and the Paseo) identified with specific design elements.

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Option A, the “Promenade walk” design, features a 30-foot-wide core walkway, which is the predominant feature, said Assistant Director of Public Works Tom Perez. In this design, the eight-foot frontage is intended to bring people closer to the businesses and encourage people to walk in that area. This concept also offers more landscape area, due in large part to the planters around the trees, he added.

Entry points are identified with a decorative, non-directional patterned pavement referred to as a “Laguna quilt.” The existing trees within the entry points will be surrounded with sedimentary planter walls with large natural boulders to provide vertical planting and seating. The trees will be located within large planters within the interface zone and frame the core walkway creating individual garden rooms. The garden rooms will have large umbrellas with tables and chairs. The areas with formal outdoor dining will have typical dining tables and chairs.

In Option B, named the “Forest stroll” design, the core walkway will be 16 feet wide. It highlights an increased frontage zone of 10 feet wide. The meandering core walkway really fills the space with the trees, Perez pointed out, so standing at one end and looking down the Promenade, a person would see a full coverage of trees. This option also has an opportunity for a commissioned art piece in the pavement. It also greatly increases the outdoor dining area in the expanded interface zone, which would range between six and 28 feet.

The curved design of the core walkway allows a better distribution of trees and brings planting and dining opportunities into the middle of the Promenade. The entry points in this concept were also proposed to be identified with the decorative “Laguna quilt” pavement. The existing trees within the entry points will be configured the same as option A. The core area will consist of decorative pavement such as brick or cobblestone that will identify the frontage, interface and core walkway areas.

The curved core walkway begins at the Glenneyre Street enhanced crosswalk and ends at the main stage near the Coast Highway entry. The end of the core walkway will be identified with a commissioned public art paving design. The Promenade will have trees randomly placed within both tree wells and sedimentary planter walls. The random distribution of trees will result in a large forest canopy throughout the Promenade. The curved core walkway creates expanded interface zones which allow for increased outdoor dining areas and a larger secondary performance area that does not encroach into the core walkway.

Perez noted that the linear core walkway of the first option provides the most flexibility for outdoor events such as community gatherings, farmer’s market, craft fairs, etc. This option also has more planting area because of the large size planters around the trees.

The curvilinear design of the second option allows for more random tree placement, creates additional pockets of informal space, maximizes outdoor dining, allows for a larger secondary stage area and will provide more tree canopy.

All five commissioners agreed that, out of the two options, they all preferred option B, the Forest stroll concept. They also weighed in on many of the design details.

Out of the two concepts, Dubin leaned toward option B, the Forest stroll design. They don’t want it to feel like a planned community, he said, a sentiment several other commissioners agreed with.

The second option with the meandering path also allows them to keep more of the existing trees, Goldman added.

He struggled with swallowing the idea in its entirety, but Kellenberg also leaned more toward option B out of the two plans.

“I think of the two it is a little bit more Laguna because it’s a little bit more informal,” Kellenberg said.

It also offers the opportunity for a sequence of experiences as the path curves in and out, rather than a single statement, he explained.

“The renderings, I think, do actually show that it could be a pretty interesting sequence and stroll through there and with little discoveries along the way,” Kellenberg said.

The main benefit of the first option is that it lends itself as an event space because of its linear design, noted Commission Chair Pro Tem Ken Sadler. The infrastructure required for a farmers’ market, which was proposed as an example event, likely wouldn’t be feasible in the space.

Dubin wasn’t a fan of the “Laguna quilt,” noting that it could be a trip hazard and create future maintenance issues. It could become problematic, he said. Dubin also commented that the patterned brick style of the quilt is dated.

Although Sadler commented that the quilt style was a nice tie-in to some of Laguna’s history when a similar pattern was featured in certain areas of the city.

Dubin also suggested eliminating the play area from the plans.

“I am absolutely opposed to any kind of playground or play area. I think that’s a completely unnecessary thing to consider since we have a nice playground right across the street on Main Beach,” he said.

Several commissioners agreed that the play area should be removed.

Dubin suggested raising the stage area slightly to help distinguish it from the rest of the space.

“From a musician’s standpoint having an actual raised platform of some sort is really a nice feature and I think it really sets the stage area apart from the rest of it,” he said.

Several commissioners also liked the idea of a raised seating area on a wooden platform or similar near the Coast Highway entrance.

Many of the commissioners also liked the 10-foot frontage area proposed in the second option, which allows more space for people to access the businesses.

“If you go down there now on a busy weekend those sidewalks are very crowded and it’s kind of hard to walk around and really see what’s going on there,” Dubin said.

The wider frontage walkways would be important for the businesses in the area, Sadler agreed. When it was previously open as a street, the sidewalks there could get very pinched and hard to maneuver when it’s crowded, he noted, so some of the existing trees that are closer to the buildings may have to be removed for better access.

Several commissioners urged staff to try and keep as many of the existing trees as possible (after studying them for health) and then adding more as feasible.

“There are too few trees for a forest,” Whitin said.

Whitin suggested dialing it up on the trees and vegetation, and dialing it back on the dining and different types of paving. The “forest floor” should feature simple, uniform paving.

“I’d like to see more trees in general but I’d like to see trees that are going to provide a sufficient canopy and shade for the majority of the area there,” including the middle of the walkway area, Sadler said.

The commissioners also asked a number of questions and/or discussed a number of other issues, including: Internal communication, public feedback, arborist review of the existing trees, if and how much outdoor dining space would be designated to specific restaurants, parking, underground infrastructure and Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about a “third alternative” keeping (or somehow slightly modifying) the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, that should have been presented.

The original direction was to create two concepts, one featuring a complete redesign and the other to preserve the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, Perez explained. Staff had RRM proceed and develop the second concept and staff started to see “some very serious issues with it,” he said. The assumption was that this concept would work and would be less costly. The most notable issues included drainage, aesthetics, narrow walkways and lack of infrastructure to support a permanent Promenade. For example, in order to keep the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, the platforms and handrails would still be required for the outdoor dining placed on the platforms, but at the first public outreach meeting there was a lot of commentary to get rid of the “corrals.” The decks also impact drainage, Perez added, and so that issue would continue since they would be constricted by keeping the curbs. Keeping it would also mean including a mid-block crossing that would need to be raised for ADA accessibility, he added.

RRM continued drafting a concept which maintained curbs and gutters but brought them in towards the middle of the street leaving room for vehicles in the event the promenade ever needed to be opened to traffic. This option addressed several of the concerns, however, the scope of work was similar to the concept with no curb and gutter and would not reduce costs or construction impacts.

Although many public speakers and a few commissioners thought the concept still should have been presented.

“I think the third alternative should be kept alive,” Kellenberg said. “I don’t think it was public works’ right to kill that alternative. I think that should have been a decision (at the council level).”

In his 40 years of experience, which includes a lot of Downtown revitalization planning, 90% of Downtown street closures end up getting re-opened, he commented, primarily because of the impact on businesses.

“Laguna is different, it has a tourist trade which probably overcomes that, but, on the other hand, I’m just a little insecure about closing down the street permanently,” Kellenberg said.

The idea of something that’s in between a street use and a permanent Promenade might be beneficial to consider, he noted. It could function as a Promenade on weekends or for the entirety of the summer, but, particularly if the businesses start to be negatively impacted, it could be designed to respond to allow some traffic with parallel parking (for example). They could use flush curbs, which are often done in Downtown-focused street areas, he said.

During public comment, seven residents spoke and all raised concerns about both concepts. The two options don’t offer a lot of differences to choose between, a few people agreed. Some also noted that there should be a third alternative looking into how to keep the curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

They were shocked to learn that the option with the curbs was thrown out and that it was decided all at the staff level, noted Ann Christoph. The public didn’t get to see what that concept could have looked like, she said.

Several speakers also urged the city to preserve as many of the existing trees as possible.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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