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Council moves forward with Promenade on Forest program plan

By SARA HALL

City Council unanimously approved the Promenade on Forest Program Plan this week, which will act as a guide to develop permanent design concepts for future consideration.

Council members voted 5-0 on Tuesday (June 7) to move forward with the preliminary plan, which outlines the process for designing the space, determining programming and uses, and gathering public input.

Most of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around designing the area as a uniquely Laguna gathering space, the importance of getting feedback from the community, and the timing of the first public workshop (which a majority of council ultimately agreed should be after Labor Day).

This is a preliminary plan and there will be plenty of opportunities for input during the public meetings, said Mayor Sue Kempf. There has been a lot of support and interest in the Promenade, and most of it is favorable, she noted, so this is the right direction to be heading.

It shouldn’t be “vanilla” or bland, she said, echoing some public comments. It needs to be unique as Laguna Beach. 

“I want to see us build a Promenade that’s beautiful and we can be proud of,” Kempf said. “We have a beautiful town and we should have nice things here.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have embraced the Promenade with strong support, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen agreed. 

“I think it’s pretty clear we’re on the path for a permanent Promenade and we ought to look at the options,” he said. 

These are good next steps, he added.

They need to ensure robust input from community, Whalen said, that will help the city develop the best plan possible for the Promenade. A variety of options and ideas might come out of the process, he added. 

The document will be heavily referenced in the upcoming outreach, noted Capital Program Manager Tom Perez. 

“The program plan is not intended to be a design document,” Perez emphasized, it “will help us to further the design through the concept phase.”

Tuesday’s action is limited to preliminary design direction, he emphasized. It’s not authorization to proceed with the project, he said, it’s just providing direction.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity where we no longer have to just maintain 20 feet of nothing down the middle of the street,” Perez said. “We’re looking at how do we really take this area and maximize the potential, and whether that shifts things around – moves things, I’ll be looking over at RRM (Design Firm) to really bring that to life in their concept plan.”

Council moves forward promenade entrance

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is working to make the Forest Avenue Promenade permanent

On May 18, 2021, council approved a $376,990 contract to RRM Design Firm for preliminary engineering and entitlements to study possibly making the Forest Avenue Promenade permanent. At the time, the item passed unanimously and there was general support for the idea, but not without a number of concerns raised by several council members and public speakers. 

The proposed scope of work required RRM to prepare a programming plan, which will develop a high-level space plan, including parameters such as the amount of dining space, space dedicated to restaurants, retail, gathering areas, and for performances. 

RRM was also tasked with preparing two concept plan alternatives for a permanent pedestrian Promenade. The first will include a minimal design alternative that would convert the existing roadway on lower Forest Avenue with minimal improvements. The second will include comprehensive hardscape and landscape replacements and improvements, including removal of curb and gutters, permanent lighting, shade and seating fixtures, and new pavement.

Staff confirmed at the time that the scope of work for RRM would also include three community meetings and various stakeholder interviews.

Outreach has now occurred with business owners along Forest Avenue, public safety personnel, maintenance staff, and public officials to identify key program elements to be incorporated into the program plan, Perez explained. Feedback from the stakeholders included both positive and negative comments. 

They tried to grab everybody’s comments and incorporate them into the document, said Brian Hannegan, project manager for RRM.

“It really is a way to help us think about things ahead and we definitely want to hear from the public, that’s our next really big step is to get their input about it,” he said. 

Perez shared a word cloud featuring the comments from stakeholders, some of the most prominent words in the graphic were: Lighting, trash cans, decks, art, planters, trees, seating, storage, and maintenance.

People want it to be a top-notch gathering space for family and friends, or a nice spot to meet with a client, Perez noted. The focus on the Promenade as a gathering space was an important and repeated comment, he emphasized throughout Tuesday’s presentation. The design should also create an inviting destination for both residents and visitors and seating should be incorporated throughout. 

“Looking at the site character, it was the overarching theme, we heard people want the Promenade to retain the Laguna Beach charm and that eclectic feel using high-end finishes,” he said. 

Suggestions included enhanced pavement materials and art integrated into the design.

Council moves forward promenade outdoor dining

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Initial stakeholder feedback emphasized that the Promenade shouldn’t feel like an outdoor food court

Feedback also emphasized that it shouldn’t feel like an outdoor food court. The appearance of the dining decks should look attractive, Perez said. 

Right now, it looks like a food court with corrals, commented Councilmember George Weiss. It needs to be balanced so the dining areas are available, but managed so they aren’t overwhelming the overall design, he explained.

“Everybody likes outdoor dining, I do too, but I want it balanced with the other uses,” Weiss said. 

Comments gathered from the stakeholder feedback also included support for renting the space reserved for restaurants at a fair market rate, Perez noted, and should be limited to 500 square feet per restaurant.

Several respondents also wanted to see the roadway completely removed, accessibility to restrooms, improved lighting, and placement of trees. There were mixed feelings about public performances on the Promenade, but most agreed that they should occur at different areas rather than one fixed location.

The development of the concept plans will include public outreach with the community to collaborate on thoughts and inspiration that will help guide the design and vision forward, staff noted.

The next step will be the first community meeting, which staff suggested to be held in late July or early August. There was some discussion about the timing, as many residents are away on vacation during the summer. Ultimately, most council members agreed to direct staff to host the first meeting after Labor Day.

Kempf suggested starting the outreach meetings in September, since so many residents travel during the summer. 

“It’s an imperfect world we’re living in, not everybody is going to be available,” Kempf said. “Let’s just try to make our best effort to get it in when we’re not in the holidays and after school starts.”

There will criticisms about any date they select, noted Councilmember Peter Blake. In September, people will complain about interfering with the school calendar. In November, there will be conflicts with the holiday season, he said.

“I don’t want to wait,” Blake said. “Let’s get this thing started.”

The first community meeting could happen in August or September, Hannegan said, but the further into fall they go they have to “hopscotch around holidays.”

Although, even if the second meeting is after the holidays it would still work out, Hannegan confirmed. That would give them time to work on the concepts and input ideas from the first community meeting without feeling rushed, he said.

“We really want to hear from them,” Hannegan said. “We want to hear about what they think about the different options and really tune in into it, that’s what’s going to make this successful.”

Council moves forward promenade and people

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council members noted that many people have embraced the Promenade since the pandemic

There was also some concern during public comment about dismissing community input and not considering residents as stakeholders. It’s important that everyone is represented, noted Jacob Cherub. More input means a better project, he said. 

But Blake cautioned staff on what might be a “tsunami” of unrealistic comments and urged the experts to do what they do best by making the Promenade unique and well planned.

“Don’t let anybody get in the way of doing something really special,” he said. 

The project is at a very early stage of the process, but a lot of hard work has already been put into this, noted resident and Planning Commission Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Public input is an important part of the process, but a professional design firm can create an environment that understands Laguna and maintains the charm, while doing something spectacular, Dubin said. 

“I believe, absolutely, in public input on this project, but there are a lot of times when design by committee can tend to water things down a little bit too much,” Dubin cautioned. 

The project needs to really distinctive for the community and maintain the charm and character of Lower Forest, he noted.

“I think we need to do something that’s extremely special, that is not a ‘beige’ project that looks like it could be in any pre-planned town,” Dubin said. “I think it’s important that we have something that really blows people away when they come and enjoy that.” 

It requires a lot of thought and creativity, he noted, and Laguna is a creative community with a lot of knowledgeable residents that think outside the box. The Promenade deserves the attention to detail that will make it an interesting place for both residents and visitors, he added. 

“We owe it to ourselves and the community to really drill down on this,” Dubin said. “If it goes forward, it’s going to be a permanent part of our identity.”

Resident Greg O’Loughlin echoed Dubin’s concern about making it bland. Other cities have similar promenades, he noted, so Laguna Beach’s should be special. He also suggested incorporating “Forest” into the name and keeping the trees prominent. As a name, Promenade is generic, he noted. 

Kempf agreed with the public comments about possibly incorporating Forest into the name. They just called it “Promenade” to quickly title it when it was first introduced, she recalled, but it could be better. 

“I think it needs a different name,” she said, adding that the name could be worked out during the outreach process. 

A few public speakers also encouraged project officials to preserve the trees, which are a part of the character of the area. 

Later in the year, city staff will meet with California Coastal Commission staff for direction, continue working on the concept plan, and host a second community meeting (the meeting could be early 2023). In early to mid-2023, the concept design will be finalized, a third community meeting will be held, and the project will be presented to the Planning Commission and then City Council. By late 2023, the city will work on CEQA compliance, submit for a Coastal Development Permit, seek design review approval, and present the final preliminary plan to council.

Information and opportunities for feedback will also be available online, staff confirmed. 

 

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