Council pauses decision on permanent Promenade concept, forms ad hoc to study constraints, agrees to hold design competition

By SARA HALL

When presented with only two concept options for the permanent Promenade on Forest, City Council this week unanimously decided to hit the pause button.

Instead of picking one of the designs presented, Councilmembers voted 5-0 on Tuesday (Jan. 23) to form an ad hoc committee to study the scope and constraints of the project and then hold a design competition to allow more firms to submit ideas for a more creative, resident-focused pedestrian plaza.

Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi made a motion to affirm the council’s support of an idea of a pedestrian plaza, appoint an ad hoc committee of Mayor Sue Kempf and Councilmember Mark Orgill to work with staff and the consultant with the goal of identifying the project scope and constraints and set up a process for a design competition. Councilmembers also agreed to add that they are tasked to return to the full council within 90 days. After that work is done, there will be a robust public process, he added.

“This is the way to really get us to the visionary, world-class Promenade that we want,” Rounaghi said.

The concepts presented feel a bit “formulaic,” he commented, with strategically placed art pieces and other features. It should be a “piece of art” and a more cohesively designed concept.

“The Promenade is something that is exciting, so now it’s the question of ‘How do we not make this a cookie-cutter thing?’ We don’t want this to be something that you would find at a mall in one of the cities surrounding us. We want this to be really consistent with what Laguna is all about, which is our artistic identity,” Rounaghi said.

He also reiterated an idea from the public to call it simply “The Forest.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City Council formed an ad hoc committee this week to study the scope and constraints of a permanent Promenade on Forest

Councilmember Bob Whalen agreed with a number of public speakers who emphasized that more work needs to be done before choosing a design concept. There were also a lot of points made at the Planning Commission meeting that still need to be addressed, he said, and that needs to occur before they choose a design.

Just a few of the issues that need to be studied include: Analyzing the utilities and how that would impact design; an arborist report on the existing trees; looking into the state Alcoholic Beverage Control rules and regulations and how that might limit design, and consideration for the local retailers (like including movable bollards at the end of the street so deliveries can be made during certain hours).

He also agreed with others that the aim is to preserve as many of the existing trees as possible. Most councilmembers concurred that if there are damaged or diseased trees, those should be removed.

It’s also evolved to the point they need to decide whether or not it will be designed to include the curbs and gutters or not, he added. Whalen’s viewpoint is that they don’t have them and instead create a plan with bollards at either end that could allow vehicular access, if they wanted, on certain occasions.

All of these are the preliminary issues that drive the design, Whalen said.

“I don’t think we’re at a point where we’re choosing one or the other these designs,” he said.

“All of that background, nitty gritty work” needs to happen at the subcommittee level, which can then report back to the Planning Commission and then City Council, Whalen advised.

The smaller group can look into potential limitations that the Promenade would be required to operate within and lay out the framework that it needs to be designed within, he explained, because there are “real-world constraints.”

City Attorney Megan Garibaldi noted that the creation of the ad hoc committee would be brought back on the consent calendar to be confirmed.

Whalen suggested holding a design competition that would allow multiple firms, including the current consulting company, to submit concept proposals.

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“Let them do what they think (is) best after we’ve given them the constraints of what the physical constraints are, but (also) what we want to see in terms of tree preservation and other issues. So I’d be sending it back to the subcommittee with those directions and have them do a lot more, get a lot more of the nitty gritty done,” and then offer a stipend amount, similar to previous design competitions, to a few invited firms to design a concept within those constraints, Whalen said. “It is our Downtown – we want to do it right, we ought to have some choices to choose from.”

Overall, councilmembers were on board with the idea of a contest between top firms.

“I like this idea of a design competition. I’ve liked it since the beginning because I think it allows for us to really be creative and have cohesively designed products,” Rounaghi said.

In the current proposed concept, the consultant was trying to listen to a lot of competing feedback, he commented. A competition could allow for a “free-flowing artistic exchange of ideas” and locals could get involved with the teams, Rounaghi said.

Although not everyone on the dais or in the audience was as excited about the overall project.

During public comment, nearly two dozen people spoke and the vast majority didn’t like either concept presented or opposed the project altogether. Many speakers also urged the council to preserve more of the existing trees.

Councilmember George Weiss highlighted the numerous letters and speakers that opposed the Promenade. The city needs to make the design “reversible,” he said, and have a back-up plan in case it fails. The design also needs to be more consistent with what Forest Avenue is, Weiss added. He also criticized the public hearing process, calling it biased.

Weiss also raised a concern that the city doesn’t know what percent of people using the Promenade are residents versus tourists. If it’s meant for residents, they should have current data, he noted.

The city conducted a survey in 2022 and more than 2,000 people responded. The poll asked people the reason for their visit, how often they visited, who they go with, and how they arrive; but it did not report if the respondent was local or from out of town.

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.

In May 2021, the city contracted with RRM Design for services to make the Promenade on Forest a permanent installation. The program plan was approved by council on June 7, 2022, which acted as a guide to develop the design concepts.

The Planning Commission reviewed concepts for the Promenade on Forest on July 5, 2023, and, after nearly three hours of discussion, commissioners unanimously agreed to recommend the more informal, meandering style “Forest Stroll” design, which is what staff forwarded to council this week.

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Renderings by RRM/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

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

The “Forest Stroll” concept features a 16-foot-wide curvilinear core walkway with a 10-foot business frontage and an expanded, varied interface zone. The other option, the “Promenade Walk” design, features a linear 30-foot-wide core walkway and an eight-foot frontage. Forest Stroll was designed to maintain nine of the existing trees and add 14 new trees, while the Promenade Walk concept kept six and added 17 new trees.

At the July PC meeting, all five commissioners liked the overall idea of the “Forest Stroll” design, but not necessarily the plan in its entirety or the details of the proposed concept. They favored the Forest Stroll option primarily because of the meandering path, it preserves more of the existing trees, it lends itself as an event space, and that it doesn’t feel like a “planned community.”

Commissioners also wanted it to better represent the community and opined at length on the idea of how they define Laguna Beach, but struggled with how to make the Promenade space more Laguna-like.

At the time, several commissioners emphasized that there was still a lot of work to be done. They shared a number of comments, concerns and questions, although it appears none of it was incorporated into the concepts presented to the council this week.

Suggestions were made in July regarding an arborist review of the existing trees, “Laguna quilt” patterned brick, eliminating the play area, raising the seating and stage area, designated outdoor dining space, parking, underground infrastructure and Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations.

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

All of the topics were echoed this week at the council meeting with similar comments and concerns.

The original direction was to create two concepts, one featuring a complete redesign and the other to preserve the curbs, gutters and sidewalks. RRM started to develop the second concept and staff started to see “some very serious issues with it,” as noted at the July meeting. The initial assumption was that this concept would work with a simpler design and would be less costly, however staff reported that, after working on the idea, there would not be a significant cost savings and that functionality of a permanent promenade would be limited.

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 and so that issue would continue since they would be constricted by keeping the curbs. Keeping the curbs would also mean including a mid-block crossing that would need to be raised for ADA accessibility.

Referencing a previous discussion about Ocean Avenue, Orgill noted that a proposed design that eliminated the curb and gutter was modeled after a European concept. Without insinuating that he’s a proponent of opening the Promenade up to cars, he added that either way they can still achieve the “feel of a street.”

Orgill also suggested looking into possible stickered parking in the nearby lot. They need to listen to retailers, Orgill said, and if part of that is the need to provide parking, they have to consider a variety of options.

A majority of the council did not support the idea of a hybrid approach that would mix vehicles and pedestrians.

“The decision to create the Promenade is probably one of the most visionary things that this community has done in a long time,” Rounaghi said.

It created a space for residents to gather and interact with each other, he added.

“This idea that we would think that it would be more charming to have a bunch of cars parked there and (that) cars driving through would bring more charm is just, to me, I mean that’s unimaginable,” Rounaghi said.

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


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