Dining decks built on Forest Avenue, allowing restaurants to remain open safely during the pandemic, may become a permanent addition.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Wooden decks for outdoor dining fill the former parking spots along lower Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna Beach. Cars are no longer allowed to drive on this part of the road, allowing people to stroll along the pavement. Some stores have set up carts with their wares for shoppers to peruse outside. Planters add greenery while strings of white lights criss-cross above the street. Art installations and holiday decor have been added throughout the year and musicians have also performed in this space—and may once again now that the county has moved back into the red tier of pandemic restrictions.
Originally planned as a temporary fix to help small, downtown restaurants remain open during the summer while grappling with pandemic-related capacity restrictions—and sometimes bans on indoor dining altogether—The Promenade on Forest has since been extended to January 2024 and city leaders are considering rebuilding it as a permanent addition.
“The interactive experience has drawn residents and visitors to the downtown area to shop and dine,” says Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. “There has been an overwhelming positive response to The Promenade on Forest based on the survey … and feedback received from the residents and visitors. Some survey respondents have indicated that the space has allowed them to safely shop or dine during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been vital to their mental health.”
Planting the Seed
The idea for a pedestrian-only plaza downtown had been mulled for many years before coming to fruition in 2020. Finally gaining some traction as part of the Downtown Specific Plan update process in 2015, led by MIG consulting firm, concepts were developed to create a vibrant plaza in the downtown area and presented at community meetings.
To try out the concept, Alessa by Chef Pirozzi’s owner volunteered to build a temporary patio in two parking spaces in front of the restaurant on Forest Avenue for a 60-day trial in 2016. A temporary parklet was also set up on Park Avenue with tables and chairs in fall 2017.
But it wasn’t until after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year and the initial lockdowns started to lift in late spring, that the Laguna Beach City Council approved closing lower Forest Avenue to vehicle traffic and constructing temporary dining decks to create The Promenade on Forest. This was part of the Economic Recovery and Business Development Plan recommended by the city’s working group, which recognized the need to support local businesses by establishing safe outdoor dining and retail spaces during the pandemic, Dupuis explains.
A Popular Plaza
“The Promenade has made our business and everyone’s business in downtown Laguna Beach a full-blown destination,” says Laurent Vrignaud, owner of Moulin eatery on Forest Avenue. “People come from all over Southern California to walk around, hang around, grab some food and do some retail shopping, and end up at the beach looking at the sunset.”
Vrignaud recalls talking about the idea for a pedestrian plaza for a long time with local leaders before it finally happened. “This conversation was always going on between people like myself, the mayor and City Council people,” he says. “They would come into the store and I’d say, ‘Hey, eventually, let’s make it like Europe. I have a French cafe—this makes perfect sense.”
The pandemic spurred action sooner rather than later. “The pandemic obviously helped, so thank you COVID for the Promenade,” Vrignaud says.
Marc Cohen, executive chef and managing partner of 230 Forest Avenue, says the pandemic closures and subsequent reopenings allowed the city to try out this pedestrian-only concept without the “what ifs” surrounding parking and traffic that had plagued the discussion going back almost 20 years.
“I give a lot of credit to [the] City Council who saw this as an opportunity—the idea of a safe place to congregate outside during COVID,” Cohen says. “The Promenade is a place to gather in the center of Laguna Beach in an open-air environment to enjoy shopping and dining without having to worry about traffic. It gives the town a center, a place to meet and congregate, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Vrignaud agrees, saying, overall, the response he’s heard from customers has been “incredible.”
“It has changed and enhanced the look and feel of what Laguna is all about,” Vrignaud says. “… You have common areas: You don’t have to be a customer at any given store. [If] you’re walking around town and you want to sit down and chit chat with someone, you just sit down. There’s chairs, there’s tables, there’s shade.”
The Future of Forest
According to Dupuis, the Laguna Beach City Council recently approved the extension of the current Promenade layout through Jan. 31, 2024. The City Council has also directed staff to proceed with soliciting proposals for project analysis, design and entitlements for the conversion to a permanent pedestrian plaza.
“A majority of local merchants and residents expressed their support for The Promenade on Forest,” Dupuis explains. “… In order to make it permanent, the city has to go through the entitlement process, which could take two to three years, therefore the extension is needed while staff is working on the process.”
Converting lower Forest Avenue to a permanent pedestrian plaza involves an iterative design process to refine the plan with input from the community, City Council and the Planning Commission. The groups will select and approve the final design while assessing environmental impacts and seeking a coastal development permit for the permanent version. Dupuis says the cost is directly related to the scope of the design improvements selected by the council. Construction would take approximately one year to complete.
“My goal is to contribute to this change and do what it takes to maintain this in front of our business,” Cohen says. “The Promenade only improves the city center.”
“[The Promenade] changes the whole look and feel of a culture-driven car environment where everybody just gets into the car, gets out of the car [and] gets back into the car,” Vrignaud adds. “The city of Laguna Beach has managed to elevate the game by saying, ‘Park your car and walk around.’ Laguna Beach is perfect for that—it’s a very small downtown that has a lot to offer, as long as people get out of their cars.”