By Tim Tunks
This Saturday from 4 a.m. through midnight Sunday, Main Street will close to all vehicular traffic from Hill Street, past Ashland and down the short block to Kinney — opening all the pavement for safe outdoor socially distanced dining surrounded by a family-friendly public piazza. You can read more about it on the city webpage (santamonica.gov/main-street-al-fresco), but stick with this story to get an idea of how we got here.
In March 2020, Santa Monica city government became acutely aware of the pandemic’s potential to damage Main Street business and social activities because of State-ordered closures for inside dining. We know the district draws much of its energy from the lively restaurant and bar life. “What could we do to make up for lost inside eating and drinking?” the City Council asked.
“Move it outside”, said the Main Street Business Improvement Association and the Ocean Park Association as they lobbied for the “Al Fresco” Parklet plan we’ve had during this past year with much of the curbside parking lane converted to small corralled parklet seating areas. Because a few experimental parklets had been successful over the last couple of years on Main Street and elsewhere in the city, “Al Fresco” was an easy sell.
After a year’s experience with “Al Fresco”, some lessons have been learned. Reduced capacity because of the required distances between tables and their individual pods of patrons meant fewer customers spread out in the narrow Parklets. Lack of capacity rendered some businesses no longer profitable. Staff layoffs and some business closures darkened the future.
Seemingly unrelated to my years’ worth of suggestions in The Argonaut’s pages, an “Open Street” pilot project was coaxed through the City Council’s approval process last month clearing a previously unsurmountable political obstacle. Last April, the business district and the Ocean Park Association leaders brought the concept to the capable hands of the city’s Mobility Division. That is where this chapter of the story starts with an interview graciously granted by Santa Monica City public information officer Constance Farrell and Jacqui Swartz, spokesperson for the Mobility Division’s experimental Pilot Program.
By removing the traffic and bike lanes that took up much of the potential Piazza space, increased seating capacity will be distributed with plenty of space for contagion mitigating social distancing. Nearby traffic that now annoys seated Parklet diners and celebrants on Main Street is banished during the four planned “Open Street” weekends.
Wishing to keep the scale of this initial “Open Street” experiment small by limiting public promotion to local families and residents, they hope to keep things manageable while they collect valuable data. Limiting the scope helped reduce objections from the Main Street merchants who felt the loss of traffic and street parking would reduce their business, while offering some reassurance to nearby residents that negative traffic and parking impacts wouldn’t be too bad. The left turn restrictions and available parking lots are noted in the plan’s diagram. This should facilitate navigation over to Main this weekend while saving the neighbors from traffic grief generated by wandering drivers seeking their spot to park.
Touching base with the city fire and police departments, and many consultations with all the Main Street stakeholders guided the decision of exactly which blocks would be involved. (I would have preferred including the block from Ocean Park Boulevard to Hill Street in order to include the Sunday market activity and the courtyard space for more public entertainment.)
Farrell and Swartz enumerated many other concerns and associated mitigations. Because there will be no bike or scooter riding in the “Open Street” zone, volunteers and city staff will be be on hand to enforce that prohibition. Indeed the Mini-Mobility scooter and bike rental companies are prepared to ‘geo-fence’ the area to make sure their units are deactivated if need be.
Offering a safe family-oriented experience is a primary goal, so in addition to various entertainments spread about the area, strict mask wearing for all but small children and those with medical excuses will be enforced. “The full force of the city is in place to make ‘Open Streets’ safe and enjoyable,” Farrell pledged.
Available brochures and postings on the website (santamonica.gov/main-street-al-fresco) and throughout Santa Monica offer more information for things like alternate transportation and stern warnings that if you feel any sickness symptoms you should skip this weekend and come when you’re completely healthy to one of the other three monthly “Open Street” weekends scheduled for August 21 and 22, September 18 and 19, and October 16 and 17.
With this new COVID-19 Delta variant threatening us and forcing LA County backwards into previous mask and distance mitigation protocols, this experiment takes on a new urgency — one not unlike the initial pandemic emergency that motivated our original Al Fresco Parklet Plan15 months ago.
We can hope the data gained from this pilot will lead to a safer and more prosperous future for Santa Monica’s Main Street. And please let me add my own personal wish that building successful “Open Street” models will help us find a future where automotive tyranny can be softened as we, the people, reclaim paved urban real estate.