Is ‘Al Fresco’ the right emergency experiment for Santa Monica?

By Tim Tunks

A rendering of Main Street at Pier Avenue looking southbound from Al Fresco’s working plan

Former sailboat racer, university professor, designer and inventor Tim Tunks is happily retired, living in his Ocean Park home since 1976.

Two weeks ago on a Friday Zoom meeting, Santa Monica city Senior Transportation Planner Scott Johnson presented PowerPoint slides describing what I thought was a proposal for rescuing Main Street — an outdoor dining and shopping plan initiated by the Ocean Park Neighborhood Association and Main Street Business Improvement Initiative in partnership with the city of Santa Monica called “Al Fresco.”

According to a press release from city government, “the reimagined Main Street from Pico Boulevard to Pier Avenue temporarily leverages space previously dedicated to street parking and the center turn lane to expand the space businesses and customers can safely use,” and features space in “the public-right-of-way” for outdoor shopping and retail, “parklets” along Main Street between Pico Boulevard and Hollister Avenue, and sidewalk extensions between Hollister and Pier Avenue and sections of Hill Street, Kinney Street and Pier.

Three months of boarded-up businesses has generated severe strain on the local economy and reopening requires something different from what we had before the novel coronavirus assaulted our lives. Many agree that something must be done — but is the Al Fresco plan of adding parklets for small dining areas in the curbside-parking lane the right “something” to save Main Street?

Johnson presented a pretty picture to sell the plan. However this picture does not leave much room for the people, cars, buses, and six-foot spaces and barriers that would all be required for the successful return of Main Street to customers. In Johnson’s picture, empty traffic lanes and wide sparsely occupied bikeways produce the sense of open space where social distancing could be possible. But when you add what’s missing, you’ll see a roadway frequently blocked by cars waiting for a break in pedestrian and bike-lane traffic so they can turn into Main Street driveways and parking lots.

You’ll see bike lanes filled with scooters and skaters mixed in with the bikes, making passing a dangerous task in the narrow lane between passing buses and the sharp corners of cement Jersey K-rails proposed as the barrier material for the parklets in Al Fresco’s working plan. You’d wonder how customers could line up with 6-foot spacing while strolling pedestrians pass nearby.

I said to myself, “This is a terrible proposal!” I thought about droplets collecting in sitting diners’ dinners as passing cyclists exhale from their exercise. But, as it turns out, this wasn’t even a proposal for a plan, it was rendering of what they had already been put into action. A city-hired contractor has already been engaged and began work on the project Monday (June 22). Work will continue to take place through June 26, with temporary closures at night on Main Street between Bay Street and Marine Street from June 29 to July 10, according to the city’s release.

“Given the time sensitive nature of economic recovery and need to provide safe physical distancing, this project is proceeding quickly and it will not be coming up for a vote of the City Council,” wrote Public Information Officer Miranda Iglesias in an email to The Argonaut, adding that an agenda item was added to the council’s June 23 meeting.

But a sailor can look at a painting of a sailboat and know if the painter knew about sailboats. I’ve spent over fifty years looking at plans for public spaces and I can tell if the designer has properly considered how people will fit and function within that space. In consideration of COVID-19 social distancing issues, the Al Fresco plan to rescue Main Street from the pandemic is like a sailboat drawn by a Tibetan recluse.

I was a lighting design consultant for the first nightclubs Disney built in Florida and I remember when I saw the plans and said, “There aren’t enough bathrooms. Drinking makes people pee and you want to keep them inside buying drinks…” There were several brilliant people on that design team, but their usual attractions made money moving people through the attraction. A nightclub makes money keeping people in and an attraction makes money moving people through.

Their projects always provided plenty of bathroom buildings outside, so that’s where people go “to go” in Disney’s world. Like the traffic engineers who designed Main Street’s Al Fresco pavement plan, these Disney Imagineers weren’t considering what the people in their nightclub should be doing, which in the case of Main Street should be social distancing.

“How will people and vehicles navigate this space?” I thought when I saw the plan. “Where will people sit or stand to avoid the virus?”

I have studied the published COVID social distancing and preventive barrier specifications as a matter of interest, so I know designing a contagion safe layout is like a difficult tabletop puzzle, where the pieces are already too large to all fit easily together. When the tabletop gets smaller, the puzzle becomes impossible to solve. Main Street is 60 feet wide, and this plan slices a 38-foot wide channel right down the center, subtracting space while adding congestion and vapors.

The project looked like the design team had never tried to put all the required pieces into the two new 11-foot wide parklet strips and 12-foot wide sidewalks their plan provides. None of the plan’s 18 pages illustrate actual layouts or show the distances un-masked diners will require for safety. This plan requires each of the individual businesses to draw their own diagrams showing how they’ll achieve social distancing. I wonder how their efforts will be shepherded to successful outcomes.

Our national religion — worshiping wheeled personal transportation in all its forms — is so powerful that Al Fresco’s team couldn’t embrace the heresy of blocking all traffic from Main Street to provide the space people need for Main Street’s revival. But even as an agnostic to that religion, I can see that dedicating all Main Street’s pavement for the puzzle’s table top is the only path toward success for a lively outdoor social/business life while maintaining the prescriptions required to combat the pandemic.

So now the task at hand is to fit the functional requirements into the space left over. Failure to make Main Street “corona-safe” (that sounds like where you keep beer away from your brother-in-law) — will mean safe people won’t come. What are the chances of rescue without safe people participating in the economic revival of Main Street?

If the social distancing part of the puzzle is neglected then this Main Street lifeboat will sink, along with the energy and resources it took to build it. If safe distancing and six-foot distances are properly accommodated, the new configuration might not have the customer capacity it needs for profitable operation. If that happens, we will have wasted a valuable opportunity.

As a special effects designer for Las Vegas stages in the ’70s, I know the art of producing spatial and visual miracles and how hard they are to produce without showing the strings and levers. My clients would tell me what they wanted to see on stage and frequently produce a long checklist of criteria. My job was to analyze the essential function, then sort through the criteria to see what could be kept, what had to be altered, and then what must be discarded. Understanding how the stagehands and costume change crews maneuver in the dark to produce the stage magic is a difficult puzzle piece to understand when you haven’t had to make it happen a few times before. There are similar granular concerns not addressed by this plan.

I’ve lived in Ocean Park for almost half a century, making Main Street an important feature in my life. But I think it will take a miracle for this plan to work.

So I sit here saying, “If I’d only been around at the beginning of this urgent project….” I would have brought out all the pieces to see what could fit onto their orthodox table version, the one with a transportation gulf down the middle. After comparing that with what we could fit using all the pavement, we might muster the courage to go against the national personal automobile religion and eliminate the roadway and bike paths. Solving remote parking and shuttle service issues would pave the way toward a promising result.

An old image of the original 1965 design for the Third Street Promenade comes to mind — with reflecting pools, planters, benches and plenty of wide walkways for pedestrians to spread out. If my team was challenged to produce a Main Street rescue plan now, this is the open stage I’d choose.

Let’s all hope the Al Fresco project team puzzles out some magic stagecraft I don’t know about to make this emergency experiment pay off.

Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest column for community members to voice their opinions on local matters and does not represent an editorial position by The Argonaut. Have a unique point of view? Email