Summer pilot program given green light
By Sam Catanzaro
Santa Monica lawmakers last week approved a pilot program to close a stretch of Main Street to traffic on select weekends throughout the summer.
On Tuesday, June 8, Santa Monica City Council extended a handful pandemic-era changes related to outdoor business operations ahead of the June 15 reopening of California’s economy.
Among the actions taken include the direction to City staff to move forward with a pilot program to open a 1½ block-long portion of Main Street to pedestrians with expanded outdoor business operations during three to four weekends, once per month on Saturdays and Sundays. The first weekend closure is anticipated in mid-July or August. The hours have yet to be determined for the first weekend. Around a dozen parking spaces will be lost to the program, according to the City.
The program, which was pushed for by the Main Street Business Improvement Association and Ocean Park Association, can be altered or halted altogether if it does not work out.
“I do understand that people are concerned about it but I also believe that it is important to try this. I think that Main Street until three weeks ago was a barren desert. Or a month ago. Stores were empty. You couldn’t go in. I think this will activate it,” said Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich during the meeting. “If we don’t as a council start being more adventurous and more enterprising and finding new approaches without just immediately having a knee-jerk reaction that ‘that’s different, I am not going to try it’, we are never going to go anywhere in terms of our economic recovery or in finding different sources of economic recovery other than tourism. I do understand that people are afraid that it will muck up the neighborhood, but I think we ought to try it–it’s a block and a half–and see how it goes and if it doesn’t go well we can stop.”
The program, which will apply to roughly 1,000 feet between Hill Street and Kinney Avenue, was passed 4-1, with Councilmember Phil Brock casting the only dissenting vote. Echoing the concerns of many nearby residents, Brock made a push to limit the number of total days included in the pilot.
“I am not against closing Main Street. We close Main Street on a Sunday each year for Summer Solstice. We close it again for one day in September for two years for COAST. And we close it every year for part of a day for the Fourth of July parade,” Brock said. “People seem to recognize that this is not the same as Summer Solstice or COAST where we did close the street for one day. This is an entire weekend closure.”
“I would support four Sunday closures, or one or two weekends,” Brock added.
The public comment section of the meeting saw a mix of both supporters and opponents of the pilot program. Among those in support was Carl Hansen, a Santa Monica resident, speaking at the meeting as co-chair of Santa Monica Forward
“Santa Monica Forward strongly supports the extension of the outdoor dining program and the proposed Main Street pilot. We think this is the right vision for our city. We all love communities where you can walk in and enjoy the outdoors and get out of our cars, that’s what the ideal city experience is like,” Hansen said. “Programs like this increase pedestrian activity, decrease traffic and increase spending at local businesses, which is exactly what we should be pursuing now as we come out of the pandemic.”
Opponents of the plan include many residents who live in neighborhoods adjacent to Main Street. Bea Nemlaha, a 40-year resident of Santa Monica, spoke against the plan over concerns that the area was not designed for such a program.
“I do not oppose outdoor or al fresco dining. What I oppose is closing any part of Main Street, whether a pilot or permanently, because it goes through a residential neighborhood. And no matter how many traffic diversion proposals we make and are presented with, they are not going to work. If you live in this neighborhood, you know that on a busy weekend–that means any sunny weekend, any beach weekend–people are driving all around the neighborhood, parking on our streets, endangering the kids who are playing. If Main Street were like State Street in Santa Barbara running through a more commercial part of the city, I would have a different opinion. But Main Street goes through a residential neighborhood that was never appropriately set up for this kind of opportunity,” Nemlaha said.
Main Street is amajor north-south thoroughfares, connecting Santa Monica and Venice, and as part of the pilot, the City will be looking at any traffic disruptions closures may lead to.
“Main Street is obviously not a backwater street in any way. It’s a street that serves major transit corridors, major vehicle flow, it is a very important street for the City and it’s a thoroughfare. So we obviously support the active use of outdoor spaces and want to see the maximum community utility from this space, but I think we would really have to look carefully at the outcomes of this pilot before assuming anything about next steps,” said Francie Stefan, Santa Monica’s Acting Chief Mobility Officer/Assistant Director of Planning & Community Development.
In addition to approving the Main Street street closures, Council took other measures related to outdoor business operations. These include extending current temporary uses of private outdoor space for commercial activity and authorizing fee waivers at least through December 31, 2021 for outdoor dining license fees along with waivers and fee reductions for outdoor fitness in public spaces.
Council also authorized the City Manager to negotiate and execute a Memorandum of Understanding granting Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. authority and responsibility for managing community-serving events and programming in the downtown area.