Huntington Beach City Council members on Tuesday extended the closure of certain blocks downtown for pedestrian use and restaurants’ outdoor dining operations through the end of the year – a coronavirus pandemic policy that’s overhauled the urban aesthetic of cities across Orange County and the U.S.
Even with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders this week that allow restaurants to somewhat resume indoor dining service, Huntington Beach officials cited the success of downtown’s outdoor overhaul in attracting business and moved forward with keeping the status quo.
But with that extension, council members also indicated another conversation is looming for their city and many others in the near future: a debate on whether to make it all permanent.
City officials and experts from around Orange County previously told Voice of OC that any permanent changes would require a number of regulatory decisions and reforms around urban planning and transportation policies that deal with traffic circulation.
Yet council members like Jill Hardy at Tuesday’s City Council meeting said members of the public have continued to laud the city’s outdoor dining expansion and overhauled look of downtown, with some saying, per her recollection: “‘I hope this stays forever; it should be this way forever.’”
“And I’m probably freaking some people out right now by mentioning that, but it illustrates how much people are enjoying it now,” Hardy said.
Councilman Patrick Brenden said the idea calls for more public engagement and surveys. In one email newsletter he sent out to constituents, he recalled during the meeting, nine out of 11 respondents to an attached questionnaire indicated a wish to see the entire closure of blocks downtown from traffic, for pedestrian use and outdoor dining, to be permanent.
But it’s unclear whether there will be enough support among members of the public and policymakers to make that happen. After all, not even Tuesday’s extension of the block closures to the end of the year passed in a unanimous council vote.
Councilman Erik Peterson was the lone dissenter on the six-member panel, arguing the closures and outdoor dining expansions need a block-by-block approach and referring to the fact that not all businesses in the third block of Main Street wanted the car traffic closure to continue.
“I’m not quite as comfy as you guys telling these people we’re going to do this,” he said, wondering whether the city’s Business Improvement District – representing the merchants downtown – could come to some sort of internal vote before council members themselves voted.
One idea put forward by staff Tuesday night was to keep certain portions of that block of Main Street closed while reopening the main vehicle lanes for traffic.
A majority of council members didn’t take that idea up, but in their vote included directions to the city manager to keep them apprised of any changes to business in downtown that might warrant officials to revisit or rethink the complete closures.
Yet everyone was in agreement that the street closures have so far brought “overwhelming support” and unprecedented success to commerce in the area, and have reinvigorated city officials’ ideas of downtown Huntington Beach’s potential.
Like many cities that have turned once car-dominated streets into de facto promenades, officials in Huntington Beach said businesses have seen an increase in sales with the outdoor expansions.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.