By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Photo: Visitors find a use for the Strand, otherwise largely devoid of business on a Sunday afternoon (June 16)
Surf City planners and council members got a step closer to realizing their dream for a supersized downtown tourist mecca last Wednesday (June 15) when the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved the revised Downtown Specific Plan (DTSP) with mostly minor modifications.
The city’s new plan would increase allowable commercial densities, according to the commission—up to 400,000 square feet in the core Pier/Main Street area—while decreasing the ratio of required downtown parking spaces in the same area, based on a previous study showing that many visitors go to multiple venues during their stay.
The city’s previous parking downtown master plan has already maxed out at 715,000 square feet of development in a current 42 acre area, so that plan will be replaced with the new lower ratio parking plan in order to allow additional development in an enlarged core area.
The DTSP is the subject of a lawsuit by a local residents group, Huntington Beach Neighbors, which claims that the city violated the Coastal Act by inadequately studying its potential effects on the environment.
Neighbors is concerned with quality of life issues for downtown residents that would be raised by increased commercial densities and tourist traffic called for in the revised plan—adding to the current problems with drunken behavior from visitors to the area’s many alcohol serving establishments.
But the commission’s legal jurisdiction focuses only on beach access for residents and visitors, so it was concerned only with whether the city’s new plan hindered access to the beach area, not if it would make life more miserable for residents tired of excessive traffic and rowdiness outside their homes.
Still, there was some good news for those residents because the commission, skeptical of the assurances of sufficient parking, will require the city to reassess its parking plan after the first 150,000 square feet of development are completed. If parking is deemed inadequate at that time, the city would be required to take other measures to ensure that visitors have adequate access to downtown commercial services and the beach.
The commission would prefer to solve parking problems through any combination of alternative traffic control plans that the city has suggested but has not committed to using rather than by wasting more coastal land for parking lots.
Those alternatives include additional bike lanes and bikeways, additional bike parking, street realignments for more efficient traffic flow, improved access to transit stops, a trolley system and remote parking with shuttle access.
Last summer, the city operated a bike valet program and a shuttle service that traveled between the City Hall parking lot at Yorktown and Main and downtown. The shuttle service is operating again this summer through Labor Day on weekends, as well as every Tuesday for the weekly Surf City Nights street fair.
Weekend and Labor Day operating hours are 10:00 am to 10:00 pm and on Tuesdays the operating hours are from 5:30 pm to 10:00 pm. Parking at City Hall is free and so is the shuttle, which also stops at Main and Orange streets and at Orange and 5th at the Strand. The shuttle runs every 30 minutes.
The only other significant problem with the DTSP that needs to be resolved from the Coastal Commission’s point of view is the city’s current 10 pm to 5 am beach curfew.
Tidelands, submerged lands, and public trust lands cannot be subject to curfews, which means that the city cannot legally stop access to the portion of the pier that extends over the tide nor can it stop people from walking or fishing within 20 feet inward of the tide’s edge. Even beach closure after that point requires a permit that must ensure public access to the tidelands.
City officials said they are concerned that ending the curfew would present public safety problems and make it harder to keep the city’s beaches clean. But commission staff said that the problem is solvable—as it proved to be in Laguna Beach—and an expected arrangement is in the works with the city that would presumably ensure a balance between required coastal access and public safety.