Thursday, April 10, 2008
During his State of the City address in March, Pacific Grove Mayor Dan Cort proudly ticked off the City’s recent accomplishments. P.G. had balanced its budget, planted thousands of trees, joined the county tourist bureau, signed international environmental accords, laid the groundwork for a Styrofoam ban and green building ordinance, planned a farmers market and brought back the Lighthouse theater, he said.
The audience listened politely.
Then Cort floated an idea that came out of the city’s Economic Advisory Committee. Pacific Grove could close several blocks of Lighthouse Avenue to cars, he said, creating the first “pedestrianized” downtown on the Peninsula.
Murmurs grew until the room was buzzing like a poked beehive. The noise drowned out the mayor’s subsequent comments on water storage and solar roofs.
“You’d think somebody had dropped a bomb!” Cort recalls several weeks later, sitting at The Works coffeehouse on Lighthouse, his electric bicycle parked outside.
Pedestrianization has worked in dozens of U.S. cities, Cort says. He imagines it could likewise revitalize P.G., which is struggling through an economic slump, by drawing tourists, college students, entertainers, musicians and traveling vendors. “It’s not about restricting cars,” he says. “It’s about allowing people movement.”
One conceptual draft would block off four blocks of Lighthouse, from Fountain Avenue to 17th Street – a space smaller than some big-box parking lots, Cort notes. The city is at its liveliest when people are milling around, he adds, citing car shows, art walks and the Good Old Days celebration. “The DNA of Pacific Grove is pedestrian.”
The Works owner and Economic Advisory Committee member Robert Marcum likes the idea, though he says details like parking and deliveries would have to be worked out. “It goes along with our thoughts on trying to make Pacific Grove sustainable and a green destination for people,” he says.
But City Councilman Alan Cohen, who also sits on the committee and owns Lighthouse Business Center, is skeptical. He worries that commercial rents on Lighthouse – which are already at a premium – could be affected. And he doesn’t like the notion of customers walking several blocks to go shopping, then schlepping their packages back to their cars. “It would close off traffic on a street that brings a lot of people to town,” he says.
Cohen says he’d support more immediate plans to draw shoppers downtown, such as landscaping and signage. But he isn’t on board with Cort’s car-free vision. “He might be a visionary in the future,” he says, “but I’m more of a realist of what’s going on now.”
Pedestrianization in P.G. is still only an idea. If the advisory committee formally recommends it, Cort expects public hearings before it heads to a City Council vote. He says the concept may morph into a one-block plaza or a single lane of traffic to reduce the presence of cars downtown.
“This is not going to come screaming through City Council at the speed of light,” he says. “It may die a happy death, it may die a slow death, or it may be just what the city needs.”