A two-block stretch of Huntington Beach's busy Main Street shopping district would be closed to cars and transformed into a pedestrian mall under a proposal being developed by the city.
Business leaders and some city officials see the potential to create a family-friendly open marketplace in the heart of downtown that would allow more space for sidewalk dining and shopping as well as eliminate the traffic jams and boisterous cruising that have long plagued the area.
"I want it to be a center point of downtown," said Ron McLin, general manager of the Long Board restaurant and co-chairman of the Huntington Beach Restaurant Assn. "A place for families to come to."
The City Council voted this week to move forward with a development proposal for the mall, with a final vote to be taken when the study is completed.
Supporters envision converting the pavement to cobblestone paths with fountains, planters and benches similar to Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade. But the track record for pedestrian malls is mixed, with projects in Burbank, Oxnard and other cities failing to live up to expectations.
Moreover, some merchants worry that banning cars from Main Street between Walnut and Orange avenues will rob the business district of its vitality.
"It's taken us 10 years to get all this traffic that we have, and we want to be very careful and not destroy something that's good," said Steve Daniel, president of the Downtown Merchants Assn., who is urging the city and other merchants to be cautious.
The Huntington Beach mall could debut as early as 2003--but only if several key issues are worked out, including parking and how much the improvements will cost.
"Just closing the street is not likely to make it a success," said David Biggs, the city's economic development director.
Although the downtown area has several parking structures, closing a portion of Main Street would take away spaces in front of businesses. The city receives about $200,000 a year in parking meter and citation revenue from those spaces.
The city also must develop a plan for dealing with the traffic that is expected to flow onto nearby side streets, including some residential areas.
The bigger question, however, is whether banning cars would boost business.
"What makes anybody think that the amount of business will improve?" said Councilman Ralph H. Bauer, who cast the only vote against the project study. "It may get worse if you close it off."
To supporters, the pedestrian mall would be the culmination of a decade-long revitalization along Main Street that took the downtown area from a place best-known for its Fourth of July rowdiness to one of Southern California's top beach destinations.
Closing Main Street was discussed when the revitalization began in the early 1990s, but officials said the timing is better now because downtown has become so popular.
"It's a great idea," said Samantha Butler, a bartender at Perqs bar near Pacific Coast Highway. "People will congregate down here, and it will be a more pleasant shopping experience. If anything, it will be good for business--I hope they do it."
Fred Quiel, 55, an attorney who was eating a tuna sandwich in the Sugar Shack's sidewalk patio, also expressed support. "This is a place where people come to relax, and I think it would promote that. It would promote this area as more of a community gathering place."
But Jerry Cleland, manager of Sokal Surfboards, said the mall would be bad for business and change the nature of Huntington Beach.
"I have a lot of drive-up customers," he said, "but who wants to park a block away and run up to buy a stick of wax or surfboard leash? A lot of our business comes from local guys who stop quickly to grab something on their way to the beach."
Councilwoman Shirley S. Dettloff and others point out that a mall would be far more appealing--and safer for pedestrians--than the bumper-to-bumper gridlock and cruising that visitors often find downtown.
To others cruising is as much a part of Surf City as the beach itself--especially the classic cars that prowl Main Street on weekends.
"People come to watch the cars," Cleland said. "This is the surf capital. The cars give Huntington Beach its style."