When Main Street launched its al-fresco program many feared it would be a parking and traffic disaster, but a recently released City study indicated the contrary and found the program to be a vital lifeline for merchants.

Al-fresco was rapidly pulled together in July by the Ocean Park Association and Main Street Business Improvement Association as part of the City’s economic recovery efforts. Within a matter of days the street’s center turn lane was removed and the parking lane was lined with K-rails to create dining parklets.

At the time, many concerns were raised. People worried that streetside dining would be dangerous, that it would drive up congestion on parallel residential streets, and that the loss of parking spots would decrease the number of visitors to the area.

Fast forward nine months and none of these problems have materialized. Survey results have found both residents and merchants overwhelmingly in favor of the program, and City Council is considering expanding it even further.

“Al-fresco has really exceeded all expectations,” said Ocean Park Association President, Marc Morgenstern. “You could very strongly argue that Al-fresco has kept much of the restaurant business alive, and by extension, really helped retail to hang on as well.”

While parking and traffic was down across Santa Monica in 2020, City data found there was far more parking activity on Main Street during the pandemic than other commercial corridors.

While on average Santa Monica’s parking lots saw a 41 percent decrease in activity in 2020, Main Street lots only saw a drop of 24 percent. Main Street also saw a smaller decrease in scooter and electric bicycle usage than comparable restaurant/retail areas on Montana Ave and Wilshire Boulevard.

There is no evidence that the loss of Main Street’s center lane drove more traffic onto parallel streets. Traffic volumes on Neilson Way, for example, decreased far more in 2020 than volumes on Main Street did.

An OPA and MSBIA survey found that 85 percent of Main Street merchants believe the al-fresco program definitely helped business and 72 percent of merchants want to keep their parklets in the future.

Spurred on by this success, OPA and MSBIA are drawing up plans for an ‘al-fresco 2.0’ program, which will be discussed by City Council next Tuesday.

“Looking towards the future we’d love to see some weekend closures of selective blocks of Main Street,” said Morgenstern. “We want to take what we’ve learned from Main Street al-fresco 1.0 and build on it in a way where we use data and experience to create a special weekend experience for residents, visitors and for the merchants themselves.”

OPA and MSBIA are also looking to expand their art programming on Main Street. In December the organizations collaborated on a program to beautify parklet k-rails with murals painted by local artists and recently received another round of grant funding.

“One of the nice unexpected benefits of al-fresco is that we’re in the process of reestablishing Main Street as a place of art,” said Morgenstern. “In its earliest days there were a lot of very well known artists with studios on Main Street.”

Back in the 80s the low-rents and ocean views on Main Street attracted a range of now famous artists including James Turrell, William Wegman, Robert Irwin and John Baldessari. Perhaps most notable of the lot was Richard Diebenkorn who over the course of 20 years created 145 paintings for his Ocean Park series.

Inspired by the response to the k-rail mural project, OPA and MSBIA are looking to engage further with Ocean Park’s artistic history and use that as an additional reason to draw visitors to the neighborhood.

Clara@smdp.com