Main Street may be closed to automobile and bus traffic this summer if Council were to approve a proposed pilot program that could boost economic recovery efforts.

Council directed staff to return with a pilot program during its meeting Tuesday that would close the most restaurant-dense areas of Main Street to everything except foot traffic.

The recent changes to Main Street have been a hot topic since the ideas were first conceived at the start of the pandemic. The program to expand outdoor dining has been popular amongst the business community. Local groups like the Ocean Park Association (OPA) have hosted surveys showing positive public opinion, but OPA members are far from the only ones who expressed interest in making al-fresco a permanent feature of Santa Monica.

“It was certainly done with tremendous success up on State Street in Santa Barbara. It was also done in New York City in some parts and they’re actually closing several streets to automobile and bus traffic in San Francisco. So, a lot of communities are considering this,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said Tuesday, noting Munich, Germany closed three blocks that were very similar to Main Street and they found retail revenues increased by nearly 200% and restaurant revenues increased by about 300%.

And since the changes would only be implemented as a pilot, Davis added, “if it turns out that it’s just a disaster, then we won’t do it anymore. But I think the idea is that nobody knows for sure what will happen… so the idea is let’s do a pilot and study the traffic and other impacts, and then we can make a decision about whether or not some more permanent program might be appropriate.”

Other supporters of the proposal, like Hunter Hall, executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, believe there are many benefits in implementing weekend closures on Main Street.

“The last year was really rough and stressful for city staff and you. Luckily, your willingness to try new things early in 2020 put us in a better spot than many of our neighboring cities,” Hall said, stating the data speaks for itself. “Outdoor dining has been crucial for all businesses around the country — not just restaurants. Every business on Main Street has benefited immeasurably from our current al-fresco program without giving much at all. Now, we now want to double down on it.”

However, Councilmembers Phil Brock and Christine Parra said they received a plethora of emails over the last couple of days over the matter and they are both worried about the potential impacts to traffic.

“I don’t want that to end up going into, you know, the residential areas, so I’m hopeful that when staff takes a look at this potential pilot that they are really taking a good strong look about how they can make sure or ensure that traffic doesn’t get diverted into the residential neighborhoods. And then also I’m interested in not only information on the pilot per weekend but the closure from Friday to Saturday or exposure for Saturday and Sunday, only,” Parra said.

“I love the concept. I want us to have outdoor dining forever,” Brock added. “But I am concerned that for instance, Jamison’s at that corner, their parklet goes way beyond their restaurant borders … I’m hearing from retailers that they’re concerned that people won’t be able to see their stores and that their business is actually going to plummet rather than increase, because the restaurants, already right now on Main Street, are packed…. So my concern is are we really going to add to the business?”

Hall and Davis both mentioned there is no intention to continue the pilot after a few weekends if it proves to be a failure in any way.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown added the conversation was almost a perfect microcosm of the commentary he’s received on the issue in the last week.

“Some people think that this is an absolute disaster and others think it’s going to be the best thing since sex,” McKeown said. “And the reality is it’s probably going to be somewhere in-between.”

Staff expects to return to Council in June with a plan to implement the closures and any other pertinent information related to outdoor dining on Main Street.

Brennon@smdp.com