Posted by The Daily Camera
By Sean Maher, CEO
America’s downtowns are in trouble. The COVID shutdown transformed many of them from bustling business districts to ghost towns almost overnight. The assumption was that once the pandemic was over, the office buildings, plazas and restaurants would quickly fill up again as we all went back to work and everything returned to normal.
But that has not happened. Two years after the pandemic, there is a new normal and, for many of us, it means no more Monday to Friday commuting. Most companies have adopted flexible, hybrid work schedules and some have gone completely remote with no office space at all.
Researchers from the School of Cities at the University of Toronto measured mobile device activity in 62 downtowns across the U.S. before and after the pandemic. Since everyone carries a cell phone, this is a great way to gauge how many people are in a location and how long they stay.
Fifty-eight of those 62 downtowns had fewer people and less activity after COVID than they did in 2019. San Francisco fared the worst with just 31% as many people in the city’s downtown district. Next hardest hit was Portland with a drop in foot traffic of 63% compared to before the pandemic. Downtown Denver fared better but still had just 59% as many people downtown after the pandemic when compared to before.
These are enormous numbers and the results have been devastating. Like many retailers, Nordstrom has closed its stores in downtown San Francisco. The owner of two of the city’s largest hotels announced last month they will stop paying their loans and will no longer do business in the city.
Of course, the problems in cities like San Francisco and Portland run deeper than just empty office buildings and storefronts. While numbers of commuters and business travelers downtown have dropped sharply, the homeless population has jumped significantly.
At the same time, the backlash against police and has led to a surge in crime and many people have serious concerns about whether it’s even safe to walk the streets in their downtowns anymore.
Fortunately, here in Boulder, our downtown is in better shape than most. Pearl Street has never been as reliant on commuters as most urban districts. But we still have a lot of empty office space, and foot traffic is definitely down during lunch hours and in the early evenings when employees used to leave work and head to the restaurants and bars. This is impacting our small businesses and it is draining energy from our downtown.
As we look to the future, we should be proactive in dealing with this “new normal.” First we should consider incentivizing the conversion of excess office space to residential uses. This trend is gaining traction in many other cities around the country and there are certainly some buildings in our downtown that would be candidates for a makeover.
We also need to create better connections between downtown and University Hill. The new Hill hotels and conference center will transform that area and bring thousands of new visitors to Boulder every month. It is critical that those guests have fast and convenient options to get back and forth to Pearl Street.
And finally, we have to focus on keeping our people and property safe. Boulder has an outstanding police force, but the officers need the support of the community and the City Council. We should learn from the mistakes made in cities like Portland and San Francisco and the heavy price of ignoring public safety.
Downtown Boulder has been a model of success for decades and it will be for many more if we respond to new challenges with creative and bold solutions.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org to blog