Posted by The Daily Camera
By Sean Maher, CEO
Some of my friends in Boulder were not happy last fall when city staff reopened West Pearl Street to traffic and parking. They miss the outdoor dining and pedestrian zone that so many of us enjoyed during the Covid shutdown.
Those two blocks were a welcome escape from the confinement of our homes and gave us a safe place to interact with people when there were few other options.
At first glance, closing West Pearl again seems like a no-brainer. Shutting it down would give restaurants more seating and bring back a wonderful outdoor space while getting more people out of their cars. Everyone wins.
Except, they do not. Covid is over and the dynamic of downtown is dramatically different than during the pandemic. The restaurants needed space for outside seating when they were not allowed to serve indoors. But that restriction is long gone. They do not have the kitchen capacity or staffing at busy times to serve their dining room, their regular patio and a bunch of additional tables out in the street. The restaurant owners I have talked with say they would not put tables back in the street if it is closed again.
Also, remember that West Pearl is an incredibly vibrant and successful part of downtown just the way it is. The entrepreneurs who have invested their lives there and created that success might know a few things about keeping it that way. If you speak with them, they almost unanimously want the street kept open to cars.
In fact, they know something that we should all keep in mind: It is possible to get over-zealous and create too much of a good thing. The Pearl Street Mall is a national model of success and it is four blocks long. Other iconic walking malls like Church Street in Vermont and 3rd Street in Santa Monica are also four blocks. Like them, Pearl Street was designed by really smart people who understood that making a pedestrian zone too long detracts from its overall appeal. Just look at the 16th Street Mall in Denver. If more was always better, that venue would be a huge success. It clearly is not and never has been.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. One that makes sense is to block the street for community events that need space which can only be created by a closure. For years, West Pearl has closed for an evening every summer to host a running race. This year, the West End Mile takes place on June 22nd.
Also this summer, the city will periodically close 13th Street south of Canyon and has contracted with the Downtown Boulder Partnership to produce community events and draw people to that area when it is closed. DBP does a great job and I’m sure they will come up with some events that are well done.
But a more logical approach would be to first come up with a great idea for an event and then look for the best place to host it. In the case of 13th Street, it seems that a decision was made to close the street and then there was a search for something to fill the space and justify it.
As one example, the Farmers Market is not a beloved event because someone said let’s close the street and then figure out what to do with the space. It works because it was conceived first as an event that met a need in the community. Then the organizers went looking for a place to host it. To do it the other way around seems to be putting the cart before the horse.
In closing, downtown districts across the country are facing challenges in the post-Covid world with homelessness, office vacancies and more. These are serious problems and downtown Boulder is facing them as well. Closing streets might be fun to talk about but we already have an incredibly successful pedestrian mall. It seems like there are better ways to invest our money and our energy than trying to reinvent what we already have.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. He can be reached at email@example.com to blog