What makes a pedestrian-focused downtown?

Downtown Boulder Partnership has always received inquiries from other city leaders who are exploring pedestrianizing a street in their central business district and look to the Pearl Street Mall for guidance and inspiration. At the onset of the pandemic, those calls became even more frequent. Communities craved outdoor gathering space; restaurants needed safe dining space and now these factors have completely changed how we look at streets, parking spaces and other public spaces. Today, Downtown Boulder can be added to the list of places exploring emulating Downtown Boulder.

Boulder’s emergency order issued in April 2020 did much to support local businesses, e.g. allowing restaurants to use the public right-of-way to extend dining outdoors when indoor dining was not viable or safe. The city is working on a program to allow for conditioned continuation of outdoor dining in parking spaces and other public spaces, citywide.

Another pandemic response was the temporary closure of two blocks on Pearl Street’s West End between 9th and 11th streets, which also turned out to be popular. Well, mostly. Two years later, many of the businesses that it was intended to help now say that the continued street closure is actually hurting them. In a survey conducted by DBP, 64% of the West End restaurants that responded indicated a preference to return the street to its pre-pandemic state while 36% indicated interest in a seasonal or hybrid closure. Not a single restaurant that responded indicated a preference for a permanent street closure. I have heard a number of opinions about why continuing the West End street closure is either the best or the worst thing that could happen.

For proponents of keeping the street closed, one argument is promoting walkability. With that in mind, I checked in with Jeff Speck, a city planner and urban designer who literally wrote the book on “Walkable Cities”.

In fact he wrote two. In “Walkable City Rules”, a follow-up tactical playbook, Speck outlines many actions that cities can take to increase walkability. Tactics include increasing attainable density housing in the downtown core, addressing zoning codes, and focusing on public transit, bicycle infrastructure and a smart inventory of parking. Addressing the idea of closing a street in the downtown core for pedestrian access, Speck is quite cautious, suggesting that the recent trend is often “being raised by someone who has no idea of the sobering history of that concept”.

Boulder is keenly aware of that history. Richard Foy, who helped assemble the design team for the Pearl Street Mall almost 50 years ago, often speaks about the tremendous amount of research, thought, planning and care that led our beloved Pearl Street Mall to be one of only 10 or so such experiments (out of over 200) that did not end in expensive failures. When considering the unlikely statistical success of the four-block pedestrian mall, it is evident that there were numerous precise and delicate factors that aligned to support its success.

The world has certainly changed since the Pearl Street Mall was designed, but Speck maintains a strong argument for modeled experimentation when considering closing streets.

“The measure of success should be the revenue of the businesses” Speck asserted when I spoke to him last week. “There are ideological and social reasons to close a street, but you should start with an acknowledgement that the success of the businesses is the criterium that should be used to measure the success of a street closure.”

If we establish that, then we can run controlled experiments to determine the best options. We may learn that the best option in the winter is not the same as in the summer, or that weekends are different than weekdays. We’ve had two years of running an incomplete experiment. Though there are many possible contributing factors, beyond the street closure, when comparing 2019 sales tax data to 2021 sales tax data, restaurants on the West End have recovered at a significantly lesser rate than averages; 59% as compared to 85% in the rest of downtown and 88% citywide. Certainly there are multiple factors in looking at any of the data so far.

We have learned a lot over the tumultuous past two years, and this summer, we will continue to learn. At the end of the day, the measure of walkability is how people interact with a place. First, you need people to be there. Arguably, more people living in the downtown area is the most effective and sustainable way to insure walkability, but the vibrancy that successful businesses bring is also vital.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s