Later this month, Boulder will reopen the west end of Pearl Street to cars while the city embarks on a lengthier effort to evaluate whether other city streets and public spaces could or should be repurposed.
Given that the blocks of Pearl between 9th and 11th streets were closed to vehicular travel by way of a May 2020 emergency order, it was an inevitability that they would ultimately reopen — at least according to city staff.
The street closure, established through Boulder’s business recovery program, was intended to help restaurants that were forced to shutter or operate with limited capacity during the height of the pandemic. Now that such emergency orders have ended and Boulder’s new outdoor dining pilot is up and running, that time has arrived, staff said.
“We believe it is certainly within the purview of management of the city to reset any street that has been temporarily closed, just like we do if there were a main break or construction,” City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said. “This is obviously an unusual situation, but it was a temporary closure based on the pandemic. It is time now to reset it.”
But that doesn’t mean city staff is against the idea that West Pearl could ultimately be repurposed to create a more pedestrian-friendly, open plaza feel. It’s just something that staff needs more time to study, Rivera-Vandermyde noted.
“The silver lining, I hope, and the takeaway is not that we want to see one section of one street remain closed but rather that we love this concept and want staff to move towards increasing this across the entire city,” she said.
The idea was supported by the City Council on Thursday, though some members felt they were left without much choice in the matter.
“As a decision maker, I feel a bit leap-frogged,” Mayor Pro Tem Rachel Friend said.
Although the Council couldn’t come to a clear consensus when it discussed the west end closure earlier this year, Friend said it did feel like they’d ultimately have a say in the matter. That felt less true on Thursday, though, as the idea was presented for council discussion without a public hearing.
Aside from being required to reopen to the street due to the temporary nature of the closure, the city cited the impact on businesses as a reason to reopen the street while a more permanent solution is examined.
That notion was echoed by the Downtown Boulder Partnership in Thursday’s meeting.
“We need to return access for the winter while we … aggressively and creatively explore our many options in downtown and for the west end,” the DBP CEO Chip, who does not use a last name, said.
Some of the businesses on the western end of Pearl Street argue the closure has negatively impacted their establishments by removing parking and affecting accessibility.
The west end has been slower to recover than the rest of the downtown area. According to city sales tax information presented Thursday, West Pearl is currently at 78% of its pre-pandemic 2019 sales tax revenue levels, while the entirety of Boulder is at 123% of the 2019 levels.
However, ahead of the Council’s discussion last week, a large majority emailed in support of maintaining the closure, at least in part due to the fact that it’s in line with the city’s climate goals and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to walk or bike downtown.
This divide is perhaps further illustrated in the fact that two city boards — the Transportation Advisory Board and the Downtown Management Commission — had differing opinions about how to proceed.
With an eye toward getting people out of their cars, the Transportation Advisory Board argued in favor of keeping West Pearl closed to vehicular traffic.
“Covid, in particular, gave us as a city, as a community the kind of impetus to capitalize on a chance to realize some long held desires,” Chair Tila Duhaime said.
On the other hand, the Downtown Management Commission argued that more research needs to be done before coming to a long-term conclusion.
“Opening West Pearl now does not mean it will never close again,” Chair Don Poe said. “It means we’re going to be planning and doing this in a wise way.”
No matter what happens moving forward, many reiterated that West Pearl is a vibrant place known for attracting more Boulder residents than the bricks of the Pearl Street Mall. Its unique nature should be considered in any decisions about the future of the west end.
“This is a beloved couple blocks by locals specifically,” Friend said. “Whatever’s next, let’s make a place that locals love.”
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