The Pearl Street Mall, a four-block pedestrian throughway and centerpiece of Boulder’s downtown, was built in 1977 to help stop the hemorrhaging of restaurants and retailers from the city’s center. But there was more to the vision than economics.
“We were trying to create an ode to Mother Nature, a combination of civilization set in an incredibly beautiful site,” Richard Foy, a long-time Boulder resident who helped design the Pearl Street Mall, told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “To design anything successfully, it cannot just be about economic returns.”
Today, more than four decades later, shoppers strolling the street will see that vision brought to life, with the foothills of the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop to hundreds of restaurants and retailers.
But two years after Covid-19 arrived in Boulder, several Pearl Street businesses have shuttered, including the long-established West Flanders brewery and Tahona Tequila Bistro, a Mexican restaurant and mini-night club that was among the few open past midnight.
Most notably, concrete barriers at Pearl Street’s western end section off a street once occupied by cars. In their place are tilted tables, chairs and patios atop painted lines and rain gutters, the result of an emergency response to pandemic-related public health measures restricting indoor dining. (The city is unsure whether to reopen the street to cars, in part because surveys have shown mixed preferences among restaurants and retailers.)
In an effort to put the present in perspective, Boulder Reporting Lab spoke with Foy about a wide range of topics related to Pearl Street. Foy studied design at California State University Long Beach. He was working in film studies in California when he was offered a temporary job to help develop the Denver Technology Center. In 1972, he said he moved to Boulder and started his own design firm, Communication Arts Inc., which was later selected to design the Pearl Street Mall as well as other urban design projects across the world.
He was part of a team of architects and designers involved in the Pearl Street project that also included Hideo Sasaki, a Japanese architect who specialized in landscape design, and Everett Ziegel Associates, a Boulder-based firm. Former city Planning Board member and local architect Carl Worthington was also involved. In the years since, others have continued to shape what Pearl Street looks like, including Paul Hester, a former city employee who spearheaded planting tulips on the street.
“We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves as the creators,” Foy said. “The Pearl Street Mall is a reflection of the local culture and the local values.” Those same values, he said, have created some challenges for Pearl Street.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did the design for the mall come together?
When I got to Boulder in 1972, I was asked to join [what was then called] the Downtown Businessmen’s Association. I said, “We need to do something because we keep losing businesses.” The Crossroads Mall [an indoor mall largely replaced by the Twenty Ninth Street retail center] was leaching businesses on a regular basis. I said, “Why don’t we talk to the city and get something going?” We got a green light. A request for qualifications went out. The city received over a hundred firms that wanted to show their qualification and be selected as the designers. Our firm was selected.
It took a year or two to lay all the bricks and get all this stuff built and install it. It was done very quickly.
We wanted a timeless look. It’s one of the reasons we painted all the fixtures black. We didn’t try to make them Victorian or to harken to another time. We tried to make it neutral and let the stores create the color, let them spill out and animate the street.
When you all were designing it, what were you looking to for inspiration or a model?
We were looking to Mother Nature. When you come up from Denver, you keep going up the valley to a rise, and then the crescendo is when you come up to the highest point of US 36. You look down and you see this verdant valley, picturesque with these magical rocks. You see the university. You see the Rocky Mountains. We were trying to create an ode to Mother Nature, a combination of civilization set in an incredibly beautiful site. We wanted something that Chief Niwot [the leader of the Southern Arapaho who welcomed early prospectors during the Gold Rush and was later killed by U.S. soldiers in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre] and his descendants would have appreciated.
Most design work gets usurped by ego. We created the Pearl Street Mall in a specific way, nothing to the ego of the designers. We didn’t do any tricks, bells or whistles or quirky things. We used indigenous materials that were already in place. We used bricks that could withstand the freeze-thaw cycles in Colorado and and we used species that would grow here, and various species of trees so that if we had a blight, which we have had, and a certain species die out, it doesn affect the whole mall. We used evergreens and deciduous trees. We wanted to create places for watching other people, for a musician to set up and play with sun on them and shade on the observers.
Also, we were trying to attract businesses. We had economic, social and cultural goals.
So it was a business group that first advocated for the mall. How do you think the business community ultimately shaped what Pearl Street was, and how do you think business interests are driving what it is today?
The form of a city or a place is driven by an economic return on that investment. They are definitely interested in having better shops and better sales and so forth. But to design anything successfully, it cannot just be about economic returns. It has to serve social, cultural and economic goals. What makes people come to Boulder is the same thing that makes people go to the Grand Canyon or get on a cruise ship: beauty, meaning and connection.
One social and economic goal being floated today is to keep the section of West Pearl between 11th and 9th closed to cars. What are your thoughts on the West End closure?
We specifically did not design Pearl Street to be longer than four blocks. And after we designed it, there were something like 400 municipalities that designed pedestrian malls. Some were six or eight blocks. But the bigger they are, the faster they fall. They died. There’s only a dozen left. The rest have been returned to car tires and combustion engines. So we did it right and we created a circulation around it with through streets and easy parking.
Statistically, it would be a big mistake [to extend the closure]. It affects the whole mall. It puts it into the category of a longer mall, which the data says are the ones that failed most quickly.
Why? How does that work?
My thinking is that you need to create an attraction. In Mexico, every town has their central plaza, and that plaza usually has a fountain, benches, grass and trees. It becomes the center of town. If you make the whole town that way, you don’t have a center of town, or a main attraction to one area.
Help me reconcile this idea of having a mall built around honoring nature, as you described it, while also keeping cars buzzing around one end of it?
You have to make it very easy to get into the town. People want to use their vehicles. And that seems to be the current, most optimum combination of transportation and enjoyment and less pollution. (Maybe when we get hydrogen-powered vehicles.)
I don’t see another alternative for quite some time. People are not going to come by bus. We have never gotten the RTD train. If we want to fight the vehicles, we should get that train or have a subway system that most cities have. It’s a balance between ease of access and convenience.
Also, if you want to get rid of cars, increase housing density [near Pearl Street]. Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona — they have these streets lined with eight-story buildings. They can just go down their lifts in their apartment buildings and go to a store with a bag and bring back their stuff without getting into a car.
What do you think about the accessibility of Pearl Street for businesses? In some ways, you want the mall to be attractive. But that also makes it more expensive to put a shop there.
Pearl Street has become the marquee for Boulder. A lot of people read about it, hear about it, and want to come visit. But it was just the marquee for something which is far deeper — the intensive beauty of the surrounding places. People come to Boulder and they love it. They want to stay here. But our zoning [rules] restrict the amount of building [of housing and business space]. You’re limiting the supply. And the demand is increasing. In 1977, I paid $52,000 for my house. But you can’t do that. Now you can’t touch anything for less than a million dollars.
How does the increase in housing prices affect business on Pearl Street?
The Gallagher Amendment [a provision in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights that links residential and commercial property tax rates such that businesses pay a higher rate] means that as residential home values go up, that tax is brought onto the commercial area. Business taxes go up, which then restricts the kinds of shops that you and I would like to go to.
When you were designing the Pearl Street Mall, what did you envision it would become? And what do you think of what it has become?
I was watching Les Enfants du Paradis [The Children of Paradise, a 1940s French film]. It was a film of a street scene. Women were walking with their parasols and a full skirt. Gentlemen were walking with their top hats and canes. The unicycle going down the street. Jugglers and musicians. It was like an everyday parade of people. And one of the things that people enjoy most is watching other people. The parade of life going by, and wondering about them and maybe meeting somebody, the connection of people.
I had that in mind when we were designing Pearl Street. And having traveled extensively in Latin America, Europe and Asia, I saw how people’s behavior is determined by the places that they are in.
The Italians call the kitchen “la madre cucina,” the mother kitchen. Because that’s where the family gathers. So an active street that was somewhere between la madre cucina and the Paris street cafes, activities and entertainers and a place to meet and greet and feel good about yourself and be around other people with like-minded, or even not like minded, but from all over. So that was an image that I carried.
So it’s just a place for appreciating life and perpetuating the best things of community and engagement with one another and the environment. So respecting all those things was the goal. And it succeeded that way.
Is there anything else you want to say about Pearl Street?
There’s a Zen saying: “Learn to listen to the wisdom inside of a rock.” What’s that mean? I’ll tell you a story.
We went out and found the biggest rocks we could find and moved them on a semi truck through mountain roads and got them to Boulder. The two biggest rocks on Pearl Street are the fountain rock, where the water cascades down and the split rock outside of Hapa [Sushi Grill and Sake Bar].
We took the biggest rock we could fit on a tractor trailer and dragged it down to the Tribble stoneyard. There is a saw on a big semi truck with a big engine. It has a steel cable embedded with diamond dust. They put the rock on a scaffold. They put the cable around the rock and the cable slowly moves around. It seats itself into the rock and it stays there for a week or two, going around ever so slowly so it doesn’t overheat. And the cable is drawn through the rock and then cuts it in half. We set it [outside what is now Hapa] and cut the bottom off, flipped it over and put it on 10th Street.
I didn’t tell the city this. But I was trying to create the world’s biggest headphones where you could hear — or learn to hear — the wisdom inside of that rock. And I don’t know if anyone has tried it. I tried it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the Lazy Dog Bar & Grill as being among the downtown businesses that closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The establishment actually closed in October 2019. This story also said Richard Foy was an architect for the Pearl Street Mall project. He was a designer, not an architect.