As soon as this month, city officials said they plan to reopen West Pearl Street to cars, a move that would bring the pedestrian-friendly transformation ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic to at least a temporary end.
Pearl Street was closed to traffic between 9th and 11th Streets since May 2020, so restaurants could serve food and alcohol outside when coronavirus precautions limited indoor dining capacity. At the end of August 2022, City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde lifted the emergency measure that allowed restaurants to use public sidewalks and streets. Nearly all businesses have since cleared out their tables and tents along West Pearl. Only concrete barriers block cars from passing through.
“The reasons to keep it closed no longer exist,” Cris Jones, the interim director for the Community Vitality Department, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Jones said city staff will issue a recommendation for opening the street to cars to the Transportation Advisory Board on Sept. 12, and Boulder City Council on Sept. 15. But he said the decision to lift the street closure does not require council approval. Under the Boulder Revised Code, the city manager has broad authority to make decisions regarding street closures.
“There is no definitive date or exact time and day that the street will reopen,” Jones said. “It’s an emphatic staff recommendation. We certainly have every authority empowered by city council policy to do it without getting [council’s] opinion, but we certainly want to involve them in the process and conversation.”
Many viewed the transformed West Pearl as a possible extension of the popular Pearl Street Mall. Despite its popularity with many residents and tourists, several businesses advocated for allowing cars back on the street. They include the Big Red F Restaurant Group, which owns the West End Tavern and Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar. The restaurant group and others have said their businesses fare better with car traffic and accessible parking.
The city’s restaurants were among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. Many have yet to fully rebound to pre-pandemic sales, according to city sales tax revenue reports. Citing the ongoing economic uncertainty, the Downtown Boulder Partnership, a nonprofit organization that represents businesses on the Pearl Street Mall, issued a policy position in support of the two blocks reopening to cars.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the impact that it’s had on the restaurants,” Chip, the CEO of Downtown Boulder Partnership, said in an interview. “Our restaurants struggle already and we don’t want to put up more barriers.”
The city’s plan is likely to spark pushback from residents. In recent weeks, Boulder City Councilmembers’ inboxes have been flooded with emails urging them to keep the street closed on grounds it’s better for the environment, ambience and pedestrian safety.
The city council is slated to discuss the future of West Pearl during its Sept. 15 city council meeting when city staff will present their recommendations. Several councilmembers are still advocating for keeping cars off the street.
“I think there is still a conversation to be had about whether cars are returning,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said in an interview. “I would love for there to be a car-free future for West Pearl.”
The city still plans to allow outdoor dining on West Pearl under its new outdoor dining pilot program, which requires businesses to lease the public right-of-way from the city and build or purchase infrastructure that meets certain standards. But few restaurants have applied for the permits to serve food outdoors on West Pearl, according to the city, indicating a lack of interest in maintaining outdoor dining under the city’s new pilot.
The restaurants that have applied include Salt, ND streetBAR, The Kitchen, Jungle and Ash’Kara.
Without more restaurants participating in the outdoor dining pilot, the closed-off road would lack the vibrancy that it had during the pandemic, Jones, the Community Vitality Department interim director, said.
He said the effects on businesses were only one reason to allow cars back on the street. The closure could produce more traffic — and greenhouse gas emissions — while drivers search for fewer parking spots, he said. It’s also difficult to plow in the winter and less accessible to people who are unable to walk or bike downtown, according to Jones.
Coming up with a plan to address these issues will take time and money his department does not have, he said. And he doesn’t want to keep businesses waiting in the meantime.
“This has not been part of our work plan,” Jones said. “We have not identified resources to mitigate those challenges in a fashion and in a timeline that makes sense to keep these businesses thriving.”
He hopes to get feedback from the Boulder City Council next week on whether to begin studying the possibility of a more permanent or consistent street closure, including a seasonal or weekend closure, to begin in 2023.
Every consequential decision regarding the mall, he said, started that way — with a deliberate process and funding. He said the planning for the Pearl Street Mall, for instance, took about 10 years of planning before it was built in 1977.
“It did not start with a street closure,” he said. “It started with a plan and process with some money behind it. And that is what we would suggest any major decision in this community should start with.”