As spring arrives and the outdoor dining season nears, city officials want to keep West Pearl open to cars, despite survey data showing most residents seem to prefer the street without them.
The recommendation is part of a plan for creating “sustainable, inclusive, bike- and pedestrian-friendly” downtown streets, known as the Downtown Streets as Public Space project. Those streets include 13th Street, 14th Street, West Pearl and East Pearl between 15th and 17th Streets.
In recent months, the city has collected survey data from community members, met with business leaders, and contracted with a consulting firm to study the traffic impacts of any street closures.
In May 2020, the city manager ordered the closure of Pearl Street between 9th and 11th Streets so restaurants could serve food and alcohol outside when coronavirus precautions limited indoor dining capacity. But in September 2022, city officials reopened the street to cars, much to the ire of many residents, who wanted the closure made permanent and, more broadly, viewed it as a first step toward rethinking the city’s streetscapes in ways that support more walking, biking or getting around by means other than a vehicle.
According to the results of an online questionnaire conducted by the city in January 2023, about 86% of 1,799 respondents said the decision to temporarily close the two blocks during the pandemic increased the “overall appeal of the west Pearl area.”
Even so, city officials also found some businesses have “cited challenges related to long-term street closures and have expressed concern,” according to a recent city staff memo. Separately, closing the street would require a rerouting of the HOP bus — which circles the downtown and CU Boulder campus — onto roads that are less convenient for riders and more narrow for drivers.
“The impacts of a full closure would be significant enough to require further consideration and analysis to ensure these operational impacts are anticipated and mitigated,” the memo states.
Members of the Boulder City Council will weigh in on the plan this week. Many were frustrated by the city’s decision to allow the street to be reopened without their input.
Several will likely request to close West Pearl Street on weekends during the summer months. Thursday night’s city council study session — which does not include a public hearing — may be their last chance to influence what happens to the street for the foreseeable future.
“One thing I am going to be looking for is more car-free opportunities for West Pearl,” Mayor Aaron Brockett told Boulder Reporting Lab. The two-block closure during the pandemic “was a nearly universally beloved experience by the community,” he said.
City planners are recommending closing 13th Street between Canyon and Arapahoe on weekends. That’s the same block already used for the summer Famer’s Market and adjacent to the Glen Huntington Bandshell, a hub for city events. City planners see this as a “good foundation to build a more robust calendar of happenings that transform the street.”
In early February, the city fenced off the bandshell to repair the flooring after it was damaged by a fire, according to Ali Rhodes, the director of Parks and Recreation. It remains fenced off. City crews and police officers are often in the area clearing out homelessness encampments.
“The relationship between activation and perception of safety is cyclical: the more active a place, the more comfortable people feel being there, and vice versa,” the city’s memo states. “By cranking up the activity levels on 13th Street, joyful events can be deployed to draw more people to 13th Street and to implicitly signal proper use of public spaces without resorting to uncompassionately ousting people.”
Overall, the Downtown Streets as Public Space project seeks to encourage “human-scaled urban design.” But the recent recommendations — none of which include permanent street closures — highlight many competing factors at play.
For example, on 14th Street between Spruce and Pearl Streets, rather than close the streets to cars, the city plans to install more “parklets,” which are essentially tiny urban parks. Parklets would take over parking spaces or sections of the sidewalk, creating micro-public spaces with seating, games, bike repair stations or other amenities.
The memo indicates removing parking won’t make much of a difference because 14th Street is not “a highly activated street segment” to begin with. “The west edges of the street do not feature retail frontage or inviting facades, meaning the street overall lacks a strong sense of vibrancy,” the report states.
When considering removing parking and vehicle lanes from East Pearl, Fox Tuttle Transportation Group, a Denver-based consulting firm, found that traffic could end up spilling over into the Whittier Neighborhood. This could result in “significant impacts to both traffic on those roadways and to the quality of life of the people who live there,” a report by the consultancy states.
Clarification: This story was updated at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22 to clarify the results of a city survey. The survey did not ask whether residents preferred West Pearl Street without cars to West Pearl with cars. Instead, it asked how the temporarily closure to vehicles “impacted the overall appeal of the west Pearl area.” The respondents had to choose an option ranging from “significantly decreased” to “significantly increased.” About 86% responded that it increased or significantly increased the appeal of West Pearl.