Later this month, Boulder will reopen the western end of Pearl Street to cars as the city embarks on a longer effort to assess whether city streets and other public spaces can or should be rerouted.
Given that the Pearl blocks between 9th and 11th Streets were closed to vehicular traffic via an emergency order issued in May 2020, it was inevitable that they would eventually reopen — at least according to city employees.
The street closure, created through the Boulder Business Recovery Program, was intended to help restaurants that were forced to close or operate at limited capacity during the height of the pandemic. Now that those emergency orders are over and Boulder’s new outdoor dining program is in the works, the time has come, the staff said.
“We believe it is certainly up to the city administration to reset any street that has been temporarily closed, just as we do if there is a major break or construction,” said City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermede. This is clearly an unusual situation, but it was a temporary shutdown based on the pandemic. Now is the time to reset it.”
But that doesn’t mean city employees are against the idea that West Pearl could eventually be reoriented to create a sense of an open plaza more pedestrian friendly. Rivera-Vandermid noted that it’s just something that employees need more time to consider.
“The silver lining, I hope, and the takeaway is not that we want to see one section of a street remain closed but that we like the concept and want employees to move toward increasing this across the city,” she said.
The city council endorsed the idea on Thursday, although some members felt they were left without much choice in the matter.
“As a decision-maker, I’m feeling a little confused,” said Pro-Tim Mayor Rachel Friend.
Although the board was unable to reach a clear consensus when it discussed the closing of the West End earlier this year, Friend said it felt like it would eventually have a say in the matter. However, that seemed less true on Thursday, as the idea was submitted for discussion in the council without a public hearing.
Aside from calling for the street to reopen due to the temporary nature of the closure, the city has cited the impact on business as a reason to reopen the street while examining a permanent solution.
The Downtown Boulder Partnership reiterated that idea at Thursday’s meeting.
DBP CEO Chip, who does not use the family name, said, “We need to bring back access for the winter while…
Some businesses located at the western end of Pearl Street argue that 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 provided Thursday, West Pearl is currently at 78% of its pre-pandemic sales tax revenue levels for 2019, while Boulder’s total is at 123% of 2019 levels.
However, before the council debate last week, a large majority were emailed in support of maintaining the closure, at least in part because it is in line with the city’s climate goals and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to walk or bike downtown .
This split is perhaps further illustrated in the fact that the two city councils – the Transportation Advisory Board and the Downtown Management Committee – have different opinions on how to proceed.
With a focus on getting people out of their cars, the Transportation Advisory Board has argued in favor of keeping West Pearl closed to vehicular traffic.
“Covid, in particular, as a city and as a community has given us a kind of impetus to take advantage of an opportunity to fulfill some long-awaited desires,” said President Tila Dhaimi.
On the other hand, the downtown management committee has argued that more research is needed before a long-term conclusion can be made.
“West Pearl’s opening now doesn’t mean it won’t close again,” said President Don Boe. “That means we’ll plan and do it wisely.”
Regardless of what happens in the future, many have confirmed that West Pearl is a vibrant place known to attract more Boulder residents than the bricks of Pearl Street Mall. Its unique nature must be taken into account in any decisions about the future of the West End.
“This is a couple that is particularly loved by the locals,” a friend said. “Whatever happens next, let’s make a place the locals will love.”
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