In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Longmont’s Main Street hasn’t been bustling like usual.
This week, however, gave some business owners hope that they could see more life in downtown, after the Longmont Downtown Development Authority voted Wednesday to recommend reducing Main Street from four to two vehicle traffic lanes, allowing shops and restaurants to expand outside into the street to meet social distancing requirements.
During an online meeting, the LDDA’s Board of Directors voted unanimously on the proposal. Longmont City Council is scheduled to approve or deny the recommendation Tuesday during a meeting. Wednesday’s vote follows a study last month by Longmont officials and business organizations to look at ways to assist cafes and restaurants in re-opening following the expiration of the state’s stay at home order. Among the options explored was the possibility of outdoor dining.
The Main Street Road Closures proposal, if approved, could see outside lanes closed and traffic reduced to one lane in each direction between Third and Sixth avenues starting in early July. The closed lanes would be open to businesses for outdoor shopping, dining and activities. According to Longmont’s transportation planning manager Phil Greenwald, the city obtained a temporary use permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation and approval from the Federal Highway Administration to close traffic lanes and allow for businesses to extend into the state right-of-way.
In an interview Thursday, Greenwald said that the plan is to have businesses extend into the parking area of the street. Greenwald said details about how far into the closed lane businesses can extend is still being determined. Businesses would have about an extra 15 feet of space to work with, he said.
If the proposal is approved, concrete barriers would separate vehicle traffic from closed lanes, with a plan to leave the lanes closed every day July through September. The sidewalks would remain clear for pedestrian traffic. Traffic detour routes could be set up on Coffman and Kimbark streets.
With the state’s safer at home phase limiting indoor capacity for retail shops and restaurants to 50% and bars to 25%, the street closures could allow additional space for businesses to safely engage with more customers.
During the Wednesday meeting, board members said they had canvassed downtown shops and restaurants to see what business owners thought of the proposal. While the majority were in favor, according to board member reports, some didn’t think it would help their business.
Business owner Hadyn Peacock is among those who thinks the proposal will do more harm than good. Peacock owns the Chinese Medicine Clinic, a business where people can find acupuncture and Chinese medicine experts, at 385 Main St. During Wednesday’s meeting, Peacock spoke out against shutting down part of Main Street.
“I will be blunt, I feel the proposal is not a practical solution for all businesses,” Peacock said. “In fact, there’s a common sense case that can be made that the proposal will hinder the recovery of some, if not all businesses downtown.”
Peacock said removing an “enormous number of parking spaces downtown” would be a problem for some businesses. He added that blocking off traffic will lead to frustrations for those looking to make a stop along Main Street and may lead to them deciding not to visit downtown at all. Peacock said he believed downtown alleyways could provide a better location for businesses to expand outdoors.
Other business owners, however, were excited to hear that the proposal was moving forward, believing that the proposal could bring more life to downtown.
Julie Benoit, co-owner of Maker General, a craft shop at 381 Main St., said it’s an opportunity to bring more foot traffic to local shops.
“I do think it will greatly help restaurants to have street closures, because it helps them, it will therefore help some of the smaller stores,” Benoit said in an interview Thursday.
Maker General has been in downtown Longmont for almost two years. Benoit said the business closed temporarily due to the pandemic but that she is planning to re-open again in early July. She said that if the proposal is approved, she wants to offer small-scale craft classes outside and move some of the Maker General’s merchandise to the street space for people to browse.
Benoit said her one concern is people disregarding social distancing practices.
“I hope with the street closure, we still have people practicing safe measures and that people don’t see this as a green light to party in the street,” Benoit said.
At Rosalee’s Pizzeria, 461 Main St., business co-owner Amy Ross said the proposal could make the difference between the restaurant staying open or being forced to close shop. Ross and her husband, Jim Ross, have operated the business downtown for the past 5½ years.
During an interview Thursday, Ross said that, if approved, Rosalee’s would use the space to set up tables for outdoor dining. The restaurant is currently offering take out only. Under state guidelines, if they opened, Ross said the restaurant would have only about 10 tables available between its patio space and inside the restaurant.
“This is a win for our community and a chance for customers to feel comfortable eating out in an open air environment,” Ross said.
Mike Christianson, the manager for Elite Barbershop, Longmont’s oldest business, said in an interview Thursday he also feels that parking will be an issue. Christianson’s dad, Orville Christianson, owns the barbershop, at 339 Main St., and the business is walk-in only.
“People aren’t going to be willing to park two to three blocks away just to come in here,” Mike Christianson said. “I think it’s going to really hurt our business.”
On occasions when Main Street closes for a parade, Christianson said, the barbershop loses about half its customers.
He said he believes the proposal will better support the downtown’s bars and restaurants, which operate during later hours.
In response to Peacock’s suggestion to use the alleys instead of the street, Kimberlee McKee, the Downtown Development Authority’s executive director, said during Wednesday’s meeting that utilizing the alleys was not a possibility, although it was something the board considered.
“We did talk about using the alleys and we walked around and talked to the restaurants and business owners,” McKee said Wednesday during the meeting. “The alleys are great and I think they can function well for special events, but … there is no line of sight, so it’s harder to manage a business in the alley when you are so far removed from day-to-day business.”
McKee explained to board members that some business owners said they would have to hire additional staff to watch what’s happening in the alley, which given the toll of the pandemic to their business would likely not be possible. McKee noted that some businesses who could use the alley without any challenges, had been permitted to do so, including Dry Land Distillers, The Roost and Tangerine. Businesses can apply to the city for a permit to operate in an alleyway.
McKee said that while an argument against the proposal is that restaurants are the major benefactors to the street closures, a retail committee that has been part of the Longmont Downtown Development Authority for more than a year wanted to see more restaurant traffic, because it supports their businesses, too. Retailers made this suggestion to the Downtown Resiliency Task Force, a group made up of business owners and appointed during the pandemic, who took the idea and used it to guide the street closure proposal.
“I think the sense was (restaurants) are an anchor and that is what’s bringing people down on a regular basis and it’s the one unifier of the community, so I can’t be 100% sure that they wanted to close the roads, but they wanted to do what they could to support seeing foot traffic again,” McKee told the LDDA board. “(Foot traffic) is crawling up a little, but it’s still nowhere close to what we need them to be.”
LDDA Board Member John Creighton said he felt the proposal was “worth a try.”
“It will be inconvenient, but right now, I think some inconvenience is actually important,” Creighton said. “This is still a transition period for all types of businesses to try to get through the next few quarters.”
Longmont wouldn’t be the first to close off its streets to allow businesses more space to operate safely. In Denver earlier this month, portions of streets in Larimer Square and Glenarm Place were blocked to allow outdoor dining.
Downtown Development Authority board members also voted unanimously Wednesday to look into the possibility of getting an open container law waiver to potentially allow people to carry their drinks around downtown.
Benoit said she hopes to see the street closure proposal move forward and bring life back to Main Street.
“I do think it will be helpful for a lot of businesses to have people out and about,” Benoit said. “Downtown has felt like a ghost town in the past couple of months.”
The Downtown Development Authority’s Board of Directors is composed of seven board members, who are either property or business owners. In addition to Creighton, the president of High Plains Banking Group, board members are Thaxter Williams, a certified public accountant who runs TW Financial Advisory Services; Chris McGilvray, board vice chair, owner of Longmont Liquors; Jim Golden , the board’s ex-officio member and Longmont’s director of finance; Marcia Martin, the City Council designee; Kirsten Pellicer, the owner and president of Ace Hardware Longmont; Joseph Perrotto, a principal and chief financial officer for Burden Incorporated real estate; and James Wardell, who works for VMware, a software company, as a manager and in technical support.