By Waylon Lewis
When we closed the Pearl Street Mall to cars 40-some years ago, they said it was a mistake.
While this brave, far-seeing change wasn’t without its challenges, it’s helped put Boulder and our beloved local shopping and dining on the map. The Pearl Street Mall is a trailblazing, example-setting success. Do we still have such farseeing bravery today in our leadership?
Then, during the pandemic (which continues), we closed two blocks of West Pearl.
Yay! Even without doing anything to make the streets fun or shaded, we all discovered what it was like not to hear the roar and hum and smell the belch of buses, truck, and cars. (Parked cars pollute, too.) We discovered the simple joy of sitting and dining and walking and biking on the downtown streets of our own city.
Now, looking ahead, the Boulder City Council just decided — bending to the voices of two important local business owners, but not the wishes of the community or money-spending tourists — to reopen West Pearl to cars, while allowing restaurants to “rent” 500 square feet on the street, temporarily.
A smart compromise, if it were long-term — but still it’ll just be “for now,” and without trees or amenities on the street. We’re clearly planning to fully re-car West Pearl Street, let alone East Pearl Street, which needs and deserves love.
Imagine: Boulder could have a tree and garden and flower and outdoor dining area, accessible to those with disabilities and accessible to emergency services — space with playgrounds and a fountain and bike parking, all 10 degrees cooler than the concrete jungles we’re used to that are currently filled with sitting cars on West Pearl Street.
Disabilities access and emergency access is vital. Burlington, Vermont; Denver, Miami and other cities simply allow those vehicles to drive down the middle of the closed streets and get rid of curbs.
There are ways to do this to the joy and safety of all. But we’re not trying.
Instead we’ve chosen to mostly go back to business as usual: cement, not trees and gardens and fountains and playgrounds, and parking for cars, not space for people.
Despite the fact that a cooler (literally: heat island effect means on the 90-degree, early June day this was written, it was close to 100 degrees while eating at Next Door, versus being 80 degrees in the shady park on University Hill above my house) and people- friendly Pearl Street Mall would be more accessible to those who are older, don’t deal well with heat, want more joy and community, and a vibrant local business and dining scene.
But a few important restaurant owners are vociferously and crankily against it, and we’re heading back to a downtown full of driving, idling and parked cars where people and trees and community should be.
I say build more parking structures, make parking easy, encourage folks to bus or bike *and* prioritize access for emergency and disabilities, while addressing a heating planet and shifting from car-centric America.
We and others have managed to do so across America, in other car-second downtown communities.
Waylon Lewis, born and raised in Boulder, is an author and founder of Elephant Journal.