Dear Boulder City Council,
Through the pandemic, the pedestrianized space on West Pearl has served as a safe, unstructured outdoor space for Boulderites, free from both the threat and disturbance of motor vehicles and from the more highly programmed format of the Mall. As a result it has attracted a wonderful diversity of users: some to visit the eclectic set of restaurants, cafes, and retailers between 9th and 11th Streets, and some simply to bask in the uniqueness of a free-form downtown space that’s solely for humans. Anecdotally, it’s popular with young people and a wider racial demographic than we typically see in Boulder. It’s arguably the most urban place we’ve created in the city.
The need for this sort of space extends beyond the pandemic. It’s timeless. Therefore, Community Cycles urges you to request that Staff maintain the west Pearl blocks in their current form, closed to non-emergency motor vehicles, pending further study of the project.
Staff instead are recommending re-introducing motor vehicles, and then possibly re-pedestrianizing the space after review. This recommendation appears to be based largely on input from some surrounding businesses and their perceived self-interest. But the space belongs to the City as a whole, not just to the businesses, and it’s extremely disappointing that the recommendation ignores overwhelming popular support.
Moreover, the recent TAB memo is disturbingly one-sided, and appears to be an exercise in how to reach a predetermined conclusion. For instance, it suggests that removing motor vehicles from the space diminishes safety, contrary to all common sense and academic research. It considers only challenges to accessibility and not the accessibility improvements that derive from allowing all users to safely use the entire street right-of-way. It discusses equity concerns only with regards to businesses, ignoring the improved equity of access for wide groups of people, as well as the fact that the previous motor-vehicle-centric design was utterly inequitable to all Boulderites who can’t or don’t drive. These biases in the memo highlight how narrow the view of “community vitality” is.
It’s also important to note that the street change was prompted by Covid, but that wasn’t the only justification for doing it. Predating the pandemic, TAB had been asking Staff to try this out for many reasons. Covid gave the city the chance to be nimble, the urgency to act, the opportunity to learn through trying. To say we haven’t learned from this two-year experiment, and to revert to decades of auto-centric mistakes in urban design, is the real problem.
We do see room for improvements. In particular, it appears that there may be a need for more or better-placed parking for people with disabilities. 10th Street south of Spruce remains configured one-way, requiring access via the alley, and this could use study to consider allowing two-way travel and possibly better signage. And the city should consider discounting the price on street seating space for restaurants in this section for the next year or two, to encourage active use.
Many members of Council have said that as a city, we should stop tripping over our own feet and make Boulder cool again. As it stands today, this pedestrian space is about as cool as it gets in our city. The street has brought car-free joy to thousands of people. Now, as our climate crisis intensifies and joy, for many, remains hard to come by, is not the time to push people to constricted sidewalks and allow back the noise, dust, danger, and pollution of motor vehicles. We can continue to study it, but in the meantime we should let it remain a space for people.
Community Cycles Advocacy Committee