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 December 3, 1999

A new look for Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall

Interview by Claudia Hibbert-BeDan and Jerry W. Lewis

Editor’s Note: The Boulder County Business Report hosted a roundtable discussion Nov. 15 about the Pearl Street Mall redesign. In attendance were Molly Winter, executive director of the city’s Downtown Management Commission (DMC); members of the redesign team, including Paul Trementozzi of OZ Architecture, Richard Foy and Carl Okazaki of Communication Arts and Nolan Rosall of RRC Associates; outgoing Boulder City Councilman Tom Eldridge, who owns Tom’s Tavern in downtown Boulder; and George Karakehian, owner of Art Source International on the Pearl Street Mall, vice chairman of Downtown Boulder Inc. (DBI), a non-profit organization that works to preserve downtown’s historic environment and promote the area’s development, and a DMC board member.

Winter received a draft of the conceptual plan just before the discussion began and said she hopes to have the final design completed, an implementation option in place and financing established by July 2000. She emphasized that the current plans are preliminary, and the recommendations aren’t necessarily what will happen downtown.

Preliminary estimates for the redesign total $4.5 million. Our discussion focused on suggested new features for downtown, implementation of the redesign, funding strategies — including public/private partnerships — the local and national tenant mix, regional retail competition and housing opportunities as a way to bring and keep more shoppers downtown.

Q: There was talk about changing the direction of the road, but I think you said let’s not do that now. Is that still the case?

Molly Winter: I think it might be addressed in the draft plan as something to look at, but we’re certainly not going to get held up over that issue.

Q: What happens next with the conceptual plan?

Winter: It will go out to the various boards and commissions and to the public for their review and comment. Then we will move forward on a plan from the city manager for implementation. Depending on what that might be – it may or may not need to get some feedback from the city council – we’ll go back to the DMC, which is the primary advisory board in this project. We hope to move forward to the next level of design to go through the working drawings.

Q: Are we on schedule to start construction during the summer or fall of 2000?

Winter: I think it’s a bit premature to say exactly when. The desire is to get started as quickly as possible. We want to coordinate the construction with the businesses so it has the least bit of impact.

Financing strategy

Q: Where will the funding come from?

Winter: The Downtown Management Commission has an annual appropriation in the budget of something between $325,000 and $350,000. That’s how we’re paying for the design phase. The issue that we’ve now been focusing on is how do we implement this? We could either do it in $350,000 chucks over multiple decades, but no one wants to do that. One option is to borrow the money from the city and have us repay it; another option is to do an assessment district downtown, which is how the mall was funded in the beginning. This is the next level of discussion that has to happen with various boards and with the city.

Nolan Rosall: A third alternative would be to use public/private partnerships for certain features like the fountain, the dining areas — certain areas that have real focus may be able to attract some investment money from the private sector to combine with public money that would defray some of the costs.

Q: So that’s sort of a sponsorship of a particular area for a naming right or something like that?

Rosall: I don’t think that’s our first choice.

Winter: The parks board has just come forward with a public/private partnership policy that has been addressed by representative of city council for some feedback, so I think we have some policy to work with.

Potential new features

Q: There was lots of talk – pro and con – about the public eating areas. Where did that idea come from, and where has that strategy been successful?

Richard Foy: It came from the downtown Boulder mall. The 20-plus years of people using it. They said they wanted more seating and a greater variety of seating.

Q: How will the pop-jet fountain work?

Foy: It uses a relatively little amount of water. For fountains, that’s probably the most cost-effective or eco-friendly water source idea that gets the most activity going. The systems come with sensors, thermostats that past a certain temperature degree, they turn themselves off, and they drain the area so you don’t get any frozen pipes. When an event is occurring, such as arts and crafts, if downtown wanted the real estate to put up tents and vendor booths, they could, and people wouldn’t feel as though there were something missing because it would be filled up with other types of activities.

George Karakehian: This had been looked at a couple of years ago. It was part of the Downtown Management Commission’s plan and DBI’s plan. There’s one in Aspen that I’m familiar with, and it is really the largest downtown attraction that there is. Children are there all the time. That’s in the center of a very – if not a more – historic district than downtown Boulder, and it’s designed in such as way that five-ton trucks making their deliveries drive right over it.

Winter: Flexibility is key in that area.

Q: How did you reach the need for the mall gateways?

Winter: The two ends of the mall were designed, specifically so, as bookends. The whole idea is to open it up and have flow both to the east and west ends (of the mall). You don’t want the idea of the mall to be the whole length of Pearl Street; you do want some sense of entry into the mall as a special place.

Karakehian: As a DMC board member, no one’s come to the DMC with problems with opening up the ends of the board.

Tom Eldridge: Part of the issue of getting people to cross the street toward Ninth Street is that end off the mall is also more inviting and encourages people to keep walking.

Foy: The second purpose beside encouraging people to go exploring into the surrounding downtown areas and neighborhoods is to provide more identity at each of the vehicular gateways that says, ‘This is Downtown Boulder; get out of your cars, and stay awhile.’

Carl Okazaki: The brick sidewalk is also expanded to act as a welcoming mat for East and West Pearl.

Regional competition

Q: From the Downtown Boulder study, you said 41 percent of the people using the mall were making under $25,000 per year and those making more than $50,000 per year made up 42 percent of the users. For the people who make more money, they might be more attracted to the high-end retailers that are available outside of the city of Boulder. They’ll certainly have the means to get to those places, such as FlatIron Crossing, which will have Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor. What steps should the city be taking to bring some of those high-end retailers downtown?

Rosall: There really is a potential major issue. Some people feel like the mall is losing its character by having certain chain stores coming in. That’s always a touchy issue. The reality is the mall has a pretty good blend.

Karakehian: I don’t think what made the mall had anything to do with Lord & Taylor’s or any of the large stores. What’s really made this mall what it is the small retailer and things that you wouldn’t get at Cherry Creek or Park Meadows. This mall wasn’t designed, nor were the size of the buildings large enough, to accommodate large nationals. We want more of the same. We don’t want to fuss around with the mix. The mix works.

Rosall: FlatIron Crossing has major tenants that have 100,000-square-foot stores. Downtown by definition is going to be smaller shops. Downtown becomes the destination as opposed to a particular store. What we’ve found in the studies that we’ve done is the variety of restaurants, entertainment, the people-watching, the pedestrian flavor and the blend of the specialty shops all work together to create this destination. Downtown will never be able to have one anchor store that drives business the way a shopping center has. It can’t compete that way. There’s not the land available. It’s too expensive.

Foy: But downtown should be working earnestly to address its tenant mix. Downtown should strive to maintain the kind of mix that it has. That is national chains, local businesses, and small, unique shops and larger shops. We should keep that variety, but we should be concerned with the cost of doing business per square foot because that drives out some of the businesses. The mitigating factor on that is the free-market system balances itself, and it creates other districts, such as the west end and the east end, which have some interesting shops.

Winter: Tenant mix is important. But the other key change here is the creation of the Business Improvement District (BID), which has as one of its major goals to do more marketing for the downtown. There’s just not one thing you do because FlatIrons Crossing is coming, but I think downtown has put together a nice combination of big initiatives in both the public and private sectors together to come up with a plan to make it work.

Paul Trementozzi: Downtown has faced those challenges when Crossroads came in the mid-’60s and the mid-’80s and was able to turn that around to their favor — that downtown is a really a unique place.

Karakehian: With the Business Improvement District, the funding is available this next year – the number we saw in marketing and promotions was $350,000. That’s more money in one year than downtown has spent in marketing and promotion possibly in its life. My hope – and I know a lot of other people’s hope downtown – is that we’re going to have 50,000 people per day within six miles of Boulder. I’m assuming we’re going to get a lot of those people to down the Hill.

Editor’s note: Members of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance submitted a proposal, called the Community Vitality Act, and addressed the Boulder city council in November to ask that the city impose a disincentive for new national chains relocating downtown, instead giving preference to local businesses. The city council is unlikely to address the issue until next year, but city attorney Joe de Raismes is researching the proposal.

The issues

Q: As business owners, what of the proposed changes are among the most exciting? Which ones raise concerns?

Eldridge: I key in on the broad view. The mall is almost 25 years old, and we have to do some upgrading and maintenance. There’s some components or pieces that are going to be controversial. Some people have different opinions about the area in front of the courthouse. I think the pop-jet is a great idea; I don’t know if people will accept it. The bookends – whether the new solution is OK or not — is going to be a big discussion. I support doing something.

Winter: There are two issues. One is put forth by the county commissioners, and they are very interested and concerned about what happens in the 1300 block. That’s dually noted. What’s key here is that this is conceptual design. What you see here isn’t necessarily what’s going to be built. There’s a lot of work that still has to happen in terms of materials and exact design. The only other comment I’ve gotten from people is the concern that we may lose trees, and I think that we are dually aware of that and this plan actually puts more trees in than are there now.

Q: What role, if any, do the county commissioners play in the redesign?

Rosall: As a large individual property owner adjacent to the mall, they have a role just by virtue of them having this full block ownership on the mall. From an obvious influence standpoint, they’re very strong. They’re not funding the project. They don’t have approval power in a formal sense.

Housing opportunities

Q: If there was more affordable housing in Boulder, would that help generate some business for the downtown area?

Eldridge: I do think more housing downtown would make downtown more viable. I think every downtown area in the world that is successful has a higher density of housing. Hopefully, we need to be looking at that downtown. We should allow a use-by-right of housing on the third and fourth floors. I agree that we’re not going to get into the big monsters. Every time a business is built without housing, we give that up for 100 years.

Foy: The national trend – cities in North Carolina, Washington, lots of places – is to reintroduce significant amounts of housing above shops and all over downtown. It works lovely. People can’t afford to live in the same town that they work, and it’s a tragedy. If you had places, like apartments, condos, two, three or four stories up above shops, it would be an asset to the customer as well as to the employment base.

Rosall: I think the reality is because of the scale of Boulder, you’re not going to get this huge number of units above the shops. You’ll see some individual projects and units, and I agree with what’s being said. There’s some opportunities, but I don’t think it’s realistic.

The last word

Karakehian: I think it’s important to know where the funds are coming from to do this. Two and a half years ago, we increased the meters downtown, and we also charged for Saturday parking. That’s where this $350,000 per year (appropriation) is coming from; that’s what’s funding this. $350,000 per year, I think isn’t to far out of line with a $4 million project (to repay a loan).

Rosall: Most people really like the mall the way it is. What we’re proposing in the plan is really respecting that. It’s an improvement, but the improvements are pretty subtle. We’re really reinforcing that it’s a timeless, understated development.

Foy: The key thing is we’re building on successes of what we know works and what people like. We’re underscoring the eating/outdoor dining and restaurant varieties. We are increasing the visibility to shops and the whole awareness of this as a retail district. And we’re increasing the opportunities for people-interaction. Those are the three things that people want to do around here — that’s to shop, eat and have fun.

Interview by Claudia Hibbert-BeDan and Jerry W. Lewis

Editor’s Note: The Boulder County Business Report hosted a roundtable discussion Nov. 15 about the Pearl Street Mall redesign. In attendance were Molly Winter, executive director of the city’s Downtown Management Commission (DMC); members of the redesign team, including Paul Trementozzi of OZ Architecture, Richard Foy and Carl Okazaki of Communication Arts and Nolan Rosall of RRC Associates; outgoing Boulder City Councilman Tom Eldridge, who owns Tom’s Tavern in downtown Boulder; and George Karakehian, owner of Art Source International on the Pearl Street Mall, vice chairman of Downtown Boulder Inc. (DBI), a non-profit…

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