At the Bend City Council meeting May 20, city staff and councilors discussed allowing restaurants and retail locations to expand into private parking lots in downtown Bend. Some businesses want to spread out on the sidewalk beyond their immediate storefronts—provided their neighbors are OK with it.
- Nicole Vulcan
Meanwhile, there's still discussion of whether or not to completely close some—or any—of Bend's downtown streets to cars. At the City Council meeting, Transportation and Mobility Director David Abbas discussed a hybrid plan that would close off one lane of traffic downtown and still allow for some parallel parking. Some councilors expressed concern about how the plans might negatively affect some businesses, which, according to some councilors' arguments, simply have to have parking directly in front of their business in order to succeed.
For a moment, we thought this pandemic-era talk of actually closing down the streets of downtown was going to be our Normandy in the local War on Cars—and we couldn't have been happier to storm that beach.
Cities elsewhere in the world have successfully created pedestrian zones in their downtown areas, to the benefit of the business owners, yes—but also to the locals and visitors who now flock to those zones as islands of refuge from loud vehicles and traffic. Pedestrian zones encourage equity, and not just dominance for the people with the biggest cars. Working creatively and cooperatively, we can even safely shut down some streets and still be mindful of the people who need additional accommodation, such as disabled individuals.
The Bend City Council is correct in taking advantage of this time of change to re-craft a vision for Bend's downtown—and ideally one that prioritizes people, first and foremost. But as this begins to play out, it's looking like this good idea is going to get bogged down in long bureaucratic discussions—and without input from an important part of the population, to boot.
If the notion of closing downtown streets to cars seems novel or "out there" or bad for business, one needs only look at the successes of other Western cities.
Way back in 1974, the mayor of Boulder, Colorado, appointed a "Core Area Revitalization Committee" to establish a Downtown Boulder Mall along Pearl Street, in the heart of Boulder's downtown. Some people balked. Some businesses worried about business disruptions—and parking. But in 1976, four city blocks in Boulder were finally closed to traffic. People got used to driving around and walking to the businesses. Today, far more people can flood those closed streets than would be possible were they open for cars. Many now opt to walk, bike or ride the bus to access downtown Boulder, instead of driving. Since one City of Bend goal is to "reduce vehicle miles traveled" in Bend, closing our streets could help achieve this, too.
According to information published on the website of the Downtown Boulder business association, Richard Foy, co-chair of Communications Arts, Inc. summed up the success of the project, saying, "Pearl Street, once Boulder's commercial artery, has become its cultural heart and soul."
Ultimately, on Wednesday, the Bend City Council voted 5-2 in favor of establishing a short-term program for the use of public streets and other public places. City of Bend staff have marching orders to gather data from business owners about how to move forward.
But while businesses certainly do have a voice in this decision, what about the people who would use the space? Businesses—whether near pedestrian zones or not—come and go, but the number of local people who patronize those businesses will largely remain the same, or grow—and patrons will be the deciding factor in whether businesses succeed. Parking could be an issue, but with just 30% of downtown's parking inventory being on the street, closing a street, or two, is not going to stymie all downtown parking.
On that topic and others related to closing streets, the City of Bend should act quickly to survey some of the actual patrons of these businesses, on top of seeking input from the businesses themselves. Still, even then, don't expect consensus. City leaders need to move quickly through the polling process, into quick decision making.
The current pandemic is presenting an opportunity for Bend to re-think its relationship to cars as it relates to the downtown core. Bend should look to the success of pedestrian zones in other locales and move forward aggressively with reshaping downtown for the good of all of the people who use it.