Mall in the Family

While other downtown malls died, Boulderís was a real success story. But then came the chains and other Block-busters.

In an annual survey conducted for the Downtown Management Committee, however, this fall RRC Associates found significant levels of consumer discontent with the parking situation downtown. Mall visitors were asked to score their experiences on a scale of one to five. While "atmosphere," "ease of walking around" and "safety and cleanliness" all rated between four and five, parking ranked between two and three with "adequacy/availability" lowest at 2.5. Under the heading "single most important improvement you would like to see," expanding parking facilities received the most response -- 26 percent.

While overall patronage of the mall remained high, the survey found that the percentage of out-of-town visitors had dropped from 38 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 1999 -- a small drop, but one RRC considers significant because those visitors tend to spend more on restaurants and shopping than Boulder residents.

The survey also asked for comments and received many deploring the growing presence of chain stores. "Not enough local shops," "too many chain outlets," "losing hometown feel," respondents said. But RRC's David Belin notes that another common complaint was the lack of lower-priced merchandise.

Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.
James Bludworth
Precious jewels: Mary and Naim Doost are closing their Gem and Jewelry Source.

Details

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Merchants battle transients on the mall






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Mall buskers aren't always welcome







During the Sixties and Seventies, downtowns across the country built malls. Almost all of them failed. Boulder's success can be attributed to several factors. There was the care taken by original planners, their insistence that the project be well-thought-through and soundly executed (see "Scenes From a Mall," page 30). There was the already established downtown presence of churches, banks, a post office, Boulder's main library and various government buildings. And unlike many malls, the Pearl Street Mall was surrounded by residential neighborhoods; in addition to guaranteeing foot traffic, this ensured that a downtown mall would not take on the unreal character common to places frequented only by shoppers and tourists.

Many malls failed because they were in areas that completely excluded traffic. But in Boulder, Broadway remained open, along with the streets intersecting Pearl, ensuring that the mall was visible -- and seemed central -- to people driving around town. Boulder's natural beauty was another plus, as was Colorado's generally clement weather.

Almost everyone agrees that the mall's physical design -- the work of Communication Arts, the architectural firm of Everett-Zeigel and Massachusetts landscape designers Sasaki, Dawson and Demay and Associates -- is brilliant. In designing a public space, "We ask questions about what makes people feel good about where they live and put those elements into play," says Richard Foy of Communication Arts, which would later work on Park Meadows, the "retail resort."

Boulder has always fancied itself a cultivated and cosmopolitan place, Foy adds. "The pioneers wanted to outlaw feed stores from locating on Pearl Street because wagons being loaded was insufficiently cosmopolitan," he explains. "They wanted Boulder to be the Princeton of the West, and the university did set it apart from the surrounding agrarian towns. Boulder is still targeted by the rest of the state as elitist, artsy, conceited, living in our own reality." He laughs.

Back in the mid-Seventies, the designers settled on a timeless, classical look for the Pearl Street Mall. They paved it in warm red brick (brought in from New York), set up benches and flower beds, provided tall, round kiosks for fliers and planted trees -- a different species on each of the mall's four blocks to protect against insect damage -- and clusters of evergreens to provide year-round foliage.

There was a lot at stake in those early years. At one planning meeting, Foy remembers, "someone came up, grabbed me by the collar and slammed me against the wall. 'How long have you been in Boulder?' he said. 'I've lived here all my life, and if this fails, I'm coming after you.'"

Communication Arts fronts Pearl Street, so Foy lives daily with his own design. "We've been on this mall 25 years," he says. "We know what works."

Recently, the city hired Communication Arts to work on a redesign of the mall; Boulder has budgeted $350,000 a year for renovation work. Design modifications are already under discussion, and Foy feels the project will give him a chance to rectify some early mistakes. He wants to widen the sidewalk in some spots; do away with the patch of green in front of the Boulder Book Store and turn it into a paved outdoor dining area; take down some of the tree planters in front of the courthouse and set up a jet fountain there; use subtle lighting to accentuate the architectural features of the street's historic buildings; create archways welcoming people onto the mall; and install an electronic information booth.

Foy is optimistic about the mall's continued vitality. He believes the small shop owners being forced off Pearl Street by high rents will set up vibrant little enclaves surrounding it. And to some extent, this has already happened at either end of the mall and on nearby streets.

The mall proper is only four blocks long, but it is not monolithic. It changes character block by block, and the blocks beyond it at either end have their own ambience and are considered by most Boulderites to be part of the mall. In front of the Boulder Book Store are planters with low walls and the eventually to-be-eliminated patch of grass where, in good weather, office workers sit and eat lunch. Two ice cream shops -- Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, both locally owned national franchises -- face each other catty-corner across Broadway.

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