A town’s ‘walkability’ can breed success
The American love affair with the automobile has shaped our cities and towns, often not for the best.
Where it has more easily transported us to this great place in the Rocky Mountains, the automobile took precedence in our towns when U.S. Highway 40 was paved, widened and became the speedy motorway that exists today. Now nearly every Grand County town endures hurried traffic cutting through Main Street while business owners brainstorm ways to flag down drivers.
The automobile took further precedence during questionable car-centric strip-mall planning in the 1970s-and-on, which resulted in vast parking lots in front of retail structures, with gaping curb cutouts, again pandering wholeheartedly to the automobile while the pedestrian was an afterthought.
And when developers hope to invest in projects with promising economic benefit in our towns, proven on-site parking spaces continue to be a top and discouraging requirement, upwards to $10,000 per space, even when towns are struggling most of the year to fill up spaces they already have.
But you don’t have to be an enlightened expert on economic development to know it’s really not highway traffic but foot traffic that physically brings dollars into businesses.
A town’s greatest challenge is luring individuals out of their cars and onto the pavement.
Here’s the thing: if your town has enough to offer, visitors will find a place to park, somewhere. Even if it’s a block or more away, they’ll walk (or wheel) their way to what first attracted them, and they may even stop in a business or two along the way.
Discussed at length in the book “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, a city’s or town’s “walkability” factor directly correlates to its success (or lack of success) — from sales tax revenues and property values to the general welfare of its people.
In studying the most alluring downtowns, it’s usually those with a vibrant and concentrated mix of shopping, eating, entertaining, and sleeping located in interesting buildings that feeds into this quality-of-life quotient. Think of some of Colorado’s most successful downtown destinations: Larimer Square in Denver; Pearl Street Mall in Boulder; Bridge Street in Vail. Walks in these places are useful, safe, comfortable and interesting, in keeping with what Speck calls “a General Theory of Walkability.”
“Lots of money and muscle have gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights and trash cans,” Speck writes, “but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? …Clearly, there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.”
Creating vibrant downtown districts is what Roger Brooks, CEO of Destination Development, talks about in his webinar presentation of “The 20 ingredients of an Outstanding Destination,” which was recently shown in Grand Lake as part of that town’s Downtown Assessment.
“If you don’t hang out in your downtown, neither will visitors,” Brooks said. He later underscored this with, “The health of your downtown is a litmus test for the health of your community.”
Speck says the same: “The conventional wisdom used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and a higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely,” he writes. “Creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs.”
Included in his 20 Ingredients, Brooks outlines how on three continuous blocks of any downtown, 10 businesses should be open after 6 p.m.; towns should brand themselves; summer outdoor dining at restaurants should be encouraged; and on-street parking encouraged, but off-street parking should be located somewhere that doesn’t interrupt the continuous flow of interest in a downtown. Directional signage should point visitors to where that public parking is.
Brooks advocates sacrificing parking if it means creating a buzz in your downtown. “Exchange parking for outdoor dining,” he said. “The better your downtown, the farther we’re willing to walk,” adding, “Congestion is a town’s best friend.”
Everyone must take part — government, property owners, business owners, and residents — to make a downtown successful.
“Sometimes we get so into rules and regulations, we kill our downtowns,” Brooks said of government.
Commercial property owners must do their part to attract the mix of businesses needed to make a downtown vibrant. Business owners must make their businesses attractive, available and competitive, and their merchandise fresh. And residents must strive to use their downtowns.
“Walkability” can start on just one street block, experts say. One attractive walkable block may breed benefits in the entire core of town.
With this basic prescription for economic development, each and every downtown in Grand County has outstanding things to offer.
In downtown Winter Park, for example, the town invested heavily to improve Hideaway Park, which is now a central and exciting part of town with concerts, skateboarding and other events. It also has public restrooms in the heart of town near where people are willing to spend money. The challenge with Winter Park, however, is its walkability becomes less comfortable farther north as the businesses are set back and spread farther apart on Highway 40. With that said, perhaps Lions Gate Drive eventually could serve as a walkable commercial block of downtown, as suggested in that town’s comprehensive plan.
This vibrancy with pedestrians enjoying the streetscape is likely what Winter Park Resort hoped for with its one block of new commercial space at its base.
Downtown Fraser has charming Eisenhower Drive that leads to a wonderful grid of small homes. This area could attract more and more artists and artisans who eventually could transform spaces into storefronts. It already may be starting to happen organically.
The best idea for downtown Granby I’ve heard so-far is capitalizing on what the Railroad Museum folks are starting to do, and brand downtown Granby as a railroad town. I’ve counted at least five restaurants situated uphill from the railroad, with a view beyond. Why not create a row of summertime outdoor eating spaces at the sides and backs of restaurants, where patrons can enjoy the view and see an occasional train go by? Granby also has a parking lot in the center of its downtown where there already have been farmers markets. Perhaps that should no longer be a parking lot but beautified as a gathering place, maybe with a fountain, even a gas fire pit for winter. This space could continue to be used for farmer’s markets and live music — all showcasing the railroad and view — flanked by two eateries with outdoor seating.
Hot Sulphur Springs in my mind has great potential to be a Grand County sought-after destination. Its anchor business is the year-round hot springs resort, and there could be a wonderful mix of shops and restaurants in its downtown, tucked nicely away from Highway 40. Better directional signage could lead visitors to the walkable heart of Hot Sulphur Springs.
And the town of Kremmling has its own advantages. It’s on its way to being the mecca for hunting, bicycling, rafting, snowmobiling and trail-running. Kremmling has an incredible downtown square. I picture restaurants with outdoor seating and exciting shops around that square to create some vibrancy and “walkability” that can spill over to other nearby businesses.
Grand Lake is already the best-designed walkable town in the county. Its boardwalks, town park, diagonal parking and beachfront are ideal. But what Grand Lake could use, like many towns, is the reliability that if visitors come to its downtown, businesses will be open after 6 p.m. And, Grand Lake could better capitalize on its gem of a beachfront by making it more of a pedestrian plaza — blockading it with temporary barricades such as potted trees in summertime. Cars should park in public parking lots or on other streets, not on the beachfront, thereby depositing more pedestrians into the downtown.
Whether embracing these ideas or others, it’s about tapping into the assets of our downtowns. Rewards for everyone can start with just one section of a street.
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