(Daily Camera (Boulder, CO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 08--A downtown Boulder address comes at a premium, but businesses endure the higher rents knowing a spot in the city's commercial hub could reap huge rewards.
That cost of business just got a lot steeper for some downtown merchants.
Some local proprietors fear that concurrent construction projects underway in the blocks west of the Pearl Street Mall -- among them the $110 million redevelopment of the former Daily Camera property, which is expected to take two years -- will scare off shoppers and diners, putting their businesses and livelihoods at risk.
In response, some business owners in downtown Boulder's West End have started to mobilize.
Several business owners met in late May to discuss strategies -- from drafting a "manifesto" of bullet-pointed concerns to establishing a West End business association -- aimed at ensuring their viability in the short- and long-term.
Patrick Mallek, who runs Mighty Fudge Studios at 1017 Pearl St. and was one of eight business owners at the informal gathering, said he and others felt powerless in their attempts to dampen effects from the private developments and the city's West Pearl Streetscaping efforts.
"We're not naive and we don't want to stop progress," Mallek told the Camera last week, adding that the end result of the projects would be positive for the area. "...The West End is a special place in downtown, and we need our own voice."
In correspondence to City Council members and city officials, business owners have made requests for 12-hour work days for the construction projects and incentives such as tax breaks and free parking.
"We want to survive and thrive," Mallek said. "I think (the) underlying goal is to not lose what's awesome about the West End."
City officials said the timing of the west Pearl construction projects was purely coincidental and that they're evaluating potential solutions.
"I want to make sure I'm understanding what the city may have already done and what our view of the situation is," said Liz Hanson, Boulder's economic vitality coordinator, who recently became involved with the West End discussions. "My experience is there are often creative solutions you can find ... to mitigate some of the impacts."
Hanson typically works with attracting and maintaining larger, primary employers. But the smaller businesses are just as critical to the city, she said.
"I think those business' successes directly relate to the city's success," she said, making note of tourism, sales tax, culture and economic development.
"It's as important to us as it is to them to make sure they're going to succeed and thrive during this time."
Sustaining economic vitality
In mid-February, the city moved forward on West Pearl Streetscaping, one of the roughly 90 projects funded by the $49 million capital improvement bond OK'd by voters in 2011.
The project in downtown's West End followed a similarly focused streetscaping effort along 15th Street and is scheduled to wrap up by the end of the year -- ahead of a March 2015 deadline for the requirement that 85 percent of the bond be spent.
The $1.2 million West Pearl Streetscaping project includes the replacement of sidewalks for beautification and to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements; installation of an irrigation system and grates for the trees that line the streets; modification of intersections to enhance pedestrian safety; and the creation of new bus stops and way-finding "totems."
The streetscaping project spans the areas surrounding Pearl from 11th to Seventh streets.
The economic vitality and cultural vibrancy of downtown depends on "dynamic and attractive public spaces and right of ways," city officials wrote in the guiding principles for the capital improvement bond's downtown projects.
"Private investment follows public investment," city officials said. "Should downtown and the Pearl Street Mall become outdated and not fully use technology, it would negatively impact the social and economic sustainability of the downtown and the community."
Businesses in the downtown area -- classified as the region between Arapahoe Avenue and Pine Street from Fifth to 18th streets, excluding the Pearl Street Mall -- contributed $6 million in sales tax to the city's coffers.
The first aspect of the Downtown Commercial District Improvements included landscaping along 15th Street and the installation of Pearl Street information kiosks.
The west Pearl work is slated for 2014, according to the city of Boulder's Special Highlight on Capital Improvement Bond report. Its expected timetable was nine to 12 months.
But when the city project started in February with a target completion date of October, it had some company.
The on-again, off-again development at 901 Pearl St. -- a one-story gallery building formerly home to Marisol Imports and Tesla -- received the necessary approvals and financial backing to move forward.
As city crews worked their way west on Pearl from 11th Street with the streetscaping, the building at Ninth and Pearl was demolished in April and the surrounding sidewalks became a staging area. Business access grew complicated and pedestrians were forced to step into traffic near a blind corner to cross the street.
At that time, business owners told the Camera that their concerns were heightened because the worst had yet to come.
In addition to a planned infill development at 909 Walnut, West End businesses started bracing for construction to start at 1048 Pearl and 1023 Walnut, a two-building property long home to the Daily Camera. The site sold in 2010 and the newspaper relocated its operations to east Boulder.
The $110 million PearlWest, a four-story commercial building with retail, office, restaurant and theater uses in addition to underground parking, had a construction timeline of 22 months.
Mitigating and minimizing
The timing of the projects confounded some local shop owners. Others said they were blind-sided by aspects of the projects, including the chopping down and replacement of dozens of street trees, notably green ashes that city officials said were either dead, dying or susceptible to disease.
"You might get cancer, so we've got to shoot you," Mighty Fudge's Mallek quipped at the informal gathering of West End business owners.
Officials for the city and the business association representing downtown businesses said they're dedicating significant time and resources to address concerns.
"We were planning the (streetscaping) projects back in '11 and '10; it was before these (private) projects moved forward," said Molly Winter, executive director of the city's Downtown & University Hill Management Division and Parking Services. "It was not, in any way, purposeful ... there was no schedule for the other projects at the time."
Once city officials saw that the four projects could coincide, Winter said she and others tried to develop a process that would involve all the various parties and affected groups.
They scheduled monthly meetings for construction updates, contributed money for a West End marketing program, developed a comprehensive alley management plan and made efforts to address issues in a timely fashion, she said.
"I think we're trying to do everything within our power to mitigate it," Winter said.
Boulder's Downtown and University Hill Management Division/Parking Services, through the Central Area General Improvement District, paid $10,000 for the marketing efforts.
Nichols Partnership, the Denver-based firm developing the 160,000-square-foot PearlWest project on the former Camera site, chipped in $4,000, according to information provided by Nick Grossman, a city of Boulder spokesman.
The $14,000 budget helped to fund the creation of the Wild West End Wednesdays promotion for businesses in west downtown Boulder.
Marketing efforts under that promotion include five full page ads, 13 half-page ads and four online billboard ads with the Daily Camera; 10,000 postcards created by Eight Days a Week; a poster panel in the interactive kiosk off 11th and Pearl streets; and a "digital direct mail campaign" sent to 50,000 e-mail addresses within a 13-mile radius of the West End, according to the city of Boulder.
Local business owners, however, say that the Wild West End Wednesdays promotion doesn't go far enough and that their concerns -- especially the ability to sustain their shops and restaurants in the long run -- are not all being addressed or solved.
"All of us have tried every single which way to bring some attention to this," said Noah Westby, owner of Trident Booksellers and Cafe
In addition to speaking at a recent Boulder City Council meeting and participating in ongoing discussions with city downtown management staff members, Westby has met and walked with some City Council members along the cone-filled blocks surrounding his business.
Last Tuesday, Westby met with Liz Hanson, the city's economic vitality coordinator, asking for a means to address a loading zone that eats up parking in the critical morning hours for the Trident, a coffee shop and bookstore that opened in 1980.
Since the construction started for the streetscaping and across the street at 901 Pearl St. -- a mixed-use development consisting of a high-end restaurant at street level and condominiums in the two floors above -- the Trident has taken a 15 percent hit to its sales, Westby said.
People want to avoid downtown Boulder and, especially, the West End because of construction, Westby said, adding that patrons of his Caffe Sole in south Boulder and Dagabi Cucina in north Boulder have relayed those sentiments.
"Hopefully the small, little businesses can survive that two-year period," Westby said.
The current incentives that include 60-minute parking vouchers for the garage east of the St. Julien Hotel & Spa, at 900 Walnut St., need to go further, Westby said, adding he has lobbied for free parking in the garages and a tax break for affected businesses.
"You don't want to lose the independent, small guys that have been here and have made the West End what it is today," he said.
Concessions, however, can be complicated matters, said Sean Maher, executive director of Downtown Boulder Inc., part of the publicly and privately funded Downtown Boulder Business Improvement district.
Rebates on property taxes could end up hurting school districts or county operations and sales and use tax abeyance would not be reasonable, he said.
"I had a couple conversations with (Boulder City Council members and city leaders) and their response is that every time there's a construction project anywhere in the city, we can't just give up the tax revenue from that project," Maher said.
Maher, who said he's talking to West End business owners on a daily basis, said he'll continue to lobby for the local shops, restaurants and offices being affected.
A former operator of Ben & Jerry's on the Pearl Street Mall, Maher said he's well aware of how critical the summer tourism season is to businesses.
"We can't wave a magic wand and make it all go away," he said. "We can talk to the contractors, the crew and do everything that we can to keep the pressure on to minimize the impact."
Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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