Begin with letting businesses use the paver area near the street
By Mark Reaman
After nearly two hours of discussion, the Crested Butte Town Council decided Monday to keep its options open and possibly allow expansion of Elk Avenue business footprints into the street while still allowing a one-way flow of traffic this summer.
While reducing vehicle traffic and parking, the idea is to allow local businesses, especially restaurants, to serve customers in a greater area to allow more room for social distancing required under current public health orders. Such a reconfiguration of Elk Avenue could start sometime in June, depending on the health order situation.
In the meantime, council will allow businesses to utilize the paver or grass sections of the public right of way that is adjacent to Elk Avenue. Retail shops could display goods and restaurants could offer takeout meals on that portion of town property. Application forms will be available next week.
The town staff came up with five potential scenarios for expanding business areas along Elk with the intention of giving businesses more room to serve clients. They made it clear that the purpose was to help local business because of the COVID-19 crisis restrictions, and not an attempt to encourage gatherings or create a festival atmosphere.
The proposed changes would be temporary and “removed concurrent with the County moving to phase 3 of its re-opening plan,” a memo to the council stated.
Staff recommended utilizing a plan that allowed one-way traffic with some loading zones for deliveries, but no parking on Elk. “The caveat is that if it is not working or not helping businesses we can take it down,” explained town planner Mel Yemma.
Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce director Ashley UpChurch said a survey sent out to nearby businesses indicated 68 percent of the 86 respondents were in favor of closing Elk Avenue. New Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ said from a planning and transportation perspective, the idea in general was “a leading-edge concept that does several good things, including giving more space to business operations and promoting a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment.” He also admitted because he was so new to his job, the council members were closer to the street and the concerns of businesses.
Council last week brought up problems with the idea that included pushing parking into nearby neighborhoods; adhering to ADA regulations; and making deliveries difficult.
Council member Chris Haver suggested letting businesses use the paver section of the right of way along Elk. That would keep the sidewalk clear and could be implemented quickly. “We can see how it works and if businesses use it,” he said.
“These are extraordinary times and the issues of parking and traffic probably won’t be huge this coming summer,” said council member Mallika Magner. “I think council should be bold. If we stay with the status quo we are likely to lose some businesses. We should have the courage to do something to save our town. Plus, almost 70 percent of the businesses are in favor.”
Council member Mona Merrill suggested using Haver’s paver idea immediately but continuing down the road to reconfiguring Elk so staff could have time to prepare for that possibility. But she said, council wouldn’t be forced to make a final decision on whether to implement the new plan for several weeks, when the county public health orders could be significantly different from what they are now.
Town manager Dara MacDonald told the council she didn’t need a final decision but did need direction so staff could prepare features such as signage and flower boxes that might be used in the potential reconfiguration.
Council member Candice Bradley said she liked the paver idea because it could happen immediately.
Council member Will Dujardin wanted more parking to remain on Elk Avenue. He said he had heard that some businesses are fearful that if people don’t have a place to park nearby, they will lose more business than they would because of the pandemic. “I am afraid this could do more harm than good,” he said.
Mayor Jim Schmidt agreed with Dujardin, saying he was “reluctant to go there. While I favor the use of the paver areas, we will have a problem eliminating parking on Elk with pushing parking to Sopris and Maroon. I don’t want town to look like a ghost town. Closing off more than two blocks seems crazy to me.”
“Everything about this COVID situation is changing so fast, so often, every day, we can abandon the idea quickly if we need to. I just want to have Mountain Express be able to go up Elk,” said council member Laura Mitchell.
“If there is a time to try it, it is now,” said Merrill. “But ideally I would like to see some 10-minute parking spaces so people can pick up food to go.”
Since the council meeting was being held on Zoom, Schmidt read several comments, both for and against the idea.
“The bottom line is that if a restaurant is only allowed to open 25 to 30 percent of its seating, we’re dead,” said Bonez and Secret Stash owner Kyleena Falzone. “We have to do something. If we’re busy all of a sudden, take it away.”
MacDonald said if the council opts for a scenario with one-way traffic on Elk, the town could supply picnic tables for seating that would be spaced out along the street. Town could also rent extra tables and chairs to be placed in the street. She said while there are still a lot of details to be worked out, if the council wanted to move in that direction, she was confident that problems could be mitigated. She also said Gunnison County Public Health director Joni Reynolds was “enthusiastic” about the idea that gave visitors space to spread out.
“If we don’t find ways to spread out more, we could experience another surge in the virus and go back to restrictive health orders like the ones in March,” said Magner.
“It seems forced and rushed but I could support some of the options,” said Mitchell.
Merrill emphasized that while planning could take place, it would be something to use only if the situation warranted. “We want as many options as possible in the toolbox,” she said.
After a lot of discussion Haver suggested allowing the use of the paver areas as soon as possible and also having staff continue planning for a potential reconfiguration of Elk Avenue but with heavy input from business owners about what they would like to see specifically in front of their establishments. “It is worth spending a couple of thousand dollars on signs and beginning to work with individual businesses,” Haver said.
Staff will, in consultation with Elk Avenue businesses, plan for the potential of allowing one-way traffic on Elk Avenue this summer and not allowing parking so as to provide more space for business activities. Schmidt was the only one to vote against the idea.