Elk Avenue to be reconfigured for one-way traffic this summer

Single lane one-way to give businesses more room to serve

by Mark Reaman

The great 2020 one-way Elk Avenue experiment will begin on Tuesday, June 16. The Crested Butte Town Council unanimously voted Monday to give the idea of a single one-way lane on Elk a try in an effort to provide local businesses, especially restaurants, with more space to service customers, due to limits with coronavirus social distancing and capacity restrictions.

A nearly three-hour discussion took place Monday as council struggled with the merits of such a plan and listened to numerous public comments both for and against the concept. Led by town planner Mel Yemma and community development director Troy Russ, the town spent the last several weeks communicating with business owners who would be impacted and crafting a plan that tried to mitigate the concerns raised by local businesses. Some of the businesses were adamantly against changing Elk Avenue at all, while others were ready to take as much extra space as possible.

The basic idea is that there will be a 12-foot drive lane in the middle of Elk Avenue with two-foot shoulders on each side. Flower box barriers and rope will then be used to delineate parts of the street to provide additional seating for restaurants or display spaces for local retailers in the public right of way.

Traffic will head west and the council will lower the speed limit to 10 miles per hour. About 25 percent of the normal parking will be eliminated along Elk Avenue while loading zones will be allowed and both short-term (10 minute) and longer-term (two hour) parking will be permitted in various spots.

The Mountain Express will make an additional stop to let people load and enter their bus in the middle of the 300 block of Elk.

The town has made the effort to accommodate the requests of individual businesses with what goes in front of each establishment. Restaurants will be able to apply for a modified liquor license that will allow people to drink at tables along the street.

A 9 p.m. curfew will be in place to keep late-night noise down. The town estimates that it will cost about $5,000 to implement the plan.

“The desire of this was the realization that restaurants couldn’t seat as many people as they have in the past under public health order restrictions,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “Lots of other resort towns are trying similar things.”

Yemma again emphasized that it was a temporary situation that could quickly be rolled back if it wasn’t working. “But the goal is to encourage commerce and give businesses more space that was eliminated from health restrictions. The idea is to spread people out more and make them feel safe,” she said. “This is meant to be a customized solution that tries to meet the needs of individual businesses. We would like to maintain flexibility to work with businesses who request changes as things evolve.”

Russ said safety was a priority with the plan and measures will be in place to protect pedestrians. “This is a new idea for here but it has been done before,” he said. He explained that since the plan morphed into a hybrid that kept significant parking along Elk Avenue, the overflow parking issues on nearby neighborhoods would be less than originally anticipated. “It is a tough summer and we are all just trying to figure out a plan together.”

Some council members were initially lukewarm to the idea on Monday. “I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer but even though the idea has evolved I’ve still gotten a lot of feedback that businesses don’t want this,” said council member Laura Mitchell, referencing a letter that apparently included the names of 21 businesses located near or on Elk Avenue. “It feels like some businesses will get the golden ticket and some will get screwed.”

“Parking is still a big concern with me,” said council member Will Dujardin. “Also watching the street as the public health orders have changed shows how people are clustering. There are still places in this country where the infection rate is rising and we will get people here from those places. We should anticipate a second wave of the virus. I’m also concerned it will put more on the marshal’s plate.”

Crested Butte chief marshal Mike Reily admitted the plan comes with “a lot of unknowns. We’ll see what happens and do what we can but we’ll do our best to make the plan function if you direct us to.”

Public comment ran the gamut. Bruce Eckel has an office space on Elk and loved the idea. “If it can be adapted for businesses we should try the experiment,” he said.

Priscila Palhava of Studio West was against the idea and accused the town of “massaging the information” it was putting out and not working with businesses as much as staff indicated. “Are you really proud of a $5,000 plan? And it eliminates ADA parking on Elk Avenue. Most businesses think you are shoving this down their throats.”

Richard Machemehl of Niky’s Donuts disagreed. “I am in favor of this and think the hybrid is a great idea. Let’s try it and see how it goes. It’s not permanent. The worst case is that in a month we reverse it.”

Kyleena Falzone of the Secret Stash and Bonez said plenty of businesses wanted the plan to be implemented. “Restaurants run on volume. We need to make room for people, not vehicles. There will still be 75 percent of the parking spaces. I think you came up with an incredible plan that’s a hybrid. And understand that when people are on a waiting list, they go shopping and help retail stores.”

“This is an easy way to space people out. It is worth taking a gamble and see if it works,” added Mary Boddington of the Talk of the Town.

“We’re 100 percent dead set against changing anything,” said Curtis Higgins of Elk Avenue Prime. “We will be busy this summer with more cars and even 100 percent of parking on Elk in the summer isn’t enough. We had four times the business this past weekend than the year before. People are tired of being cooped up and they are generous and appreciative and ready to be waited on in a restaurant. The people love being able to sit along the pavers so thank you very much for allowing that. But don’t change the Elk Avenue traffic configuration.”

“It is beneficial to spread out, so Kochevar’s would love you to give this a try,” said bar owner Mike Knoll.

Council warmed up to the idea as the meeting went on with the understanding it could be pulled quickly if it didn’t work. “This is really a hard decision. It seems 50-50,” said council member Mona Merrill. “I like lowering the speed limit from 15 to 10 miles per hour to make it safer. But I’m definitely conflicted.”

“One of the beauties of this is the flexibility of it,” said council member Mallika Magner. “If it’s not working it seems easy to undo. If it is working, we could extend it into September. It doesn’t seem right that town government would just do nothing in this crisis. This plan is so individualized. If it doesn’t work it could be taken down overnight.”

“It seems like we have to do something,” agreed Dujardin. “This would help create space for businesses to succeed. The staff came up with a really good hybrid plan. I know there will be impacts to the side streets with parking but we can cross that bridge when we get there.”

“We need to listen to the businesses as we continue to move forward,” said council member Chris Haver. “If this isn’t helping businesses then we need to know that.”

“One of the big goals is we want people to feel safe when they are in town,” added Schmidt.

After a lengthy ancillary discussion initiated by Haver about spacing between sidewalk seating and seating on the pavers, the council voted to proceed with the plan proposed by the staff. The motion said regular reviews would be used to determine if the plan was working and the staff would have the ability to make changes based on business desires. The speed limit will be set at 10 mph.

Council voted 7-0 to approve the motion.

The plan will be implemented June 16 and is slated to be in place until September 1.

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