A swing and a miss on Elk Avenue deliberations… almost

I don’t think there is much doubt that most of the Crested Butte town council and most of the citizens and visitors look back at the summer of 2020 and consider the hastily put-together reconfiguration of Elk Avenue a great success. I do. Street seating to help businesses, one-way traffic that reduced congestion, a slower speed limit to make things comfortable all really worked. Kudos go out to the town and the businesses for being creative and figuring out something good at the start of a crappy pandemic.

I wrote more than a month ago that I’d bet the house there would be a similar Elk Ave. reconfiguration this summer even if COVID-19 restrictions were eliminated. And I’ll still take that bet and be supportive of such a move.

As discussion over the coming summer plan was held Monday evening by the town council, staff and public, I felt like a baseball batter that expected an easy fastball but was thrown a curve. I was worried the council would make too quick a decision that would put a cloud over potential positive opportunity and end in a complete whiff.

The whiff would have come if the council had embraced the recommendation from the staff that night to make the seasonal reconfiguration permanent, agreed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money buying patios for private restaurants and started the march toward increased parking regulations without checking in with the general community. All these staff recommendations might be fine but it’s better the council took a breath and will make a choice in two weeks instead of doing so last Monday. The feeling of being pushed in a corner to make a decision before general community knowledge and vetting of the recommendations was unsettling to me.

I didn’t have an inkling about the major changes being suggested until I read the council packet that was available less than a week before the council meeting. I understand the recommendations were talked about extensively at the myriad focus group sessions, online forums and public gatherings but they hadn’t made their way into the general ether. Not everyone wants to spend his or her life in meetings (where I spend a fair amount of time, so I know) — so to think just because the most impacted people talked about it a lot, that it translated to general public approval, is just wrong.

The one neighbor and two business owners that had participated extensively in the focused public process still suggested on Monday that the town slow down and take more baby steps this summer with the proposed changes. They said the town should consider keeping the street seating and one-way traffic while adding some traffic calming and safety measures but shouldn’t go all-in on a decision that could change the character of place in a big way for a long time.

Councilwoman Mallika Magner indicated she had attended a ton of the public meetings since January and the staff’s participation with the public tallied “hours and hours.” That seemed to be enough reason for her to move forward.

Mayor Jim Schmidt used the political platitude that there could be “paralysis through analysis” by talking too much about the topic so he advocated moving ahead despite all the new information presented at Monday’s meeting including dipping into budget reserves to pay for patios. I know pulling a half million bucks out of a multi-million dollar reserve fund is peanuts but still…

Community development director Troy Russ basically said the topic had been talked to death since last May when he started in his job and the reconfiguration initially began. He felt there was enough information for the council to make a go or no-go decision on Monday and time was a factor.

Russ and town planner Mel Yemma are two of the best town employees I’ve ever seen at reaching out to the public in general and to impacted citizens in particular on almost any given issue. They sincerely want to communicate to people about what is coming down the pipeline whether it is an Elk Ave. reconfiguration, trail issues at the McCormick Ranch or everything going on in the Paradise Park neighborhood. Pushing the council to make a final decision Monday seemed like a swing and a miss.

Let’s not forget this is a small town. Making a decision that will impact the main business district for 10-plus years (or a lot longer) is not something to slide in at the council level during one March meeting despite the fact some people have spent hours and hours talking about it. I honestly don’t yet know what putting town-owned patios in public parking spaces for private businesses will mean for the community. We all have a couple weeks to think about it.

Last year’s changes were a great success for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the rallying together of the wider community. The town’s nimble response to help local business owners was wonderful. The vibe of the streetscape reflected the town and the decrease in traffic and congestion was positive. These latest, more permanent ideas could be just as good or better… or they could bring a new urbanity to CB that will match the rising real estate prices.

Government should not make hasty decisions — and analysis of new information is not a fault. I am glad the council members gave themselves a few weeks to get more info through solid bids and will take the time to hear more comments from the community in general. I am glad they are ready to step back in the batter’s box and figure out what type of swing to take at the next pitch.

It’s one thing to support another summer of CB-centric street seating and one-way traffic and another to support a permanent and expensive change with tighter enforcement actions. The council gets to decide whether to go for the single or try to swing for the fences on April 5. Let them know what you think they should do.

—Mark Reaman

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