Council open to permanent summer Elk Ave. changes

Town would spend six figures to own patios

[ By Mark Reaman ]

With or without coronavirus restrictions in place, the Crested Butte town council made it clear on Monday that it is open to make Elk Avenue one-way every summer for the foreseeable future and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for patio structures this year to make it happen. The annual reconfiguration would come with mitigation measures that include significant traffic calming on the nearby side streets and a major parking management plan that would start with stricter Elk Ave. parking enforcements along with neighborhood and employee parking permits this summer.

Council directed staff to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) by the end of this week for the town to purchase platform patios that would be installed in front of Elk Avenue restaurants that want them. The 12-foot-wide patios would be set up in the street, have an enclosed railing and be ADA accessible from the curb. The town would own the patios and initial estimates are that each one would cost about $20,000. It is anticipated the town would purchase between 25 and 35 of the structures along with traffic calming devices. The expectation is to obtain a $150,000 state grant to help alleviate costs but the patios and extras are expected to cost the town between $358,000 and $530,000. Council will review the bids and decide on April 5 whether to spend the money and move ahead with the enhanced reconfiguration plan.

Patios over parklets
Under the staff’s patio recommendation, there would no longer be sidewalk seating allowed on Elk Avenue but some businesses could use the brick paver section for seating. Given space restrictions, bikers would only be officially allowed to ride west with the one-way vehicle traffic and there would be a 10 mph speed limit. Participating restaurants would be charged a permit fee for each patio in the neighborhood of $1,000.
In a report to the council, Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ and town planner Mel Yemma said that during the focus group meetings held this winter, robust discussion was held and some participants liked last year’s “parklet” scenario that constituted a “Crested Butte vibe” while others felt the patios would provide a uniform baseline look with the opportunity for each business to customize the space.

Traffic calming devices for side streets such as pop-up 15 mph signs and flower boxes would be placed on Sopris, Maroon and Whiterock Avenues to reduce speeding. Staff estimates that 38 parking spaces on Elk Ave. would be lost in the summer with a maximum of two patio spaces allowed for any restaurant. Thus, seating capacity at local restaurants could increase about 18 percent during the summer patio season that would run between Memorial Day and October 15.

Between a one-hour work session on the reconfiguration topic before the council meeting and a two-hour discussion during the meeting, the council grappled with the price tag of the project, equity to all businesses in the core area and urgency expressed by staff to make a decision. Yemma went over the “pretty robust process” used to obtain public feedback that included numerous focus groups, online participation and public meetings.

“This would be a significant investment and is meant as a permanent seasonal solution going forward,” said Russ.

Councilwoman Mona Merrill asked why the town should pick up the entire purchase of the patios instead of having the businesses chip in. “I want the restaurants to be successful but it could increase revenue to the restaurant significantly,” she said. “If we buy the patios we’re basically giving restaurants more square footage for free. It feels like retail stores are then getting nothing.”

“We’ve found that purchasing the patios is equitable since not all the restaurants are the same,” said Russ. “Safety standards are also important since they will be placed in the town right-of-way. The feeling was that restaurants are the anchor businesses along Elk and retail stores are helped through proximity.”

“It came out clearly in the community meetings that a primary value of town is ADA accessibility,” added councilwoman Mallika Magner. “The patios address that issue. That makes this expensive but it is a community value and one I share.”

“If we buy these it means probably a 10-year commitment,” noted councilman Jason MacMillan. “I have heard some people question why their business paid large fees for outdoor seating and now every restaurant is getting it inexpensively.”

Russ said the businesses that paid the fees earlier are guaranteed outdoor seating every year. This reconfiguration could change depending on future councils and conditions.

“The question we as a council should be asking is ‘why are we doing this’,” said councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “Is it to help the restaurants? To improve the vibe? Because of COVID?”

“We heard from the community and they liked the set-up last summer,” said Russ. “It was festive and improved the pedestrian experience. As prices here increase, rents and leases are likely to go up as well and this helps business owners increase revenue. This is also a way to retain the character of Crested Butte longer.”

“I look at it as a compromise to making Elk Avenue a pedestrian mall that has been talked about for years but comes with major issues,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “The one-way reconfiguration worked better than I expected last summer.”

Merrill said she too thought last summer was a success but being faced with a possible $500,000 expenditure and increased parking management she didn’t expect was giving her some heartburn. “I would like to see how the upcoming summer works with perhaps lighter COVID-19 restrictions. What is the new normal going to look like?”

Councilman Chris Haver said monitoring two-hour parking on Elk was important as was a parking management plan. He suggested that perhaps heaters could be used in the cooler months.
Yemma said parking management would be implemented but outdoor heaters would likely not fly under the town’s Climate Action Plan.

Councilman Will Dujardin expressed concern with some preliminary delivery zone changes.
Schmidt reiterated that in any parking management plan, he abhorred the idea of implementing paid parking. “We need to enforce two-hour parking on Elk but I have a real problem with paid parking. Free and easy works,” he said.

“Starting a major parking management plan opens a can of worms,” said Dujardin. “Are we ready for that conversation?”

Ready or not, the town planning department will hold public meetings to solicit feedback on a parking management plan. Zoom meetings will be held on March 30 and April 1 and 7. Yemma indicated parking management enhancement would start this summer in the core area of town on a “scaled” basis while more traffic study is conducted.

MacMillan asked if council could mull over some of the issues and make a decision a bit later.
“Council is raising great points but we need to open up an RFP and place an order now if we want these patios this summer,” said Russ. “Much of this can be fine-tuned but we are running out of time.”

“This seems like a massive decision because if we buy the patios we head to other issues things like parking,” said Merrill.

“We are confident we have a good representation of town that agrees with this recommendation,” said Russ.
Neighbor Kimberly Barefield said she had supported the patio and the one-way reconfiguration idea but now felt it was rushed given the long-term implications of the decision. “There is nothing wrong with doing what we did last summer while testing out the traffic calming and improved mitigation measures this year,” she said. “It seems like you are making a monumental decision that could change the character of town and making the decision based on a once in a lifetime pandemic. The bigger picture is more important than the sense of urgency to place an order.”

Magner said “hours and hours” of public meetings had been held with staff on the topic since January.
A frustrated Russ said it was a lot more than that. “This discussion has been ongoing since last May,” he said. “It has been fine-tuned a lot. It’s not just an hour-and-a-half discussion tonight. It’s been a lot of work. Staff feels like there is enough information provided to make a council decision. Staff is exhausted by the level of outreach.”

Mary Boddington of the Talk of the Town originally said she supported the patio idea but was open to waiting a summer to see what came in 2021.

Kyleena Falzone of the Secret Stash also suggested continuing with a one-way Elk Avenue reconfiguration but not necessarily rushing into a major overhaul. “Maybe the town buys barriers to make it look more uniform this summer,” she suggested.

“We did not look at just barriers,” said Russ. “The community feedback supported the patios as being most important.”

No matter what, Russ said given the fact parks will likely be more open than last year, the town picnic tables used along Elk in 2020 will not be available this year.

Council members unanimously came around to support having the staff put out an RFP by Friday to determine the cost of the patios. They will evaluate the bids at the April 5 meeting and then decide then whether to proceed with the purchase of the new patios.

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