SLC mayor wants to remove cars from part of Main Street — forever

Open Streets program, put in place amid the pandemic, has proved to be huge success — and some downtown merchants think that trend can continue.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pedestrians stroll in the open streets portion of Salt Lake City's Main Street, on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Mayor Erin Mendenhall would like to see this segment of Main blocked off to automobile traffic permanently.

As it grows rapidly from midsize to large metropolis, Salt Lake City deserves to have a pedestrian-exclusive area of downtown along Main Street, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said.

The city’s temporary program for blocking off Main to automobile traffic between South Temple and 400 South on weekends through the summers — known as Open Streets SLC — has been a success, she said Thursday, and should be made permanent.

Open Streets SLC went in place in 2020 as an emergency pandemic measure for businesses, taverns and restaurants starved of customers. It brought crowds downtown, let many eateries expand into sidewalk dining and boosted retail revenues during that bleak time, leading to the program being extended over two subsequent summers.

Turns out, creating the weekend auto-free zone (TRAX still runs through it) yielded lots of other public benefits as well, the mayor and several business leaders said, as they backed making the traffic closures a year-round feature along that four-block segment.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A musician plays on the sidewalk on the Open Streets SLC portion of Main Street, between South Temple and 400 South, on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

“This has been a success not only from a business perspective, but also for community rebuilding and a revitalization of our downtown,” Mendenhall said as she stood on Main Street, just before the third year of Open Streets draws to a close this Labor Day weekend.

“When we travel cities around this country and across this globe,” the mayor added, “great cities that have embraced the growth and the vibrancy of their downtown cores make space for pedestrians in the heart of those places.”

The Salt Lake City Council recently approved funding to study this latest version of the idea, including its implications for planning, transportation and downtown’s economy. That’s likely to take a year or more to play out but already has supporters of the concept excited.

“We need a community commons, and Main Street can be that commons,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, representing downtown merchants. “It’s where we’ve celebrated. It’s where we’ve protested. It’s where we have done all sorts of things as a community.”

Martin Norman, proprietor of Uniquely Utah Souvenir Co. at 122 S. Main, said his sales jumped 20% the first year of the Main Street closures and this summer shot up 30%.

“It’s continuing to get better each year with Open Streets,” Norman said.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 people now come downtown on weekends for street dining, entertainment and other attractions, according to Brewer, moving the urban core from a daytime economy to one driven more by events and amenities on nights and weekends.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pedestrians stroll in the Open Streets SLC portion of Main Street, between South Temple and 400 South, on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

A recent analysis of mobile phone data by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California in Berkeley found that visits to a wide array of points of interest in Salt Lake City’s downtown core are now at 155% of their pre-pandemic levels. That’s well ahead of 62 U.S. and Canadian cities studied.

Much of that has been due to the city’s ongoing population and economic boom, along with new investment and residential construction in the downtown area, which is now expected to double in population within 30 months or so.

Evidence suggest what analysts call “social activation” has also been a big factor in downtown’s recovery, even as office occupancy in the urban area continues to lag behind 2019 levels with working from home. That, in turn, has been fed by a relatively quick resumption of large in-person events at venues such as Vivint Arena, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater and Abravanel Hall.

Downtown vibrancy has also undoubtedly played a role. For the past three summers, Open Streets has started at noon on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with restaurants, bars and retailers expanding onto adjacent sidewalks for outdoor dining and shopping and a host of street musicians and artists performing along Main from City Creek Center to Exchange Place.

Those attending have been encouraged to use public transportation, take advantage of free two-hour parking available at City Creek or use widely available on-street metered stalls and pay lots.

Merchants in other pockets of downtown are also interested in the open streets concept. “The notion of a stronger pedestrian presence and the ability for restaurants to expand their premises is absolutely attractive,” Brewer said, “across the city.”

Brewer said the city’s current system along Main Street of temporary orange barricades, signs and metal barriers between the sidewalks and the TRAX lines “is not sustainable, aesthetically or otherwise.”

Depending on what the city’s study concludes, those might eventually be replaced, he said, with permanent fixtures akin to lower barriers in place along Main Street adjacent to City Creek Center, for a more inviting feel for pedestrians and an economic boost along the retail corridor.

“This space is very important,” Brewer said, “for what will be the future of Salt Lake City as well.”