Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forget Boulder and Ft. Collins; Longmont downtown should look to Loveland

The City Council retreat this weekend brought in Andy Smith, a senior planner with the city of Loveland, to talk about Loveland's downtown success. All of this stems from Longmont seeking input from other communities about how to to rejuvenate our downtown, do the upcoming Flour Mill development correctly, and attract new businesses.

There are some important differences between the downtowns of Loveland and Longmont, and I'll get to that next, but first let me say that it's about time we looked at Loveland in the compare/contrast exercise. I always hear folks say that we should try to emulate Ft. Collins and Boulder but this is ultimately doomed for failure, simply because we don't have have a university. Universities bring in a steady stream of year-round expendable income not only from students, but also from visitors, faculty, staff, and events. Give it up, we don't have that but Loveland doesn't either, which makes it a good model to compare us with.

Andy Smith says in today's Times-Call:
Loveland has a very durable mixed-use project that's been around for 130 years, and Longmont has one too: It's called downtown.
And that's about where the comparison stops, in my opinion. Head to Loveland's downtown in the evenings and you'll immediately notice the difference between there and twenty miles south, here in Longmont's downtown. In Loveland, restaurants are hopping, the Rialto Theater is packed, there are several venues offering a variety of live music, and a good mixture of people, young and old, are casually strolling on the sidewalks. Downtown in Loveland is a destination, not just a drive-in/out experience like Longmont. Yes, Longmont has two good theaters downtown: LTC and Jesters down south a few blocks, and some popular restaurants, but how many patrons of these venues stay downtown vs. just making a single-destination visit? Why do our downtown sidewalks look empty?

The important part and the big difference between the two downtowns: Loveland's past development and planning efforts were very smart and did three things which created the magic in Loveland's downtown:
  1. Federal highway US-287 goes right through Loveland, like it does in Longmont, but Loveland cleverly split it up into two isolated one-way streets, effectively eliminating the wide, drag-strip piece of concrete going through the city. Yes, 18 wheelers and motorcycle bands still rip through town but the effect is softened with the separated directions and made even better my making them curved vs. a straight north-south shot through town, which helps in reducing speed. Having a narrower road in each direction also provides more opportunities to landscape them (reducing the noise), almost providing the illusion to the driver that they are not on a US highway. Why is this important? Longmont's Main Street is outright daunting to pedestrians and families, in terms of noise, speed, volume, and size. Crossing the street from a theater show to a restaurant is not a pleasant experience, especially for those with young children or the elderly, and you cannot blame folks for exiting downtown immediately after a show instead of staying downtown and grabbing a bite to eat. The city has tried earnestly to make Main Street more pedestrian-friendly with the islands and landscaping in the middle of the street but in reality, this is simply "putting the lipstick on the pig". One final note on this point: try eating outdoors on Main Street on a summer weekend afternoon and count how many times your conversation has to be paused while the loud traffic roars by.

  2. Keep the cultural activities downtown! Longmont had a museum downtown but decided to move it to south to the outskirts of town, forcing museum visitors to make a single-destination car trip. It's a great museum, no doubt, but imagine if it was located in a more pedestrian-friendly location, with coffee shops and restaurants nearby. Loveland maintains a packed calendar on their Rialto theater, with not just plays but also nationally known musicians, comedians, and entertainers. They even show movies there! By keeping cultural venues downtown, you can attract more businesses to share in the downtown vision because they won't have to work as hard to attract feet on the street; people are there already visiting the museum or catching a show. I mentioned this theme earlier on the some skating rink commentary, before the rink was re-opened.

  3. The noise issue brings us to Loveland's most accomplished decision: get downtown off Main Street! Loveland's downtown is on 4th Avenue, off US-287, on a quiet east-west street. Look what this buys them: no tractor-trailers, no noise, no football field-sized piece of pavement after you step out of a store, tree-lined streets, and a very pedestrian and family-friendly area. Any traffic on 4th Avenue is usually from vehicles that want to be there, and not those that are only motivated in getting through town as fast as possible, on their way to Denver or Ft. Collins. In Loveland, it is not a chore to cross 4th Avenue, and the area is very pleasant to walk around, after watching a show or getting something to eat. This is a great incentive for people to stick around, window shop, cross the street to look in a gallery, and ultimately visit multiple businesses. Bicycles are also common in this area, most likely because cyclists don't need to endanger their lives competing with heavy traffic. As soon as you enter the 4th Avenue area, you almost feel like you are in a different zone.
Longmont's unimaginative ribbon of pavement Main Street, clearly optimized for traffic trying to get through town, instead of pedestrian visitors:
In fairness to Longmont, most downtowns throughout the USA are designed the same way, along a major thoroughfare. Loveland just gets the well-deserved extra credit in designing a better way to build and grow a downtown.

Unfortunately, Longmont's options are handcuffed in achieving #1 above. Rerouting US-287 through Longmont is a recognized problem and a recurring theme which comes up often. It was done recently for Berthoud at a cost of $74M but it took years of planning and you have to believe that Longmont's situation would be much more difficult. Moving a federal highway remains a very difficult obstacle.

For #2, Longmont's east-west avenues off Main Street are mostly shunned streets of neglect, perhaps hosting some businesses but not many are stores or eating establishments. #2 could be more achievable in Longmont, with some targeted planning efforts. Even if Longmont downtown couldn't pull off an east-west corridor of safety and pleasantness like Loveland has, there is still Coffman Street one block over that could host a quieter and pedestrian-comfortable downtown zone.

I do not believe that a city-built parking garage solves the problem at all. I would dispute that there is a parking problem today, but even if there was, it wouldn't make Longmont downtown any more comfortable to visit. The pedestrian and noise obstacles mentioned above will still exist. Mayor Lange correctly observed last year during the parking garage debates that people will come downtown today for festivals, in droves, and they do find places to park. The key to these folks coming downtown, in my opinion ? The noisy and dangerous speedway through downtown is usually closed off for our festivals!

I'm not a city planner or architect but I've read about Christopher Alexander's patterns of architecture, where a pattern describes a working and timeless architectural solution that are things of beauty. A pattern in this sense is a not a blueprint or exact recipe for construction but more of a description of how to solve a particular recurring architectural problem, in a workable manner for those who use its facilities. I believe what Loveland has implemented is a true set of patterns for a functional, sustainable, and elegant downtown that is optimized for the pleasant visiting experience of people, and not for the rapid through-traffic of vehicles.

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