Seventy-five business owners and managers have signed a letter objecting to existing redesign plans of downtown Main Avenue, saying the proposed changes are expensive, unnecessary, shortsighted and would “seriously affect” their businesses.
The letter was addressed to the city of Durango, its manager and City Council. It was emailed by Antonia Clark, owner of Toh-Atin Gallery on west Ninth Street, to the city manager’s office on June 3.
Clark sent the letter to the city manager’s office in June and passed out copies of it to City Council members at the Aug. 2 council meeting, Tom Sluis, spokesman for the city, said Friday.
Durango’s Downtown’s Next Step project aims to transform Main Avenue to improve the downtown experience for foot traffic while supporting local businesses. But some business owners and managers object to the designs, saying they feel ignored by the city.
Councilor Kim Baxter said she has had conversations with some business owners since the letter was sent. She said city staff members have worked with business owners and managers to address their concerns with the Downtown’s Next Step project, particularly regarding location of bus stops, handicapped parking and accessibility to downtown.
She said a comprehensive traffic and parking study is underway that will inform the final design. The current preferred design will likely not be the absolute final design, she said.
The letter signers say city surveys sent out in winter and spring this year didn’t include options for respondents to say they prefer no changes or limited changes to downtown’s landscape.
“We feel that the recent surveys, completed by planning consultants, missed important options,” the letter says. “Of the 4 Main Avenue concepts presented, there was no opportunity to choose to ‘leave Main Avenue as is with some minor improvements.’ Also, any suggested change to Main Avenue without consideration given to impacts on adjacent areas, such as East Second Ave. and vice versa, is shortsighted.”
Clark began door-knocking at businesses along Main Avenue after she learned of the Downtown’s Next Step project. She helped lead the charge collecting signatures for the letter submitted to City Council.
She said fewer than one in 20 businesses knew about the Downtown’s Next Step project when she first approached merchants after the city released its first survey that closed in January.
“We felt that the business people whose livelihood and their employees’ livelihood depend on Durango being accessible and convenient for customers, we felt like they were not included in the survey,” she said.
Karyn Gabaldon, owner of Gabaldon Fine Art Gallery at 680 Main Ave., said Durango’s proposed plans for downtown would further limit streetside parking, which is already diminished by bump-outs. Reduced parking would in turn hurt customers’ access to stores, particularly for elderly and disabled patrons.
She has a 92-year-old mother who already struggles to visit downtown, she said.
“She’s either in a walker or a chair. And so with the bulb-outs I think it’s just going to make it really difficult for the handicapped or the elderly,” she said.
Gabaldon said the proposed design would leave seniors and people with disabilities without the same level of access to downtown as other residents and tourists.
“That’s very biased to me to not be able to include everybody,” she said.
She said she is also disappointed that her business did not receive an exception to bulb-outs, rounded ends on sidewalks as opposed to 90-degree corners.
“The Strater has already gotten exempt from having a bulb-out because of their buses not being able to come around,” she said.
Her art gallery features her contemporary paintings of Durango-area landscapes, and she also sells jewelry, glass, woodwork, sculptures and other items. With the current design plan, it would be challenging for her customers to carry large pieces of artwork out to the street and load them into her car because there is no parking in front of the gallery, she said.
Clark said business owners who signed the letter prefer smaller improvements over a total redesign of Main Avenue. But she and other business owners who have attended city meetings to voice their concerns feel unheard or ignored.
“I’m kind of disappointed,” Gabaldon said. “I went to most of the meetings and I just don’t feel like there’s been any communication between the city and the merchants other than if we show up to the meetings,” she said.
One of Clark’s biggest concerns are potential “festival blocks” for the 900 and 1000 blocks of Main Avenue, although that idea received less support from survey respondents than wider sidewalks and a center turn lane.
“There will be Main Avenue street closures,” she said. “And we have repeatedly said street closures are good for restaurants and bars because people come downtown and then they stay downtown and they eat. But they’re really bad for retail businesses and other businesses because they eliminate access to our businesses.”
Clark said East Second Avenue has been a successful street for weekend festivals because it has the La Plata County Courthouse, city offices and private offices that are usually closed on weekends, in addition to hotels and restaurants.
“That’s the perfect place to have a festival and close the streets,” she said. “It brings people downtown, it’s a really good thing and it doesn’t close access to the retailers.”
Clark and letter signers also said the redesign of downtown to alleviate safety concerns isn’t necessary.
During a public participation segment of the Aug. 2 City Council meeting, Sharon Taylor, owner of Tippy Canoe on Main Avenue, said she as well as her customers are frustrated with parking changes that have already occurred on Main Avenue because of bump-outs that arrived during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said the city is pursuing a Boulder or Denver vibe.
“We have a unique town with charm and character that stands above all other towns in Colorado,” she said. “Which is why we are ranked No. 1 to travel to in a lot of the magazines. The new concept (Downtown’s Next Step) takes away from the charm of Durango along with the parking that is adding more work for the city.”
Not all business owners on or near Main Avenue are worried about new designs, though. Jesse Ogle, founder of iAM Music, and David Woodruff, president of Durango’s chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association, spoke out at the same City Council meeting in August in favor of the downtown design plans.
“We have tons of people that are just entering Camino del Rio coming off north Main right there,” Ogle said. “When it was two-lane traffic we’ve almost been hit by cars multiple times. I’m in favor of some sort of way to slow down the traffic so it’s not barreling in there at like 35 mph.”
Woodruff said people concerned with loss of parking are hung up on “less than 1% of the available metered parking spaces downtown.”
The pandemic presented a silver lining in that it caused Durangoans to rethink how their community and how downtown functions, he said.
“We firmly believe this project will make downtown more of a destination for everyone and inherently boost sales tax revenue generation, particularly in off-peak seasons,” he said. “We feel it’s shortsighted to look at the short-term impacts and not the long-term benefit.”