COLUMBIA — Jason Patrie has an idea that could transform downtown Columbia.
Patrie, chair of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission, envisions a vehicle-free pedestrian market on Ninth Street between Broadway and Locust Street. These car-free zones exist in communities from Seattle, Washington, to Iowa City, Iowa, to Burlington, Vermont.
“It’s all borderline pipe dreaming,” Patrie said. “If it was just me, I’d call it full-on pipe dreaming.”
With the success of pedestrian markets across the country, it stands to reason that a similar project could work in Columbia. Since the 1980s, the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington has hummed with economic activity and development: without vehicles.
“It saved the downtown,” said Becky Cassidy, media relations and fundraising director for the marketplace.
Lined with shops and restaurants, the marketplace hosts Halloween parties, concerts and free outdoor Zumba. Cassidy said Church Street is vibrant and well-received.
Patrie, who grew up near Burlington, modeled his idea for Columbia after Church Street.
“It’s the thriving gem of downtown, the one area that’s pretty much always done well,” he said.
He realizes the idea can be “a hard pill to swallow,” primarily because of parking issues.
“It would have to be business-owner driven,” Janet Godon, a planner for Columbia Parks and Recreation who serves on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission.
Godon worked for 15 years planning events in Colorado and said that, compared to mountain towns she worked in, it would be easy for emergency vehicles and other traffic to use side streets in Columbia to get around temporary street closures.
“There are communities that close their street blocks off all the time,” she said.
Through her work with Columbia’s parklets and Park(ing) Day, where downtown parking spaces are temporarily transformed into small parks and seating areas, Godon has heard echoes of Patrie’s idea.
“People have said, 'Wouldn’t it be great if this entire block was a pedestrian mall,'” Godon said. She said some business owners were hesitant to support both projects initially because they take up parking but, over time, have grown to love them.
Patrie understands that his idea would need the support of Ninth Street business owners. His idea was sparked during a conversation with Fourth Ward City Councilman Ian Thomas at a meeting for the Mayor's Task Force on Parking and Traffic Management, a citizen advisory board that often discusses downtown parking issues. Patrie is a member of the task force.
“People think that there is a lack of parking downtown when they cannot park immediately in front of a business that they want to go to,” Patrie said. Although the north side of downtown is full of empty parking spots, people don’t want to park and walk three or four blocks, Patrie said.
His idea to create a vehicle-free zone could change people’s expectations.
“It’s kind of a radical idea,” he said. “You remove the ability to park directly in front of these businesses, which removes that perception of a lack of abundant parking wherever it is you want to go.”
Thomas has said he’s supportive of a pedestrian mall or traffic-free street in downtown.
“They are great stimulators of local business and create great spaces to encourage people to come downtown more often,” he said. “If that recommendation comes out of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission, I’ll certainly advocate strongly for it on the city council.”
He understands that businesses would be worried about an absence of parking and how it might negatively affect business. “In reality,” he said, ”the evidence is exactly the opposite. Being on a traffic-free zone really enhances business activity.”
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission hasn’t decided whether to pursue the idea, but Patrie’s idea sparks a conversation about whether or not Columbia should follow a trend that similar communities across the country have pursued.
Alfonso Morales, a professor in the University of Wisconsin's Urban and Regional Planning Department, said the U.S. has seen renewed interest in all sorts of markets, from pedestrian malls to farmers markets.
"In the last 10 years, they've become increasingly interesting to people," he said.
He said they are part of a societal need to slow down. At pedestrian markets "people look at each other and not at their phones," he said.
Morales said that most successful markets experiment and use a step-by-step process.
And that's exactly what Patrie wants to do. He said the commission will continue to discuss the idea, try to gain the support of business owners and the city and involve the Downtown Community Improvement District.
“We could test the waters with the community, saying we’re gonna close the street for a day or a weekend,” Patrie said.
“That way, rather than people being told, all right we’re moving in this direction,” Patrie said, “they can say that was good or maybe this isn’t what we want to do.”
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