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‘Open Streets’ initiative draws crowds to downtown Salt Lake City

SHARE ‘Open Streets’ initiative draws crowds to downtown Salt Lake City
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People stroll up Main Street during Downtown SLC Open Streets in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. As part of the program, northbound traffic will be shut down from 300 South to 400 South on Main Street every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening through Oct. 10 and restaurants will expand their presence on the sidewalks.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of people gathered on Main Street in Salt Lake City Friday night, listening to music, eating food, drinking and socializing on the sidewalks and in the street while enjoying one of the last warm days of the year.

The evening was exactly what the city had planned when it closed down a block of Main Street — between 300 South and 400 South — from vehicular traffic to allow restaurants and bars to extend their seating onto the sidewalk as part of a new initiative.

“Open Streets,” which runs Thursdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. until Oct. 10, is an effort to bring customers to downtown Salt Lake City, where many businesses have suffered financially due to the pandemic.

Buskers and live performances sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council added to a festive atmosphere Friday, with people enjoying a space designed to allow for social distancing. Outside seating areas for restaurants were separated by dividers, and tables were distanced from each other so individual parties could remain safely apart.

“The first goal is obviously safety,” said Andrew Wittenberg, marketing and research manager for Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development. “We feel pretty confident that people are going to be responsible. They’re going to take precautions. They’re going to be safe. They’re going to wear masks when they’re not actually just down at a table.”

He attended the first day on Thursday and was pleased by what he saw.

“I think it was a tremendous success,” he said. “We looked around, and we were seeing people enjoy themselves. ... And I think it felt, in a way, nice to feel normal if just for a brief moment.”

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Diners eat at Eva’s during Downtown SLC Open Streets in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. As part of the program, northbound traffic will be shut down from 300 South to 400 South on Main Street every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening through Oct. 10 and restaurants will expand their presence on the sidewalks.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The idea for the initiative started when the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance reached out to the city, asking if there was anything it could do to aid downtown businesses. The alliance is now partnered with Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development, The BLOCKS SLC, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the Salt Lake mayor’s office.

“Downtown Salt Lake City is the heart and soul of Utah and has been dealt tremendous challenges this year through the pandemic, the earthquake, a windstorm and more,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a news release. “I’m excited to have ‘Open Streets’ coming to Main Street and I hope residents from around the state will join us downtown as we safely begin to reactivate our vibrant and culturally diverse downtown core.”

If the first week was any indication, the goal of “Open Streets” was met.

“It went great,” said Michael Gately, an assistant manager at the J Dawgs, 341 S. Main. “Business definitely picked up for us. There was definitely a lot more people up and about downtown, and it was great to see. It felt lively, and everyone was excited to be out and about.”

He estimates that J Dawgs saw a 25% increase in business Thursday night when compared to a typical night during the pandemic.

“It was a lot better for us,” he said. “Definitely we had a lot more customers coming in and actually stay dining rather than sitting inside. Because that’s one of our No. 1 issues is we only have three tables outside normally along our patio. But having those extra five tables out there, we had a lot more customers staying to eat rather than taking their food to go.”

Sergei Oveson, owner of The Ramen Bar, 319 S. Main, said he, too, was able to accommodate more people who wanted to “dine-in,” even if that meant eating outside on the curb.

He has been able to add three tables, which seat around 10 people total, to fill the additional space outside, which makes a significant difference for a restaurant whose seating capacity has been cut in half by COVID-19.

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Children watch a dance performance during Downtown SLC Open Streets in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. As part of the program, northbound traffic will be shut down from 300 South to 400 South on Main Street every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening through Oct. 10 and restaurants will expand their presence on the sidewalks.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“You could probably turn in four hours time, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., you could probably turn that three tables maybe three, four times,” he said. “So that adds up to, I want to say, 30 or 40 people.”

Overall, he is grateful for what the city has done, but he wishes that “Open Streets” was executed a little better, with more notice given to affected business owners. He said he was given four or five days’ notice before the initiative began and could have been short employees had Thursday been busier.

The claim was disputed by Wittenberg, who said the city began notifying businesses a couple weeks prior to “Open Streets” beginning.

Oveson also expected to see the entire block closed, not just one side.

“I was expecting to see people on rollerblades and skateboards and riding bikes everywhere, all over Main Street. But it’s not the case. They just shut down only part of Main Street, which is on the right side of the TRAX. So on the other side, the cars are still running. So it’s not really the playground that people wanted,” he said.

The block closure is limited to northbound traffic and only directly impacts a handful of businesses. But according to Wittenberg, the aim of the project is to bring people to Salt Lake City in hopes that they disperse to shops, restaurants and stores across downtown.

“We want to encourage people not just to congregate to this one specific area, but that it’s more of an activation for everyone to enjoy all of downtown and to do it safely,” he said. “That’s one thing you don’t want, you don’t want it to be a block party, shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere.”

Yet seeing other people after being in quarantine for months is a welcome change, said Noni Rice, who was walking around the closed block Friday.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea. People want to be outside, people want to see people, people want to eat out. We’re tired of eating at home. People need people,” she said.

However, she did that with the high turnout, the city would do well in extending the project to encompass more space and more businesses.

“There are quite a few people,” she said. “I just heard somebody say they’re not going to get into the restaurant. But maybe if they could extend this maybe one more block, a few more restaurants?”

Additions along those lines could be in the works, Wittenberg said, however, extending the initiative to block more streets could cause traffic issues. Doing so would ultimately depend on the interest of businesses and the weighing of overall public benefit.

“We’re looking at this almost as like a pilot program, that this might be something that could be something else that we look into in the future, whether that is at a different time of year, if it’s continual,” he said. “This is certainly something that I think we’re going to look into closely and see how this pans out as far as the reception from the public, how the businesses benefit from it, and if there are ways that we could look at doing further activations in the future.”

If the city were to do so, it would have at least one fan.

“J Dawgs would definitely enjoy that a lot,” Gately said. “Our business definitely benefits from it majorly, I’d say. And so if that were to get extended, we definitely would not be sad about it.”

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People stroll up Main Street during Downtown SLC Open Streets in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. As part of the program, northbound traffic will be shut down from 300 South to 400 South on Main Street every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening through Oct. 10 and restaurants will expand their presence on the sidewalks.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News