Downtown Salt Lake City is thriving compared to dozens of other North American cities since the pandemic began, according to recent analysis from California researchers.
Visits to the center of the city grew by 155% between March 2020 and May 2022, the highest of any downtown among the 62 American or Canadian cities that the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley studied. Bakersfield, California, at 117%, was the second-highest on the list.
The percentage heading to Salt Lake City's downtown was also much higher than the city overall, which had about the same amount of visits during the same reviewed time span.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has a theory as to why this is the case. It may have something to do with the city's efforts since 2020 to close downtown Main Street to vehicle traffic and promote visiting the downtown area, a program known as "Open Streets."
The program emerged out of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for Main Street bars and restaurants to have more patio space to safely operate, letting businesses extend outdoor seating to the curb of the road on the weekends. By shutting the road down to vehicles, people were given more space to walk or ride by the businesses.
It's even fostered new entertainment options, such as Salt Lake City Busker Fest.
"I wonder how much this — because it didn't exist in 2019 — impacted our phenomenal results," the mayor said Thursday.
But this is also why she's eager for the city to begin studying the feasibility of keeping Open Streets a permanent program, including the possibility of constructing permanent blockades that close Main Street off to motor vehicles forever.
The study to turn downtown Main Street into a "pedestrian-first promenade" is something that the Salt Lake City Council funded for the current fiscal year. If approved, it would not impact the light rail service that runs through the street or vehicle traffic that crosses Main Street downtown.
The mayor and downtown leaders highlighted this forthcoming study as they promoted this weekend's Open Streets shutdown, the program's last weekend of this summer.
"It's not a secret, I'd like to see Main Street be permanently open to pedestrians," she said. "When we travel to cities around this country and across this globe, great cities that have embraced the growth and vibrancy of their downtown cores make space for pedestrians at the heart of those places."
City’s argument for extending Open Streets
It's not just the University of California study that is indicating results. Dee Brewer, the executive director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance, said the city's data shows that 30,000 to 40,000 people are coming to the downtown area every weekend, where they are shopping, visiting restaurants and enjoying entertainment.
Brewer believes an "inviting" pedestrian space has the potential to be an economic driver for the downtown section.
"We are a midsized city becoming a big city," he said. "There are growing pains associated with that, but there's a great opportunity to celebrate, as well. We need a community commons and this Main Street can be that commons."
Martin Norman is one of the business owners impacted by the downtown success. Norman opened Uniquely Utah Souvenir in March 2020, right as the pandemic began to shut down the state. He spent the first few months just trying to navigate through the pandemic, but he said his business experienced a 20% uptick after Open Streets generated buzz near his shop.
"This year has been even better. We're up 30% in our sales," he said. "It's continuing to get better each year with Open Streets."
Despite the downtown success, Mendenhall contends the city's downtown still hasn't fully recovered yet — even if the Berkeley study says otherwise. There's still room for work visitation to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Some businesses near Main Street have also struggled despite the post-pandemic downtown boom. Fenice Mediterranean Bistro, located on nearby Regent Street, closed down indefinitely last week because of "many factors," including an ongoing labor shortage.
Even if pre-pandemic office visitation doesn't fully recover, downtown visits are still forecast to skyrocket in the next few years in other ways. For example, downtown's residential population is also expected to double in the next two to three years with about 4,000 units under construction.
"This is not going to stop, this energy of the downtown core," Mendenhall said, noting that they've heard positive feedback from businesses.
That's helping fuel the desire to make Open Streets a permanent fixture.
"The businesses and their enthusiasm — and frankly their benefit of this — is at the heart of us (making the program permanent) and moving ahead," she added. "We didn't want to do this after one year of sample."
Brewer is quick to point out that this idea isn't new to the post-pandemic world, either. City officials considered making Main Street a pedestrian-only space when they crafted a downtown plan in 1962. He adds that the Downtown Alliance is also looking into new ideas to stretch out Open Streets beyond the summertime, which has been the case the past two summers.
One of those is the NBA All-Star Weekend in February 2023, where programs similar to Open Streets are planned, such as street performances even if the street itself isn't shut down to vehicular traffic.
A long way to go
But turning Main Street into a promenade now will require a long and tedious process. First, the city must find a firm to conduct a cost-benefit analysis by the end of the fiscal year in June 2023, or else the funds for the project are sent back into the city's general fund.
City officials are currently working to define the scope of the upcoming study, Brewer said. Mendenhall said the study will begin sometime in the fiscal year, though there isn't a timeline for the study to be complete.
Since Salt Lake City has never done a case study quite like this, the mayor explained that the city is reviewing how other cities have measured business impact with their pedestrian-first corridors. The success of the first three times the city has implemented the program seems to indicate it would benefit businesses.
"(There has) been better revenue for the businesses during Open Streets than pre-pandemic times when there were no Open Streets," she said.
Once the study is complete, Mendenhall said any proposal would have to go through "a great deal" of public processes before the program becomes a fixture of the downtown infrastructure. It would go through several civilian committees before going to the city's planning committee and ultimately the City Council to approve the idea and fund it.
Given this timeline, it's much more likely that a fourth installment of Open Streets will be as temporary as the first three.