A proposal by some Scottsdale City Council members to temporarily shut down some downtown streets to make way for street fairs and other pedestrian-friendly activities has drawn a mixed response from their colleagues as well as downtown business owners.
The city’s strategic plan initially included a goal to “consider pilot to temporarily turn some Old Town streets into walk-only zones for one weekend per month.”
Council later removed the “walk-only” stipulation after some pushback from local business owners, instead opting to “consider pilot to temporarily turn some Old Town streets into more walkable areas to encourage more foot traffic and business activities including focused activities and events.”
Councilman Tom Durham, who supported the proposal, said he has lived in and visited numerous locales that use similar tactics to make space for festivals and street fairs.
He said the events could drive larger crowds to downtown Scottsdale.
“My instincts told me it’d be a good idea,” Durham said. “A lot of issues highlighted in the Downtown 2.0 study is that there is a lack of vibrancy downtown, and I think these types of things would help that out, create a bit of buzz and vibrancy and bring people in.”
He was referring to a 2018 downtown economic feasibility study, conducted by Conventions, Sports and Leisure International, that stated:
“There are many unique shops within the Old Town and 5th Avenue areas, but the pedestrian infrastructure can be underwhelming and a sense of ‘same old’ is prevalent. There are several Downtown events, some of which are nationally known, but added event activity will be beneficial to generate an increased customer base.”
Research by Experience Scottsdale in 2016 came to a similar conclusion.
“One of the key drivers for travelers in selecting a travel destination was identified as ‘a good place to walk around,’ but Scottsdale rated poorly in this area when compared to other attributes and against many in our competitive set,” said Rachel Pearson with Experience Scottsdale. “This was identified, therefore, as a key opportunity to improve.”
Durham said temporary closures or restrictions could allow for live music and other small events downtown that could be timed to capitalize on larger events up north like the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
The pilot program concept generated little fanfare when three Council members supported adding it to the draft strategic plan in June.
But by the time the plan came up for a vote in July, it had picked up opposition from some local business owners and other Council members.
Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield requested more discussion, calling the proposal “very controversial.”
“I have had a number of people call me and talk to me for quirt literally hours on end about this, and they’re outraged…I can’t imagine anything we could do in the Old Town area that would outrage more of our business owners down there than doing something like this,” Littlefield said.
Some opponents downtown expressed concern that shutting down streets would hurt their businesses by limiting available parking and increasing traffic congestion.
In an email to Council, downtown Gallery owner Bob Pejman argued that during busier times of the year, such a program would leave the downtown under-parked.
“This could prove to be an absolute disaster for many Old Town merchants, restaurants, and their clients,” he wrote.
Laura Weaver, who owns a retail shop on the Southbridge area, expressed similar concerns.
“It’s enough that we’ve had to deal with a pandemic and our worsening economy nationally but this just adds insult to injury,” she wrote.
The concept is not actually a new one.
Downtown businesses can already request street closures themselves through the city’s special events permitting process.
“The special event permit process requires that the group requesting the closure obtain signatures from nearby businesses that shows whether or not they support the closures.,” said Scottsdale Tourism and Events Director Karen Churchard.
The main difference in the new proposal is the city would likely play a role in organizing and administering the pilot program, Durham said.
Council members who supported the concept were quick to point out that the city would not pursue temporary street closures or restrictions for the pilot program without buy-in from businesses.
“We’re not going to do this without cooperation with local merchants,” Durham said. “We wouldn’t do this without small business and I don’t think we could, but I think if the city were able to put some money behind it for street performers, music, things like that, that would help get this off the ground.”
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven also noted that just because the idea was included in the strategic plan does not mean it will go into effect anytime soon.
“It says ‘consider a pilot,’ so we are a long way away from closing any streets,” she said.
Scottsdale resident David Free, who owns properties on Craftsman Court near 5th Avenue, said the concept is in the very early stages and the city has not yet done outreach or presented any concepts to the community.
But he agreed with Durham and Caputi that the proposal has the potential to bring more traffic to downtown businesses.
He said it could also be a way for downtown stakeholders to work together after years of butting heads over issues of surrounding redevelopment and increased heights and density downtown.
“It has the potential to increase foot traffic without the debate over development, decrease vehicle traffic, funnel vehicles toward our underused parking garages, draw family friendly attractions to the downtown area, and create unique areas of interest in some downtown neighborhoods that could really use a boost,” he said.
Caputi said she was surprised that the idea was so controversial, because the goal of the pilot is to increase traffic to downtown businesses.
“It’s now apparently a controversial issue, which I never really imagined…our whole goal on Council is to increase the economic activity in Old Town, particularly for our small business owners,” she said.
Supporters on Council – including Caputi, Durham, Milhaven and Solange Whitehead – said they spoke with business owners in the area who support the idea.
Rather than hurting businesses, Caputi said, it would increase pedestrian traffic and encourage downtown visitors to walk around and visit multiple establishments instead of parking in front of one store, shopping and leaving.
“Wouldn’t it be way better if we could get people to drive downtown, park in a lot and then walk around on the street and perhaps see other businesses that they might not have even realized were there and create an experience?” she said.
Tempe has for years provided a case study on what can happen when a city shuts down streets downtown for special events.
The Tempe Festival for the Arts shuts down Mill Avenue for a few days in the spring and fall every year to host artists booths and hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Lori Foster, chief strategy officer with Downtown Tempe Authority, said that some businesses in the area are impacted by the street closures, specifically client-based businesses like doctor’s offices and salons or delivery-based businesses.
But she said for most other businesses in the area, she believes “the increase in pedestrians offsets the loss of vehicular traffic. It’s a big festival and it brings in a lot of business for the majority of merchants.”
Mayor David Ortega – who was lukewarm at best on the idea and said it is a “low priority” in the strategic plan – said the city has tried similar tactics in the past with little success.
He said the Thieves Market and Art Faire, a Tempe street fair that used to be located in downtown Scottsdale, ate into parking and featured jewelry vendors that competed with local businesses.
Ortega said it would also cost the city money and police manpower to close down streets and monitor the events.
Downtown property owner Janet Wilson said she did not want to dismiss the new proposal out of hand, but she did want to make sure any event did not bring in vendors that would compete directly with local businesses.
“I like activity like that maybe once a month, not all the time,” she said
Wilson also came up with a different pitch that could have a similar impact downtown without shutting down streets.
She suggested the city clean up its alleys downtown to create more walkable, open space.
“It’s a big deal right now that a lot of cities all over the United States are doing this, and it’s been probably the last eight years that they’re realizing how much value their alleyways have to make their cities walkable,” Wilson said.
She cited cities like Seattle and Detroit, which have used private investment, city funds and grants to clean up alleys and decorate them with lighting, seating and artwork.
According to the Seattle Times, that city embarked on an effort in 2015 to transform alleys from grimy spaces for trash pickup into gathering spots for book readings, jazz concerts and dining.
Wilson said that if Scottsdale and businesses could work together to clean up the alleys, they could provide space for outdoor dining, new entrances and connectivity for retail stores and convenient pedestrian walkways that bisect through downtown and avoid busier streets like Goldwater or Scottsdale Road.
She also acknowledged the plan would face significant hurdles as many alleys currently house messy restaurant dumpsters and connect with private parking lots.
But she, suggested the city collaborate with architectural students at Arizona State University to brainstorm solutions.
“I think it would be a fun project to offer to the students at ASU to come up with ideas and then we could have input from our citizens (about) what they want,” Wilson said.
Then , there is the question of who will pay for it.
Other cities have funded similar projects through a mix of public funding, grants, donations and private investment.
If Scottsdale can pull it off, Wilson thinks it would pay dividends in the long run for local businesses.
“Just get people moving and walking in our downtown – I just think it would be so neat,” she said.