Historically, merchants and gallery owners in Old Town Scottsdale have opposed efforts to limit vehicular traffic along Scottsdale Road, and that sentiment largely remains today.
But some members of the community see the value in taking steps to increase pedestrian traffic in the area.
The Scottsdale Progress recently explored the feasibility of turning Scottsdale Road in Old Town into a pedestrian-only mall in order to promote pedestrian traffic and fight business turnover – a discussion that has happened both formally and informally in the city for decades.
The Progress report drew criticism from the merchant community, many of whom directed complaints to city staff for fear that the it may be considering new plans to restrict the downtown area’s main thoroughfare.
The city has not proposed any plans to shut off Scottsdale Road to vehicle traffic in the downtown core.
Transportation Director Paul Basha said, “Those ideas exist, but we are not going to explore them… Scottsdale Road will have two lanes per direction.”
Merchants oppose closure
For Marilynn Atkinson, head of the Old Town Merchants Association, the topic is déjà vu: She said she has heard the concept discussed for the past 30 years.
Atkinson knows a thing or two about fighting to keep Scottsdale Road flowing with vehicles.
Her group opposed light rail in 2016 and helped lead a charge in 2015 that killed proposed plans to narrow the road back to one lane in each direction.
Atkinson and over 170 business owners downtown signed a petition against the proposal that resulted in a 5-0 vote from the Transportation Commission recommending against narrowing Scottsdale Road.
Atkinson said that petition included unified opposition to the plan throughout downtown, from her group in historic Old Town to merchants and gallery owners on the west side of Scottsdale Road.
Atkinson says merchants need nearby vehicle access to survive.
“Do you think in 110-degree heat people are going to walk two blocks?” she said. “They want to pull their car right in to a spot in front of the shop.”
She also said she does not believe the walkable mall model works, noting that several cities that have pursued the idea ultimately opened streets back up to vehicles.
Steve Johnson, owner of Atelier, has been in downtown Scottsdale for 20 years and does not believe Scottsdale Road is the right place for a pedestrian-only mall.
He said he has liked the concept in other parts of the country but that Scottsdale Road is too wide, and shutting it to cars would create an unattractive vast expanse that would exacerbate traffic woes.
“People like the concept, the idea, but the way our architecture and city is planned, I don’t think it would work,” he said.
Johnson said that the city should focus on creating a cohesive plan to improve, repair and maintain roads and streetscaping downtown.
Rosann Song, of longtime Old Town business J. Chew’s Mexican Imports, said it makes sense to close down local streets downtown for special events like Parada del Sol, but she wouldn’t support a permanent shutdown.
She said even the temporary closures can have a negative effect on her business.
“Saturday (Oct. 13) was horrible,” she said, noting that when the city shut down Main Street in preparation for the Celebrate ’68 event, it hurt traffic flow to her business.
Atkinson said the city should spend more money on covered walkways, streetscaping and trees along Scottsdale Road to make the climate more conducive to pedestrian traffic.
She also commended the city and Experience Scottsdale for new ad campaigns they ran locally and in California over the summer to encourage more travel to the city during the off season.
However, she said none of those things are ever going to substantially impact the down season in the summer.
“I don’t think summer is ever going to be fabulous,” she said.
Johnson said he has heard tourists often talk about how downtown looks down and that he fought nearly 10 years ago to have the city put in new plants at Craftsman Court to beautify the area.
“It hasn’t been touched since, and all the plants have been killed or replaced,” he said. “There is no continuity with aesthetics of downtown.”
To Atkinson, the more critical issue is parking. While she acknowledged that Scottsdale has some parking, most of it is located in “the boonies,” she said.
A 2015 city study indicated that there was adequate parking downtown, but much of it was located far away from top attractions.
Song said the city needs to invest in more signage or other tools to direct traffic flow to the northern edge of historic Old Town, saying sometimes her shop and surrounding stores feel “hidden.”
Art galleries split on issue
Atkinson has some allies among art gallery owners, directors and partners in Old Town Scottsdale, though the community as a whole is a mixed bag on the idea of creating a more pedestrian-friendly, walkable downtown.
While some Main Street gallery owners are firmly against idea of converting Scottsdale Road to a pedestrian-only mall, others welcome it.
French Thompson, president of the Scottsdale Galleries Association and owner of French Designer Jeweler, is part of the former group.
According to Thompson, the lack of parking in Old Town is already a problem for merchants in the area.
“The city of Scottsdale does not have enough parking as it is,” Thompson said. “If you closed off an entire street and removed all of those parking areas, there’s no place to put the cars that would come there to park, to go to the businesses.”
Clark David Olson, partner, founder and art consultant at Bonner David Galleries, said, “We have clients who regularly claim they cannot find parking and so [they] just drive on by without stopping in at our events.”
Olson and Thompson both agree that Old Town doesn’t need more sidewalk space and walkable areas; they need more accessible parking, year-round.
“Our foot traffic already dwindles in the summer, and to remove vehicles completely would take away what little business we get, causing even more small businesses to close,” Olson said. “Forcing potential visitors to trudge into a pedestrian zone in 110-degree heat will most certainly further limit traffic, not increase it.”
While the galleries depend on the close, convenient parking spaces in the summer, Thompson recognizes the need for more parking areas during peak art season, which typically takes place during the fall and winter months.
“It’s not for the summertime that we need the parking, we need it at the height of the season when the people are here, just like a baseball or football or soccer stadium,” Thompson said.
Casa de Artistas of Scottsdale owner Antonio Mona, on the other hand, has a difference stance.
“Depending on where the street is closed and how it’s built out and how it’s presented, I think it’s a good idea,” Mona said.
Mona said the closure could increase foot traffic, drawing visitors who wouldn’t normally visit the galleries west of Scottsdale Road.
“If they have to park down the block, the positive part of it is they have to walk by your business and back and forth,” he said. “In the past, those that stuck around on the east side of Scottsdale Road, they stuck around because there were touristy shops, and they wouldn’t come over to the gallery side because their mindset wasn’t art.”
William Lewis Lykins, director of Gebert Contemporary, has seen successful promenades firsthand, including the 16th Street Mall in Denver, and agrees they work.
“They are a draw and they keep people in the areas for awhile,” Lykins said. “Main Street and Marshall Way are walkable, but Scottsdale road is not that conducive to it. And so if we can create an area that offers entertainment and retail and galleries, I’m all for that investigation and for surveying it.”
As far as the parking on Main Street is concerned, Lykins isn’t too concerned about the idea of transforming that into a pedestrian-friendly promenade.
“I would debate the argument that we want people to be able to come up and park right in front of our store because quite often those spaces aren’t available,” Lykins said. “There are many times I look out onto our street [Main Street], and the street is filled with cars, but I’m not seeing people.”
Lykins and Thompson do agree, however, that the current parking garages in the downtown area should be easier to locate.
“People don’t know where our parking garages are right now, but if these were better marked and if people knew, they’re going to walk past maybe my gallery,” Lykins said. “Tourists may be enlightened by what is already here to be offered but hasn’t been discovered.”
Mona’s idea of a more synergistic downtown includes business owners supporting one another and becoming ambassadors for Old Town.
“Everybody has to be a mouthpiece, so to speak. Everybody has to be an ambassador,” he said. “For a lot of these gallery people and merchants, the only concentration until 8, 9 or 10 p.m. is their business. They don’t engage in conversation, and that’s what people should be doing, is engaging in the conversation about the environment, to tell people who are visiting.”