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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Takin' It to the Streets

Downtown organizers are betting on a car-free Main Street to boost city life.

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COURTESY PHOTO
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Temperatures are rising, coronavirus vaccinations are proliferating and an entertainment-starved Salt Lake City is beginning to emerge from months of socially distant dormancy. For folks looking for something—anything!—to do outside their homes, organizers with the Downtown Alliance and The Blocks have a suggestion: Head to Main Street.

Beginning May 27—and extending indefinitely through the summer months—Main Street will be closed to vehicle traffic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. With cars out of the way, pedestrians will be able to safely claim the road, and sidewalk space will be transformed into pop-up bar and restaurant patios or stages for buskers and performing artists.

"There's nothing quite like being there to understand the concept," said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. "There have been conversations for a very long time about reimagining the public space that is Main Street."

Conceived in the mold of Denver's 16th Street Mall or Manhattan's Broadway pedestrian plazas, SLC's Open Street program launched in fall 2020 with a four-week test run. Urban design advocates have been pushing a pedestrian-centric Main Street for years, and when the pandemic outbreak turned the city center into a ghost town, organizers saw a chance to make lemonade out of lemons.

"Within every crisis, there is certainly opportunity," Brewer said. "We saw the opportunity to attract people downtown in a safe way—they could be outdoors, they could easily [social] distance, and they could self-manage."

Brewer said the initial response was positive, which encouraged planners to go bigger and bolder for Year 2. More businesses are planning to lean into the pedestrian format this year, and Brewer said fundraising is ongoing to cover costs—for traffic and transit barricades, security personnel, audio-visual staging, etc.—to keep Open Streets going throughout the summer.

And as more residents participate week to week, the case for permanently transforming Main Street (and other car-dominated spaces) becomes ever-easier to sell to an already-supportive city government.

"Our intention is to do this through Labor Day," Brewer said. "We're not out of the woods yet with the pandemic. But we also believe that, long term, this could be part of the downtown experience."

While individual businesses decide whether and how to extend their services to the curb, organizers with The Blocks are rounding up live entertainment programming for each night outside the Eccles theater and at the entrances to Gallivan Center and Exchange Place. Between those stages and designated busking areas, The Blocks program director Lucas Goodrich said visitors can expect to see anything from bands and street artists to jugglers and unicyclists.

"I jest a little," he said, "but, truly, our goal is to feature the breadth and depth of our performing community."

Goodrich said many cities around the world have made "meccas" out of pedestrian promenades. When it's done right and embraced by the public, an open street can be a draw in and of itself that brings with it economic, social and artistic gains for a community.

"This year, we're seeing a lot more buy-in from community partners," he said. "It's not a street party. It's an invitation to come downtown and enjoy all of these amenities."

Brewer said Main Street is already an inefficient space for vehicle travel. And with the availability of large parking garages in and around downtown, there remains plenty of space for private vehicles. But whatever way a person chooses to get to Main Street, he said, they can then head out on foot to shop, get a bite to eat, catch a performance or attend the annual festivals that are expected to return this year after being disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

"Downtown is for everyone, and this is one of the ways that we can make it accessible to everyone," Brewer said. "There's no admission. We're leveraging the existing programming and assets that are already there—great restaurants, bars, buskers, performers—and unlocking all of that for regular use and using the public space in a different way."