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Edmonds presses pause on Walkable Main Street project

City says it will work with downtown businesses


Last updated 7/7/2020 at 5:56pm

Brian Soergel

Pedestrians walk up Main Street during the second day of Walkable Edmonds.

The grand experiment of closing three blocks of Main Street to vehicle traffic for the past two weeks was bound to be controversial.

And now it's paused.

"We've had very positive feedback from residents, restaurants, and some retailers," said Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson on Wednesday, July 1. "Right now is a good opportunity to catch our breath, take a look at what's working and where to make adjustments."

Certainly, there are unresolved questions: Would the closure benefit retailers and restaurants, which could set up displays and tables for diners in the street? Or would it hurt them with reduced vehicle access? What about access for the disabled? Would there be enough parking? Is it safe to have people congregating in one place during a coronavirus pandemic?

The Beacon logged plenty of diverse opinions on its website and through social media about the City of Edmonds' experiment¬¬ – dubbed "Walkable Main Street" and billed as a pilot project.

There was an inkling of how the project would go on Tuesday, June 30, when Economic Development and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty announced that Main Street would be open to vehicles the July 4 weekend after two weekends of being closed to them.

Wednesday's announcement is sure to upset some who loved the idea of pedestrian-only access.

"First the 4th of July parade canceled, now Main Street will not be pedestrian-friendly," said Niko Raptis, owner of The Loft on Main. He saw plenty of diners over the two weekends.

"It's taking away all the fun from that holiday. It's the most important weekend to have the street closed, and they decided not to. I'm disappointed."

Said Doherty: "The first weekend we had great weather and I think people were just itching to get outside. We got a lot of great comments. Last Saturday was very rainy, which brought out fewer people."

In general, he said, restaurants enjoyed the opportunity to seat people outside. Some restaurant owners reported they've had some of their best days all year, he said.

Some retailers saw a marked uptick in foot traffic and sales, while others were slow. Additionally, vehicle circulation and pedestrian safety are issues that need to be more carefully reviewed.

"All of these things are to be expected," said Doherty. "We will work with our community partners to see how we can move this idea forward in a way that works for as many people and businesses as possible."

In the coming weeks, the City will work closely with downtown businesses to find the best path forward. Future Walkable Main Street dates will then be announced.

Mayor Nelson does remain a fan of closing Main.

"We had some suggestions, and incorporated many of these suggestions. We believe that providing more space for safe and comfortable pedestrian flow helps promote social distancing while still patronizing our local businesses."

No one was happier to see Main Street closed to parking and vehicle traffic June 21 than Rick Steves, Edmonds' European traffic expert. He wrote an editorial for the Beacon in May proposing the idea.

And there he was on June 21, Father's Day, enjoying dinner on the street outside Epulo Bistro with his son, Andy Steves, and Shelley Bryan Wee.

"I am so lucky to be here with my favorite people, enjoying my favorite restaurant," Steves said, finishing a plate of pasta and raising a glass of red wine. "Today is more than a happy Father's Day. It's the beginning of what Edmonds is going to be like in the future, when we finally recognize the beauty of letting people in the center of town."

Steves' original idea was to turn Edmonds' charming downtown – boasting historic buildings and the eight majestic oak trees shading the Fifth and Main hub – into a quasi-European-style piazza.

"I'm just coming from the European perspective," said Steves, who in normal years – without a pandemic – spends four months a year there compiling material for his travel guides and PBS TV shows.

"If any European came to the Fifth and Main, with these beautiful oak trees, with that beautiful fountain, this wonderful, unusual collection of mom-and-pop shops instead of chain stores, they would think: Why is this not pedestrian only?"

Steve said merchants in Europe are initially upset when the area their shops are in go pedestrian-only, concerned about those arriving by car.

"But then, after a season, they realize this is much better for their bottom line. And the next street that still has traffic is asking, Can we have traffic-free also?"

Epulo wasn't the only restaurants serving customers on the street and sidewalk outside their doors. They included Claire's, The Loft, Taki Tiki, The Market, Epulo and Kelnero.

Although there was that pushback on opening the streets from some residents and businesses, those taking advantage of outdoor dining over the weekend were happy with the idea.

Among those was Joanne Corbitt, enjoying a feast from Taki Tiki with husband Skip, and Susan Reed and Kelli Archie.

"I love the streets being closed off," she said. "And I really believe it helps the restaurants that have been out of business. There's so much business available to them out here in the street. It's really good to see."

As Doherty said, some restaurant owners loved it, too.

No one produced more how-to videos than Kali Kelnero of the cocktail lounge Kelnero, a familiar face online as she shared secrets to making popular drinks. The lounge provided pick-up during Phase 1, but has not opened its doors to customers during Phase 2, where limited seating is allowed, but not bar seating.

"We're holding off on indoor dining," she said. "I feel like we are taking safety precautions, which are for the safety of customers. We'd rather do it right than do it too fast and get closed."

Many customers seemed to enjoy the car-free streets. They drank cocktails and noshed on food on Kelnero's patio and on several tables on Main Street.

During the second weekend of the closure, June 27-28, there was one significant adjustment.

Vehicle traffic was not allowed access to the stop-sign roundabout at the fountain on Fifth Avenue, which had allowed northbound vehicles to make a U-Turn. (Fifth Avenue North was closed for the farmers market.)

On both weekends, thru-traffic continued to be allowed north- and southbound on Third, Fourth, and Sixth avenues.

"Hear the wind in the trees"

Brian Soergel

Rick Steves eats dinner outside Epulo Bistro with Shelley Bryan Wee and his son, Andy Steves.

Does closing Main Street benefit businesses? Maybe. And maybe there was some temporary relief for weary citizens as well, now more than three months in the coronavirus pandemic, although recent rising coronavirus cases numbers may have played a part in Edmonds' pedestrian-free plans on Wednesday.

Steves will no doubt be there when the streets are car-free again.

"We can hear the wind in the trees. You can hear the pitter-patter of the fountain," he said. "You can hear people talking across the street. It's the white noise of a community. In this time of COVID, it helps us be more normal.

"You really have to commit to doing it before you realize how beautiful it is. Right now, I'm sitting on a parking spot. In the future, I won't be sitting in a parking spot – I'll be sitting in a landscaped area that's designed for people."


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