Bothell banned cars from Main Street in response to COVID. They may never come back

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BOTHELL — Nearly two years ago, Bothell banned vehicles from a downtown street to promote outdoor dining and strolling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now it looks like the cars will never come back.

The rapidly growing Seattle suburb will keep the street vehicle-free for at least two more years while considering whether to make the change permanent, based on a split vote from Bothell City Council last month.

In a sense, this is a relatively small step towards prioritizing pedestrian and non-motorized activities. The area on Main Street is only one block long. But local activists who have been pushing for change say the decision to keep it intact, despite some business and traffic problems, shows just how much new ideas are taking hold in Bothell. Experts say communities in the area should be careful, and the mayor likens the space to a central European square.

“It’s nice to have at least one block that doesn’t favor drivers,” said Amanda Dodd, who was part of the Bo-POP (Bothellites for People Oriented Places) group, which organized the car-free zone. “If we can show people what it’s like to be protected on this street, it will be that much easier to advocate for some level of protection on other streets.”

“ROAD CLOSED” signs and heavy concrete blocks spray painted with flowers guard the ends of the blocks. According to a municipal survey conducted before the March 15 council vote, first covered by The Urbanist, residents of the city center “generally like the pedestrian zone”. Although he lives in a different neighborhood, Eric Eisenberg also lives.

“It encourages people to come and have some sense of community,” Eisenberg, 43, said last week, munching on cheese curds outside a brewery while his 3-year-old son Odin , was playing in the street. “The little guy can run around and I don’t have to worry about him getting hit by a car.”

Business boost?

Bothell created the car-free block in June 2020, hoping the change on Main Street between 101st and 102nd Avenues would transform the city’s historic downtown into a social center and boost business at a time when indoor activities were restricted for COVID, Mayor Mason Thompson said.

For businesses like The Bine brewery, the outdoor dining environment helped “1 million percent” as the pandemic raged, said co-owner George Marshall, who built covered seating in his plazas. parking. Another restaurant extended across the street, and the pedestrian zone was a draw, especially in good weather, Marshall said.

“People like to hang out,” he says.

Not all businesses have benefited: nine surveyed by the city reported positive impacts, while seven reported negative impacts.

Francesca Cohn, who runs a below-street-level craft store, Sankara Imports, said the change has confused some of her customers. Rachman Cantrell, who opened Bothell Jewelers and Collectibles in 1987, said the car ban was “a disaster” for his business, which caters to the elderly and closes at 5.30pm, before the restaurant rush.

“There’s no traffic on the street, so no one sees my shop,” he said.

Marshall, from The Bine, thinks the city needs to hold more markets and concerts in the area, which hosted a Diwali celebration last year. Friday evening markets are planned for this summer.

Even among retailers, the outlook varies. Paul Kavanagh, owner of Woodland Optical in Bothell, said elderly customers could no longer be dropped off at his doorstep. But Chelsea Coryell’s interior design store First & Main is “inundated” with accidental shoppers from picnic tables in the area. “They come to see what we’re doing,” and then end up spending money, she said.

Urban Design

Although the car ban was initially a COVID strategy, it aligned with Bothell’s urban planning aspirations. The city’s population grew by 44% between 2010 and 2020, approaching 50,000, as its downtown added hundreds of new apartments.

After a fire in 2016, the city spent $7 million to redevelop Main Street, rebuild curbless sidewalks and replace corner parking with planters and “flex spaces” for parallel parking or dining.

For one, “there was already momentum” to do more, said Cary Westerbeck, an architect who founded Bo-POP and lives downtown. “They were already trying to reduce commuters moving around,” Westerbeck said.

On the other hand, messing with motorists is something most politicians are afraid to do. The pandemic has presented cities across the country with low-risk opportunities to experiment, said Branden Born, associate professor of urban design at the University of Washington. Seattle has closed many streets to passing vehicles to promote walking, biking and rolling.

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Born said.

Seattle makes many of its “Stay Healthy Streets” permanent, but most are located in residential neighborhoods. Edmonds and Kirkland have closed central streets to cars, but only in the summer.

“There may be a tendency to go back to business as usual, so what’s happening in Bothell is quite significant,” said Jeff Hou, director of the Urban Commons Lab at UW. “Other cities might consider this.”

Thompson, the mayor, thinks big. Neither Amsterdam nor Brussels were pedestrian havens in the 1970s. Now their squares are teeming with tourists.

“It’s not common here, but wherever we like to go on vacation, it absolutely is,” he said.

Rio Dorion, 32, loves the new look of Main Street and the way the city is changing, she said as she walked into a bar last week: ‘Little places to hang out’ without having to travel to Seattle .

Debate, vote

The Bothell board spent nearly two hours debating the options March 15as staff raised potential issues.

The city may need to return $900,000 in federal funds for the Main Street renovation a few years ago because the feds assumed the project would serve cars. If traffic picks up after COVID, diverted cars could clog a parallel street used by public buses, the city’s director of capital projects said. Before the pandemic, Main Street saw about 6,000 vehicle trips each day.

People who rely on public transport are more likely to be people of color and people with low incomes, Bothell’s acting city manager added, with staff noting that the council could choose to close the block only intermittently . The council allocated $1 million in federal COVID relief last year for retractable bollards.

Thompson described the traffic challenges as moot, and other board members said they wanted more equity research. Some residents interviewed said the intermittent closings would be confusing. In the end, the council voted 5-2 to maintain the Special Zone until March 2024.

Adjustments will likely include dedicated drop-off spaces at the ends of blocks and parking spaces for people with disabilities.

The experience angered Christy Graham, of Graham’s RoyalTea on the next block of Main Street. Not because she doesn’t like the idea – she wants the same car-free treatment, she said, so she can serve tea outside.

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all of its coverage.

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