Aspenites fired up over traffic experiment in downtown core
City of Aspen pivoting in public outreach and engagement in responding to living lab on Galena and Cooper avenues
Aspen city government is getting run over with criticism almost two weeks into the Galena Cooper traffic experiment on one of the busiest two-block sections in downtown.
While the project has been in the works since last year, the removal of 44 parking spaces and the installation of a bike lane along Galena and Cooper avenues late last month took business owners, shoppers and residents by surprise.
The city’s customer service hotline for the project and general email account has been inundated since the bike lane was installed and angle parking in the area changed to parallel.
“We’ve identified as a team a real need to enhance our outreach and communication that was planned for this project, and we are working on how best to do that,” said Kathleen Wanatowicz, principal of Project Resource Studio, a public relations firm hired by the city to help with the project.
She made a presentation last week to the city’s Commercial Core and Lodging Commission, asking its board members to help collect data and communicate with businesses and residents during the duration of the living lab, which is scheduled to end Sept. 26.
Wanatowicz said last week that there were over 30 calls to the hotline from people stating that they had no idea when the project was going to start, and they want the parking back and don’t feel a dedicated bike lane is necessary.
Safety versus livelihoods
The city engineering department, with the direction of Aspen City Council, made the changes to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety in the downtown core.
“One of the goals of this project is to provide equitable space for all users,” said PJ Murray, the city’s project manager, who told the CCLC board that 70% of the downtown is dedicated to cars. “Staff and council, we are hearing the community asking for safety to be improved in the core.”
Last year the city did a community survey in which the majority of 400 respondents said they wanted more safety measures downtown for pedestrians and cyclists.
Council’s desire and direction to staff for the past several years is to prioritize pedestrian and bicyclists and find ways to reduce the number of cars coming into town.
“We have a real problem in the community,” said Deputy City Engineer Pete Rice, noting that traffic coming in and out of town on the Castle Creek Bridge and through the West End neighborhood is not sustainable. “There’s a lot of single vehicle reliance right now.”
CCLC board member Amanda Tanaka said during last week’s meeting that she often feels unsafe when walking with her child in downtown Aspen.
“I applaud the parallel parking,” she said. “I think the line of sight is so much easier.”
Members of the CCLC and the business community said removing parking spaces in front of their storefronts hurts their bottom lines and makes it inconvenient for their customers.
“By deferring to bikes in the core, you are hurting shoppers, older people, younger people, people with families that want to come park their car safely and do some shopping and visit the mall, go to the fountain and not having to deal with getting hit with a bike,” said CCLC board member Charles Cunniffe, who is an architect with an office downtown and has been hit more than once by a bicyclist while walking. “I think that is totally the wrong direction to go, personally.”
The city has replaced the 44 parking spaces by reclassifying others just outside of the core from residential to paid, but people must walk a few more blocks to get to the core.
Engagement a one-way or two-way street
Kenny Smith, co-owner of Meridian Jewelers, said he has met with city officials and gone to meetings about the project, but there has never been a formal process for people to publicly comment about it.
“It felt disingenuous,” he said last week. “I spoke my mind that this was going to be harmful. … People are really upset and discontent on the front lines out here, and it’s creating negative energy.”
There are 10 businesses in the area where the dedicated bikeway and parallel parking is that are gathering signatures from people expressing their displeasure with the pilot program.
Smith said he plans to submit those petitions to council during Tuesday’s regular meeting.
“In the spirit that this is real feedback,” he said.
Angi Wang, a commercial real estate broker and a board member of CCLC, agreed that there was a not a lot of opportunity to weigh in during the public process.
“During work sessions we were not able to give our public remarks,” she said during the CCLC meeting. “They asked businesses to show up to the work sessions, and they wouldn’t hear us out, so that is a frustration I am hearing across the board.”
City officials acknowledge that they did not personally contact every single person in the downtown core, but a letter was mailed to 700 people who live in the project area.
“Some of the other comments that we’ve received are that people don’t read the local paper, they don’t read their email, they don’t check their mail and so there is a handful of people that really would like to be communicated one-on-one, face-to-face individually, which is very challenging for the city of Aspen to accomplish that expectation and reach every single person,” Wanatowicz said.
The city recently hired someone who will be responsible for downtown services and interaction with businesses so in the future, face-to-face communication is more likely.
CCLC board member and hotelier Terry Butler said it’s not that difficult to do, as she has done in the past with other endeavors.
“It really is the most effective way,” she said.
CCLC board chair Jeb Ball said he has seen city officials work directly with business owners, and it works better than any other communication method.
“I absolutely have seen that the face-to-face is the gold standard, and I know it’s time consuming, but I think a little ounce of prevention is really necessary, because it’s been my observation that when the city does things and it had a great outreach campaign, the event takes place, and then it’s a nuclear explosion, people going, ‘I had no idea about this, what, what, what,’ whereas if you contact the business owners in advance then they can’t say after it’s implemented, ‘Oh, I didn’t know anything about it,’” he said.
Denise White, the city’s director of communications, said the surprise element of the Galena Cooper living lab is a common theme the municipal government is hearing from people.
She said the city did a lot of public engagement from last August until February, but then as the project drew near, not enough communication was made as officials were in the thick of planning.
“We recognize that we need to do better during the quiet months,” she said. “Things aren’t real for people until they are real.”
People reacting or trying to get involved at the 11th hour is not a new phenomenon in the arena of public policy, and it makes public outreach a challenge.
“I think things can get missed, and we also recognize there is a lot going on,” White said. “We have to figure out how to get the message out at the right time.”
Data is being collected during the living lab, which is a test to see if it’s something that should become permanent or discontinued.
The city has an intern on the ground making observations on how the roadway is being used and how motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists are interacting.
One-on-one interviews are occurring, and outreach will continue for the next two months.
Wanatowicz tasked CCLC board members to each connect with five people to get specific feedback, find out their preferences for city communications and to experience the two blocks as a pedestrian, a motorist and cyclist.
City officials and Wanatowicz will go back to CCLC next month for an update.
People wanting to learn more about the project or give an opinion can visit aspencommunityvoice.com or call the customer service line at 970-340-4334.
The chief operating officer of RH recently said the retailer’s presence will invigorate downtown Aspen by day and wake it up at night, but they’ll need some help from the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission.
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