The heart of Aspen: Its people-friendly downtown malls
July 28, 2011
ASPEN – Like the ski runs that slope steeply skyward from the edge of town with a commanding presence, it feels as though they’ve been here forever, ingrained in a landscape where little else is constant.
It is difficult to imagine Aspen without them, so central are they to the town’s ebb and flow. If skiing is the soul of Aspen, then its downtown pedestrian malls are the town’s heart – the one place visitors and locals alike, from all walks of life, are sure to tread.
“I can’t imagine Aspen without them,” said Mayor Mick Ireland. “It’s incomprehensible.”
But it was a couple of kids and some town visionaries in the early 1970s who imagined Aspen with them, triggering a series of events that culminated with the laying of some 315,000 bricks in a square block of the town’s core in 1976. Then-Mayor Stacy Standley ceremoniously set the final brick into place in early October of that year, and the walkways cemented themselves into Aspen’s social fabric.
The malls mark their 35th anniversary this year, but it wasn’t the town’s first attempt at creating a pedestrian-friendly gathering place.
It was 50 years ago this summer that the town experimented with a temporary mall, when the town fathers agreed to close a city street for a 10-day period in August, installing benches, shrubs and trees, art exhibits and sidewalk cafes. The block of Cooper Avenue that is a mall today was chosen for the test run after a few businessmen objected to the use of Hyman Avenue.
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Theatrical and musical entertainment was planned, along with film showings, fashion shows and dancing demonstrations, to attract pedestrians. The idea, to create a “city center,” sprang from an Aspen Institute seminar on the future of Aspen.
A dozen years would pass before Aspen took another stab at creating a central gathering place. This time, it would stick, thanks to the perseverance of two Aspen High School students and an amenable local populace.
Margo Dick and Kathy “Katie” Dutcher, friends since grade school, hatched the idea for creating a mall while they were both high school students.
Dick, now a resident of Seattle, as is Dutcher, recalls being inspired by Earth Day, first observed in 1970, and by the 1972 graduation night death of a classmate who had embraced the burgeoning environmental movement.
Tourists, in a survey, had complained about Aspen’s congestion, and eliminating cars from city streets appealed to the teens. Dick, a student representative on the City Council for a year, discovered a citizen could force a public vote on an issue through a referendum petition.
Young Aspen attorney Joe Edwards, who would later serve as a Pitkin County commissioner, volunteered to draft the petition, and signatures came easily, Dick said.
Though then-Mayor Eve Homeyer opposed the idea, the council struck a deal with mall proponents in the fall of 1972, agreeing to create a temporary mall the following June, and skip the public vote. The money that would have been spent on a special election instead went to benches, planters and barricades. Paved streets – essentially the blocks of Cooper, Hyman, Mill and Galena that comprise the mall area today – were closed to vehicles.
The move was not without opposition, Dutcher recalled.
“There were people who were really against it,” she said. “We got phone calls that were kind of threatening.”
Some opponents assumed the malls were the brainchild of a couple of divorcees with nothing better to do, Dutcher said. Callers were surprised to discover they were haranguing a teenager on the other end of the phone line.
“A lot of the shopkeepers thought it was a terrible idea,” said Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, then a reporter for The Aspen Times.
But the makeshift malls took hold, and though Dick and Dutcher went off to college and life outside of Aspen, planning work to make the malls a more permanent feature on the urban landscape commenced. A 1 percent, voter-approved sales tax would fund mall construction and maintenance.
CU School of Architecture students were invited to come up with mall concepts that ran the gamut from flowing streams to an ice skating rink, from a walkway covered in tinted glass to a gondola connection from the mall to the top of Aspen Mountain.
Most affected business owners either embraced the mall concept or acquiesced, despite the loss of some 300 on-street parking spaces. They secured city assurance that the malls would be well maintained and patrolled by police on foot, and that there would be no special assessments levied against adjacent properties to fund their upkeep. The city also made provisions that allowed restaurants and bars to extend their premises out onto the closed streets.
With several hundred-thousand bricks purchased (about 50,000 still remain as spares) from the city of St. Louis, mall construction began in June 1976, spawning a brick power-washing operation in present-day Rio Grande Park, headed up by Tom Schultze, now a resident of Carbondale.
The bricks had been laid in St. Louis streets in about 1900, and some wound up covering the surface of a stockyard outside a slaughterhouse. The latter were particularly dirty, Schultze said.
“We had probably 10 people going full tilt for about a month and a half,” he said. Pallets of 10-pound bricks, manufactured and stamped at various Midwest brickyards, were hauled to the mall project as quickly as the crew could get them cleaned off.
“Years ago, I used to know every single brick,” Schultze said.
Once the bricks were installed, work on landscaping and the irrigation ditches that still run the length of the Cooper and Hyman malls began. Crab apple trees were planted on the Mill and Galena Street stubs with the goal of creating an arbor covering the walkway.
Calls to extend the mall down Galena toward Main Street and another block east on Cooper surfaced almost immediately, Hayes recalled.
“I was so in favor of it,” she said.
Opponents included the owner of Tom’s Market, a grocery that operated in the Elks building on Galena in those days. He didn’t want customer convenience impeded, Hayes said.
Today, the Ute Mountaineer occupies the old Tom’s Market space, having moved last fall from a spot it occupied for 30 years on the Mill Street mall.
Owner Bob Wade admits he worried about moving away from the heavy summertime traffic the outdoor gear store enjoyed in its former locale, and the hit sales might take.
“It doesn’t appear to have turned out that way,” he said. “If I had to guess, I’d say the street has helped. I’ve heard many people comment on that: ‘Oh, it’s more convenient for us to get in and out.'”
Western apparel shop Kemo Sabe has occupied the same spot on the corner of the Cooper Avenue mall and the pavement of Galena Street since 1993. There’s no place owners Tom and Nancy Yoder would rather have their shop.
“I like being on the mall. It’s the only place to be,” Nancy said. “I like the atmosphere you get from a closed street, with no cars to contend with. We can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
While no one is lobbying to extend Aspen’s closed streets beyond the present borders of the malls, Mayor Ireland wonders if there isn’t room for pedestrian-friendly improvement.
Nearly a dozen years ago, Aspen undertook the Downtown Enhancement Pedestrian Project, widening the sidewalks on a block of Mill Street and a block of Hyman rounding the corner in front of the landmark Wheeler Opera House.
Parking spaces were sacrificed to create wider, decorative walkways that sport benches and other features. A similar project on the Galena Street side could have merit, said Ireland, who was inspired by the narrow, pedestrian friendly streets he encountered on a recent trip to Europe.
“Imagine Galena Street and Cooper if the sidewalks were widened, with more plantings – if they were friendlier,” he mused.
Ask Tom Yoder how he’d feel about laying brick down Galena Street toward Main Street, and he bobs his head in agreement. “I’d love it – I’d love it.”
The malls themselves have matured into perhaps the most revered streets in the core. Young trees, planted 35 years ago, now tower over adjacent buildings. New restrooms, a year-round guest-services pavilion, a fire hearth, a children’s playground and the immensely popular Dancing Fountain have added to their vibrancy. Hitting its prime in the summer months, the mall area bustles with al fresco dining, music from buskers and Aspen Music Festival students, entertainment from the occasional itinerant street performer and the energy created by a common gathering place that spills out into adjacent Wagner Park.
The city has kept its promise on upkeep, maintaining flower beds and containers that required 1,080 flats of annuals and 76 one-gallon potted plants this year, at a cost of some $20,000.
In 2004, moveable tables and chairs were added to the mix, allowing people to drag mall furniture where ever they want. When the city discovered it would cost as much to have someone chain all the pieces up every night as it would to replace them, it decided to risk the pilfering of public property.
The furniture didn’t disappear, and has instead proved hugely popular, noted Jeff Woods, city parks and recreation director. Each morning, the tables on the mall have been rearranged.
Woods’ crew has thinned out ailing mall trees and cut the lower limbs on others to open the area to more light as the vegetation grew dense. During the winter season, the holiday lights in the trees seem to multiply exponentially, as have the flowers in summertime.
In general, the malls have matured into what Woods considers Aspen’s most popular park.
“I think they’re really a wonderful design that’s aged very well,” he said. “It’s truthfully the heart of our system. For the number of users, the malls are absolutely the most heavily used park in Aspen.”
For mall visionaries Dick and Dutcher, the walkways are a point of pride in a town that little resembles the one they once called home.
Dutcher remembers returning to Aspen for her 20th high school reunion and seeing the malls for the first time as an intrinsic part of the downtown core.
“It was pretty remarkable to walk around and see them pretty much institutionalized,” she said.
“We didn’t envision it to be maybe quite as gorgeous as it is now, but we did envision it to be a comfortable pedestrian space in the middle of Aspen,” Dick said. “I just love it.
“I feel like it’s one of the nicer things I’ve done in my life.”