Why Pearl Street Works

by Osman Parvez

Since first moving to Boulder, I've enjoyed Pearl Street's independent shops, cafes, and art. When we have out of town guests, a stroll through the Farmer's Market and Pearl Street is usually on the agenda. And I don't even like shopping. Pearl Street is different somehow. Even when we don't have guests, I enjoy a visit and frequently meet with clients or friends in one of its cafes or restaurants.

The Pearl Street Mall is a central feature of Boulder and quite simply, it works. Have you ever wondered why?

Today I came across a piece by Richard Layman, a DC based historic preservation and urban revitalization consultant/advocate. Turns out Pearl Street isn't the spontaneous result of random development. It took the hard work of many people to create and maintain. If you're interested in Boulder check out, "Now I know why Boulder's Pearl Street Mall is the exception that proves the rule about the failures of pedestrian malls."

He writes,
Clearly, there are reasons that the Pearl Street "pedestrian" Mall is wildly successful. They work their a**** off to ensure that it succeeds, leaving little to chance. Impressive.
From his piece, one thing stood out; the reference to a "sense of place." According to Wikipedia, a sense of place is fostered by characteristics that are unique, creating authentic attachment and feelings of belonging. When places have that special quality, people get emotional. It's something that Pearl Street succeeds at and most new developments, such as 29th Street, struggle (and usually fail) to create.

Image: City of Boulder

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  1. Osman - "sense of place" is exactly what Pearl St. has, you are correct. In many architectural design schools this is a concept that is talked about often. However, I feel that this "sense" develops on its own, in a natural way, if you will. The 29th St mall will NEVER EVER inspire such feelings - unless, perhaps, in a post-apocalyptic world it is the last remaining remnant of a bygone era. Pearl St.'s success is predicated in a large part on its history - it was a Main St to begin with, not one man's or one company's idea, but a community's idea. In addition, the street was built over a long period of time by many many people - not a single developer with the aid of a "theming" design firm (blech!!!) See also: many, many towns and cities in the Northeast as well (Doylestown, Pa, for example). The ingenious (if ridiculously simple) idea that we can give the streets back to the people and ban cars simply amplifies the great architectural qualities the street had to begin with...kudos to Boulder, CVille, and Burlington (among others).

  2. This will be non-PC statement: The lack of so-called "diversity" is another reason why Pearl Street Mall is such a succes. You can more or less relax and there is no tension in the air... High entry barrier in Boulder (read RE tag)helps too. As an immigrant from Asia I can say things americans can't :-)

  3. NF - I think you're right that true "sense of place" must develop organically. When imposed, it feels artificial and lacks authenticity. I'm also in favor of more car free spaces in general. I'd like to see the Pearl Street Mall expanded another two blocks.

    Anon - I'm OK with non PC statements and perhaps you have a point worth discussing. While not polite dinner conversation, the fact remains that a disproprortionate amount of street crime is committed by black men. That lends some validity to your comment, although being Asian doesn't make you immune to PC backlash. I should know.

    Want to see real diversity? Visit Sydney, Australia. On my recent trip, I was shocked at the number of Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Europeans, Islanders... everywhere I looked. They were working all manner of blue and white collar jobs, and society seemed well integrated. Real diversity can be a wonderful thing.

  4. Osman, you have a point and I'm not an expert on the issue. We can probably find various examples on both sides. I visited Paris two times several years apart. What a difference a few years can make, though Paris is still Paris. Or take a look at DC iself and it's suburbs, you can unfortunately find a lot of fault lines. I guess social harmony makes a place livable to all of us. The question - why some places can't achieve it. Why integration "worked" in Sidney? Why it didn't in Paris?

  5. In my opinion, one of the reasons that it is difficult to succinctly describe why Pearl Street works is the same reason that Boulder "works." Boulder has a number of things going for it that are NOT unique to the city. However, the experience of visiting Boulder is unlike the experience of visiting other cities in the US and brings together many aspects of the worlds great cities.

  6. The 16th Street Mall doesn't even come close to the Pearl Street. It has more to do with a corporate versus residential environment. I can park my car at a friends house and walk to Pearl Street versus park at a garage or lot in Denver. The restaurants are unique I'd prefer hitting Pasta Jays on Pearl than some corporate hole like Cheesecake Factory, Rockbottom Brewery or ESPN Zone. Last but not least, I'd rather see a hippie do his thing with a hackysack in Boulder than some kid from a Denver suburb beg for cash.

  7. What a beautiful vision...except that hackeysack is illegal on the Pearl St Mall. NO BALLS allowed ;> And the last time I checked Boulder was chock full of panhandlers and street urchins.

  8. I kinda think the 29th St. Mall is going to be the place to be, in about 10 years or so. It has lots of problems now (lack of a decent food court, horrible traffic issues) but some major Pearl St. stores have already moved over there (Borders Book Store! Wah!!) Plus, the homeless population on the Pearl St. Mall is a definite turn off. Not like they accost people or anything, and lots are genuinely nice, smart people, but it's kind of visually offputting to see them, sometimes. I may eat my words someday (I'm good at that, too) but I think the Pearl Street Mall is oging to need to make some changes soon.


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