SALT LAKE CITY — A four block stretch of downtown will close to vehicle traffic this summer in an effort to help boost restaurants, bars and shops as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Downtown Alliance, a booster group for the downtown Salt Lake City area, is bringing back its "Open Streets" program that it launched last fall to help struggling Main Street businesses. But this year — if it's successful — the group plans to lobby Salt Lake City leaders to consider permanently closing off the area and making it a pedestrian promenade.
"Main Street will be closed to automobile traffic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights," Dee Brewer, the executive director of the Downtown Alliance, said in an interview with FOX 13. "It’ll be a grand pedestrian promenade. Restaurants will be [moving] out to the curb and we will have entertainment programs up and down Main Street."
The closure to most traffic will start Memorial Day weekend. It will run from 400 South to South Temple, the same area it was last year. Barricades will be put up to protect pedestrians from the Trax trains that run up and down Main Street. Even with the Open Streets closures, traffic can still get across Main using South Temple, 100 South, 200 South and 300 South (with an access also planned along Market Street). Delivery trucks may still be able to access Main Street during certain hours.
When Open Streets launched last fall, cases of COVID-19 were at a height and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall touted it as a way for people to get out and support downtown businesses, but people could still remain socially distant. Restaurants were able to extend seating out to the curb, people could walk in the streets and buskers and musical acts performed in outdoor settings.
Brewer said they saw an average of 7,000 people each weekend and restaurants reported a 30% increase in business. Even businesses adjacent to Main Street said they saw an increase in foot traffic as a result of Main Street's closure to vehicles.
"It was great to see downtown kind of lively again with people out and about but still saying safe," said Richard Romney, the general manager of the popular restaurant Takashi.
While Takashi didn't participate last year, they are considering an outdoor option this summer when Open Streets resumes.
"Any draw to bring people downtown, we’re very thankful for," Romney told FOX 13.
But if Open Streets is a hit this summer — like they expect it will be — Brewer confirmed to FOX 13 the Downtown Alliance is in talks about a more permanent closure to vehicle traffic along Main Street (sort of like Denver has with its 16th Street Mall area).
"We often joke if you’re driving on Main Street in downtown you’re probably not from here," Brewer said. "It is not an efficient thoroughfare. But it’s a fantastic gathering place."
In a statement to FOX 13, Mayor Mendenhall suggested she did not oppose the idea.
"Open Streets is a great opportunity to re-energize downtown and help people safely socialize and support local businesses. We're excited to see it return and see this as an opportunity to test out the idea, learn from it, and see how it could work in Salt Lake City moving forward," she said.
If it were to come to pass, a five-block stretch of major road would become a pedestrian haven. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Main Street Plaza is private property with a semi-public thoroughfare, and the faith owns the land that City Creek Center is on.
The Downtown Alliance is already fundraising to keep Open Streets going throughout the summer. Brewer said the COVID-19 pandemic has given them a chance to rethink the future of downtown.
"We think a better use of Main Street is for the pedestrian, for the shopper, for the diner," he said. "Cars... let me say there are thousands of parking spaces downtown and many of them are adjacent to Main Street. People will find their way."