Weekends on Main, the al fresco dining program that saw downtown Littleton largely closed to cars on weekends last summer, is coming back in 2021 — and could be a starting point for a new vision for downtown.
The program will run Friday and Saturday evenings from May through October, with Main Street blocked off to make room for tables, performers and bands, and cross-streets left open for cars.
The program began last year as a way to boost seating for restaurants facing tight capacity restrictions due to COVID-19, and although those limits are largely expected to be lifted this summer, business leaders say downtown is still in recovery mode.
Downtown sales and use tax revenues were down 41.7% in December over the year before, according to city documents.
“Restaurants and merchants are still hurting, and this is a way for people to come down here who may not feel safe dining indoors just yet,” said Korri Lundock, the interim president of the Historic Downtown Littleton Merchants Association, or HDLM (often pronounced “hoodlum”).
Plus, she said, it’s just plain fun.
“It’s our Colorado lifestyle — people love to be outside,” she said.
This year, HDLM is adding an artisan market every second Saturday, with hopes of drawing as many as 80 booths and vendors by June. The idea is to fill in stretches of downtown that don’t have as many restaurants.
Weekends on Main proved to be such a smash hit that HDLM hopes to bring it back every year, Lundock said — though even bigger plans are in the works.
Business leaders and city officials are in the early stages of exploring a downtown development authority, or DDA, a quasi-governmental agency employed in municipalities up and down the Front Range to coordinate decision-making and financing for big projects.
Though the idea has been kicked around in Littleton politics for years, it took on new life last year as city officials struggled to effectively coordinate with HDLM to pull off Weekends on Main.
“There are a lot of competing interests in downtown, and they need a level of self-governance,” said City Manager Mark Relph. “What do they want to do? Do they want to develop parking? How do they want to handle events? The city needs an organized partner with the tools to solve problems.”
TIF could be financing route
A DDA would likely operate on tax increment financing, or TIF. That means all taxes collected above a predetermined baseline would go into a fund to finance big projects without raising sales tax or property tax rates. Voters would decide whether to create a DDA, possibly as soon as this November, but more likely next year.
Relph said Weekends on Main served as a proof-of-concept for an idea long bandied about: narrowing Main Street through downtown to one lane, installing diagonal parking, and widening sidewalks for more pedestrians and patio dining.
“It could be an attraction beyond anything you can imagine today,” said Relph, who previously helped oversee a strongly similar project that revamped Main Street in Grand Junction. “We already have a unique downtown — can we take it to the next level?”
The time to act on such an idea may be on the horizon. After years of repairing and replacing water lines beneath neighboring streets, Denver Water — which operates Littleton’s water supply — has set its sights on replacing the leaky 80-year-old water main beneath Main Street, a project that could take weeks and rip up sidewalks and decades-old tree roots.
Though Denver Water wanted to get started on the project this year, city officials negotiated for a delay, saying businesses are still struggling to get back on their feet, and turning Main Street into a construction zone would only hamper efforts. Though Relph said the project may not materialize until next year or 2023, he remains concerned for the impact on small business.
On the other side, though, is a chance to redevelop Main Street in a new way.
“We have one opportunity to put this all back,” Relph said. “We should be asking: what do we want for downtown’s future?”
The idea of narrowing Main Street sounds exciting to Pat Dunahay, the co-chair of the Littleton Business Chamber, along with a host of other ideas being explored by the DDA committee, including an outdoor community center and events space at Bega Park, and perhaps a parking garage.
“It’s a big wish list, and some of that is down the line a ways,” Dunahay said. “But we really feel like this could drive up business and values.”
DDA could be game-changer
A DDA could take on projects far beyond anything HDLM could ever hope to do, Lundock said.
“Our annual budget is somewhere around $25,000,” she said. “Community centers, parking garages and sidewalks are way, way beyond our price range.”
If a DDA is established, Lundock said HDLM may get folded into it, or folded into the business chamber. Businesses don’t need to pay too many dues to redundant organizations, she said.
The idea of narrowing Main Street for cars and prioritizing people sounds great to Matthew Duff, the head of a nascent advocacy group called Littleton Citizens for Better Streets.
“Weekends on Main was fantastic, but we can go grander,” Duff said. “Right now, Main Street is optimized for transportation, not living experiences here. It’s a place to get through town, not to walk and meander. If you look at Pearl Street in Boulder or Old Town in Fort Collins, there are places for kids to play and pleasant places to sit. Main Street Littleton has that potential — that destiny.”
Merchants in downtown were receptive to the idea as well.
“Anything that gets people down here and realizing what a great place this is to spend an afternoon or evening sounds great by me,” said Heather Neyer, the retail manager of La Vaca Meat Co., a gourmet butcher shop. “Weekends on Main opened the doors to people who hadn’t experienced us before. We’d love to see downtown become a regional draw.”
Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes said he’s all ears for ideas that a DDA comes up with.
“If they felt a parking garage would help, and they could afford it, I’d be happy to listen,” he said. “I’ll be honest, though, I’ve never had much trouble parking more than a block or two away from where I need to go down there. Parking garages are expensive, and they don’t always get used as much as people expect. But I’ll hear them out.”
Valdes said the looming timeline of the Denver Water project means it’s a great time for downtown to take the reins of its future.
“For the district to take some control of its own destiny, that’s a good thing,” he said. “Let’s come up with a plan sooner than later.”
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