Pedestrian mall

Aspen’s pedestrian malls received a national award honoring them as one of 15 “Great Places” recognized by the American Planning Association in 2018. Shown here is the corner of Cooper Avenue and Galena street.

Aspen’s pedestrian malls are being honored as one of the nation’s premier public spaces, “demonstrating exceptional character, quality, and planning—attributes that enrich communities, facilitate economic growth and inspire others around the country,” according to the award announcement from the American Planning Association.

The national group representing the community planning profession recently recognized the malls as one of 15 honorees in its “Great Places” program for 2018. The awards have recognized a total of 290 neighborhoods, streets and public spaces around the country over the last 11 years.

“Aspen’s pedestrian mall is a national example of how public spaces effectively create a sense of place that creates access and opportunity for all,” Cynthia Bowen, FAICP, president of APA, said in a press release.

The 15 awards were culled from over 100 applications, according to Kurt Christiansen, president-elect of the American Planning Association. Aspen’s malls stood out both for their natural beauty and the grassroots effort of their inception, he said in a follow up interview.

Aspen’s malls are also among the “few successful pedestrian malls” in the country, said Christiansen, the economic and community development director for the city of Azusa, Calif.

He nevertheless noted that projects are underway all over the country — including in his community — to improve pedestrian infrastructure and elevate it over right-of-way real estate devoted to cars. This can be as simple as slimming down traffic lanes, creating bigger sidewalks and having more spaces there for the public to gather.

“I think Aspen was on the forefront of something that was unique and new and did the process right with thoughtful planning,” Christiansen said.

The idea of making some downtown streets pedestrian-only zones in Aspen dates to 1950s and continued through the 1960s, when on at least two occasions portions of Cooper Avenue were temporarily blocked off to test out the pedestrian mall concept. The plan in place today was developed in the 1970s thanks to the initiative of two local high school students and voters approved a sales tax to support their construction. The malls opened in 1976. The planning association noted that the initial process was contentious but the malls now serve as among the most beloved places in the city.

Christiansen said he visited Aspen some 15 or 20 years ago and remembers being taken with the malls.

“It’s an amazing space,” he said. “It brings the community together, draws in the landscape and preserves the historic character of the community.”

Jessica Garrow, the city of Aspen’s community development director,  agreed that the award is not just about the physical space of the malls, but also the “intent and spirit” behind their creation.

Despite the award, and the fact that the malls have recently been designated as a historic resource, changes are afoot. The city for about two years has been in the preliminary stages of a project to upgrade aging and inadequate utilities underlying the malls. This will require significant surface disturbance. The plan is to replace what is taken up in a manner respecting and mimicking the existing character, while making improvements in areas that planners believe could function better. Detailed proposed plans are expected in 2019, with work to begin as soon as 2020.

The malls have always been an evolution, Garrow said. Recent changes include allowing more outdoor dining, and going back a bit longer, adding the bathrooms and playground near Wagner Park. The growth of the trees has also changed the malls.

The project is important to keep the malls viable for decades to come, Garrow said, noting a water main break that caused a portion of the Hyman Avenue mall to be closed for a lengthy repair a few years ago. The project in part is about preventing those kind of situations in the future, she said.

Party like it’s 1976

In recognition of the award, the city is throwing a weekend-long celebration of the malls, Oct. 5-8. Retailers and restaurants will be encouraged to bring more of their offerings out onto the bricks while the city will temporarily relax rules governing signage and outdoor displays. The city will also raffle off prizes to anyone who spends more than $10 at a mall business.

On Saturday, Oct. 6 from 11-2 p.m., the will be swag and food giveaways, popular 70s-era games such as mall bowling and speeches. State Sen. Kerry Donovan is expected to attend, as is a representative from Congressman Scott Tipton’s office, Garrow said.

“We hope to keep those to a minimum and just enjoy a great American place,” Garrow said of the speeches, adding that “this is as significant an award as the city has ever gotten.”

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.