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Saturday March 25th 2023

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The Public Realm at 11th & Pearl


11th and Pearl (Applicants' concept plan --

This article describes a few of my observations, questions and ideas related to the recent concept submittal for the 11th and Pearl redevelopment project (available here — 15 mb pdf). I read about the project in the newspaper a few weeks ago, and have reviewed the recent submittal discussed at the recent public meeting. While I expect that this work will evolve into a remarkable contribution to the city, I feel that various urban design and pedestrian access issues related to the character of the development and how it contributes to the public realm have not been illustrated in the design drawings. Therefore I feel that these comments could be helpful for the process.

My wife and I recently returned to make Boulder our home after being away for three years. The reason we returned is to enjoy the wonderful public pedestrian and street life here, and to live an active lifestyle centered near the public amenities and character of the historic downtown. The new project at 11th and Pearl has an unusual opportunity to enhance those characters for us and for all the future generations who will experience the downtown. We should expect and demand the best!

Will the Project Enhance the Public Realm and West End Sense of Place?

The 11th and Pearl project can provide a significant improvement to the public realm of downtown. The experience that people have walking along the sidewalks, sitting or resting on a comfortable bench, viewing the Flatirons from under a shade tree, or simply listening to street musicians will be a very important quality of their Boulder experience in downtown. This large building project, when done artfully and sensitively with timeless and iconic qualities, will affect all of those outdoor public experiences and should be included in the early concept design of the project and included in the public discussions by City Council, Planning Board, Landmarks Board and the media too; the design of the building mass, setbacks, facades and associated sidewalk furnishings and amenities will contribute in a significant way to the character of the public realm experience. Furthermore, the design of the public realm next to the project should reflect the neighborhood and area context, and be inspired by the soul and poetry of downtown Boulder. A few questions remain unanswered for me after looking at the documents:

  • Does the concept submittal describe and conceptualize the delightful character of the sidewalk and public space experiences?
  • Does the building character contribute to the diverse eclectic character of the west end and downtown?
  • Should the experience that people have at 11th and Pearl be unique and special and if so, how?
  • How will the 11th and Pearl project enhance peopleʼs fond memories and experiences downtown and specifically enhance the sense of place and urban animation of the west end?
  • The concept should include the initial design of these features and experiences, and be included in the early project review and land use and real estate programming development.

10th and Pearl (Applicants' concept plan --

Roof gardens, greenhouse, elevated public spaces and roof animation

The proposed concepts to animate the upper level roof spaces will be a significant and a noteworthy contribution to the project. If these spaces can thrive, be maintained, and be accessible to the public they will set a new standard for upper level “green” downtown urban design in Boulder. Gardens, public spaces, event spaces and walking promenades can provide a living and valuable open space that will be great for tenants as well as visitors and wildlife too, at the roof level. Making the new roof vegetation to be productive and to thrive ecologically will also contribute to sustainable building operations and energy consumption. A precedent for this type of experience has been successfully developed along the Highline in NYC and perhaps other places too; while this project and purpose are different, the idea of a vital roof public space can work well at 11th and Pearl.
Furthermore, a portion of the roof can perhaps become a small-scale, highly productive greenhouse/garden developed in combination with potential lively event spaces on the roof. The space can become a beautiful venue that can be rented year-round for parties, weddings and events. The rooftop with flatiron views, bluebird skies and warm nights will have a magnetic draw and add to the vibrancy of the west end and downtown. The commercial rooftop market garden will grow and market high quality specialty crops, initially tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, lettuces and other leaf crops, in controlled environment greenhouses utilizing the most recent technology in soilless, or, hydroponic growing systems. Showcasing Boulderʼs commitment to sustainability and championing local production, the rooftop venture will eliminate food miles associated with traditional agriculture, satiate Boulderʼs restaurants and citizens year-round demand for local produce while reconnecting residents with the countyʼs agricultural traditions. The current concept plan does not show any detail associated with the project rooftop gardens: Accessibility? Usage? Scale and Character? Habitat? Agricultural Productivity? Maintenance and Operations? Public Use? Visibility from the Sidewalk? Special Viewing Places? Impact to Tenants? Access from the Sidewalk? Roof Architecture? Etc.

Public plaza at 10th Corridor

The public space envisioned for 10th and Pearl along the intimate alley walk between Walnut and Pearl and the Pearl Street sidewalk is another unique and worthy contribution to the sidewalk public realm in downtown. Here is where the sidewalk will be widened to develop a small plaza and public space where the unique serendipity and iconic soul of downtown Boulder street life can shine. How will this be done? What will be the character of  improvement? Shade trees, seating and feature art or amenities can serve as the design foundation to make this a memorable and comfortable space for downtown pedestrians, impromptu events, performances and people watching. What will be the character of this space? How is this space connected to the private tenant spaces in the adjacent buildings? How will the private spaces interact with the plaza? The experience in this space can truly enhance the sense of place of downtown and the west end.

Glass facades, animation and interpretation

The proposed building elevations show a variety of unique glass and transparent features that break up the building facades and likely can provide a special character for the building uses and tenants. But what do these glass features really look like? How can they be developed to provide a unique character to the site and building? How can the reflective qualities be turned into a seasonal asset given their unique form, location and orientation? Most significantly, how can these features be lit at night to tastefully contribute to the streetscape and downtown experience? There are numerous opportunities to capture historic or local stories and interpret those with lighting, art or the design of the glass building features in a subtle and timeless yet flexible manner. This is a very unique opportunity that can contribute to the sense of place of the west end. What does it look like? How will the glass perform artistically?

Sidewalk Character and Experience and Gentrification

The sidewalk environment adjacent to the proposed 11th and Pearl project should be way more than just to provide pedestrian access and comfort. The sidewalks and walking environment should be as good as possible because of the character of the pedestrian infrastructure and the character and type of uses and development of the private land uses. The sidewalk experiences established adjacent to the 11th and Pearl project should include a multiplicity of uses, characteristics and experiences similar to what is in Downtown Boulder and along Pearl Street today. These uses could include places for neighborhood life, vending, hanging out, socialization, minicrowding, walking, promenades, public events, political gathering, impromptu meetings and way more. The success and sustainability of the pedestrian experience will be because as Jane Jacobs points out, “the sidewalks are the vital organs of the City.” (flickr creative commons)

As proposed in the Concept Plan, will the sidewalks and pedestrian experiences become comfortable, memorable and attractive to users? Will the pedestrian environment enrich the sense of place of the west end? Will the sidewalks become much more than moving from 11th street to 9th street? Will people enjoy themselves along those journeys? Given what is included in the Concept Plan we cannot predict or understand very well what may occur here. The character and pattern of ground plane uses are not defined yet; if only upscale retail uses occur, then perhaps the character of a democratic sidewalk will be diminished. An overly gentrified use pattern will serve to weaken the spirit and soul of the downtown character and perhaps reduce the potential for sidewalk vitality, activity and serendipitous experiences. Furthermore, the design of the private building frontages that encourage diverse uses is incomplete and not shown in the concept.

To overcome an overly upscale sidewalk use pattern, and to promote a sustainable sense of localism, perhaps the real estate team needs to make a commitment to seek independent businesses, local entrepreneurs, and even public and institutional uses to diversify the character and experience along the street. Most importantly perhaps the development team can develop a process to find these users, and to include this strategy in the overall real estate pro forma and business planning. With a more eclectic use pattern aimed at reflecting a unique mix of uses and populations, and building upon the entertainment characteristics of the west end, then the sidewalks will truly have the opportunity to become the vital organs of the west end.

By making the sidewalks more public, perhaps even the pedestrian infrastructure standards can be gently modified from the current standard. Perhaps the sidewalk widths can be increased to provide more room for pedestrians and amenities and use; modest changes to the standards may be warranted here that would be transparent in relation to the adjacent sidewalk widths and conditions.

Building Character

The submitted concept elevations illustrate a handsome collection of proposed architectural treatments that include attractive roof and parapet treatments and a diverse collection of brick and glass facades and window  treatments. Given the large scale and size of the building and aggressive program, these treatments represent an accepted method of breaking down the scale of the large building, while also fitting the building into the existing historic and downtown development pattern as prescribed in the design guidelines and other City of Boulder policy documents. But will this concept design contribute to the unique sense of place and eclectic architectural poetry in downtown? Will this pattern of development establish the framework for a vibrant, safe, and comfortable public realm along the sidewalks and even perhaps on the roof? It appears to me that perhaps the overall character of the submittal is somewhat generic and bland and “boxy” at this time; when the elevations are compared to the other Pearl Street historic blocks, it is obvious that the current proposal lacks the charm, intimacy and character of the historic feature blocks. Furthermore, if the building were to represent a diversity and eclectic sidewalk mix of uses referred to in the previous section, could the building elevations show more of that diversity and personal charm? Granted the historic buildings were developed differently and more incrementally, which resulted in a much more interesting pattern that users delight in. The proposed building project at 11th and Pearl should perhaps explore a development process which resulted in the base level retail and ground plane building walls to be contributing to the future pedestrian life and economic vitality, and contribute to a more vital public social experience along the sidewalks.

The glass corner feature of the building at 11th and Pearl does indeed represent an opportunity to engage the whole community as a gateway transition from the mall westward. How does the public spaces at that corner invite the variety of uses that occur there today and become a signature gateway because of its uses, character and experiences there? How will the building interact with that corner space? How will the glass features contribute to the comfort and character of that gateway corner along the ground plane?

Public Realm Character

This proposal primarily suggests how the development program will be realized in the proposed building, and how it will fit within the City of Boulder policy envelope and framework and previous discussions with the community.

from (flickr creative commons)

The concepts for the streetscape and public realm at the edge of the proposed building are not included except for the public space at 10th/Pearl, the inclusion of street trees, and general suggestions for a green roof. The proposed concepts for the design of the public realm along the streetscape, that includes sidewalks, public spaces, landscaping, art, public amenities, bicycle parking and access, street lighting, public wayfinding and information, etc., .are not included in this design submittal. How the proposed streetscape contributes to a vital public ream is simply not part of this concept submittal and cannot be discussed.

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