Shared space could be solution for businesses struggling in pricey downtown Boulder
James Potter owner of Vecchio's Bicicletteria does tuneup and repair work in his Boulder shop on Friday. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)
Small, independent businesses continue struggling to survive amid soaring rents on the Pearl Street Mall and along its surrounding blocks.
But what if the problem, for some of these businesses, is that they're paying too much for space they don't need?
Sean Maher, CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, says certain small retail operations may perform better in shared spaces. Instead of having to worry about paying rent on a 3,000-square-foot storefront on the mall and then filling it with product, what if businesses could chop that area into three or four parcels, and share the cost burden?
"They often only need 800 or 1,000 square feet," Maher said. "The spaces available now are just too big."
That opinion reflects a trend in the retail market, he added.
"Businesses have become much more specialized and niche-oriented," Maher said. "Department stores are dying everywhere. You're not going to buy a woman's dress anymore in the same place you buy your kids' shoes."
The idea of splitting up spaces would be among several explored in a study of the downtown retail climate, which some believe has lost a bit of its appeal.
It would be the first time the city's commissioned a study of this kind since the 2005 Downtown Boulder Strategic Plan.
At that time, small, local businesses comprised more than 80 percent of downtown's businesses. The 2005 document called small businesses "the lifeblood of downtown."
Molly Winter, director of Boulder's Department of Community Vitality, said the study would look to answer the question, "How do we proactively anticipate how to maintain the pedestrian vibrancy of downtown?"
For now, the city is taking a reactive approach. A split City Council approved a temporary ban on new banks on the first floor of buildings on Pearl between 9th and 18th streets, but Boulder's still looking for a longer-term solution.
If the city moves ahead with the study, which would be funded in part by the Downtown Boulder Partnership — Boulder's not yet sure what the total consultant cost would be on the project, Winter said — it would look to complete it by the end of the year.
On May 2, the council will discuss what to do when its fourth-month Pearl Street bank ban expires at the end of May, and it's possible the council could look to extend the ban until further direction is provided by the study.
The council could also consider requiring special use reviews for banks downtown instead of outright banning them, as Boulder's Planning Board recommended last week.
The shared storefront idea being kicked around now borrows from the co-working model increasingly popular for office space.
"I think they're changing how people do business," Winter said of co-working spaces. "So, is there a way to look at an approach for retail business?"
Local independent business owners said in interviews Friday they found the concept intriguing, particularly as a cost-saving measure. But some of them aren't interested in downsizing, and remain nervous about their ability to stay downtown and keep spaces they deem big enough.
For example, when you're repairing and selling bicycles, as Vecchio's Bicicletteria owner James Potter is, a smaller space probably won't work.
Increasing rent is of major concern to Potter, who says he expects to stay on the east end of Pearl through the end of his lease option in five years. And after that?
"We'll just have to see," Potter said. "There's only so many inner tubes you can replace for the amount of rent down here.
"It's great to be downtown, but at what cost? I'm not sure for how many more years I can afford to have a repair shop on Rodeo," he said, referencing Los Angeles's swanky Rodeo Drive.
Linda Spillmann, owner of the fabric store Fabricate, said the rent she pays for her space a half-block north of Pearl went up $500 in September, after increasing over each of the six years she's been in business.
Spillman, like Potter, feels she's already squeezed into her space, and could not accommodate the retail and sewing studio she currently offers, were she to downsize.
She's not sure how Boulder should follow the bank ban, but she's happy to see a pause.
"I liked what the City Council did," she said. "Because if somebody's not careful, downtown Boulder is not going to be special."
Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/alex_burness