It’s not a ban or moratorium, Councilman Matt Appelbaum said — just a four-month pause.

And if it came as a surprise to those most closely impacted (and nearly everyone else who doesn’t serve on the City Council) that was very much by design. When you’re trying to place a limit on someone, you don’t give them a heads-up so they have time to adjust, Mayor Suzanne Jones said.

But whatever label the policy deserves, and however unexpected its enactment may have been, the council’s 120-day prohibition on new ground-floor permits for financial institutions on Pearl Street sent a clear message: The city’s elected officials believe Boulder’s signature commercial attraction is not as attractive as it once was, and should be.

The action of limiting banks, though, will not on its own transform the key stretch of Pearl Street — the prohibition applies to Pearl from Ninth to 18th streets — into the more vibrant scene with more locally-owned businesses that the council would like to see.

The council, with the advice of various city boards and commissions, will use this period to consider which policy changes, if any, might help stem the trend of local, small-scale shops and eateries being priced out of downtown and replaced by chains, offices and banks that can afford the real estate.

Council has options

“I think the council is doing what a lot of us have talked about for a while,” said Will Frischkorn, owner of the Pearl Street cheese and charcuterie shop Cured, and a board member for Boulder’s Business Improvement District.

“There’s a scary trend. When rents hit the point that they’re at right now, it’s not that landlords are wanting to rent to banks, per se, but they’re not getting a lot of interest from local business because of the price point.”

Frischkorn said he’s encouraged to see the council take action before “it really hits” and small business is wiped out, but it’s not clear how, exactly, the prohibition can be amended in coming months to meaningfully influence who does and doesn’t fill the coveted ground-floor storefronts on Pearl Street.

“It would be great if landlords would voluntarily make choices that contribute to the uniqueness and vibrancy of the Pearl Street Mall,” the mayor said, diagnosing what she perceives the problem to be, “but if they’re not willing, then it’s our job, in helping to protect this public asset, to regulate and maybe even incentivize the types of businesses.”

There are a number of steps the council could take.

It could stay put and simply limit banks, which not only aren’t local but offer the additional deterrent, council members say, of closing on evenings and weekends, when Pearl Street sees some of its highest traffic.

It could extend the ordinance to include offices, which do not draw tourists and visitors in the pedestrian-oriented area.

Other communities — including several in the Rocky Mountains, where real estate offices tend to snatch up downtown properties if not limited — have taken that general approach. The city of Palo Alto, Calif., has a first-floor retail preservation ordinance that was largely a response to tech firms taking over downtown spots.

Appelbaum, who for years supported the kind of prohibition Boulder passed this week, believes some version of those interventions might fit here.

“I’d like to see both offices and banks, because to me, they’re the same problem we’re trying to solve,” he said. “They greatly disrupt and devalue the pedestrian corridors.”

Kelso Kelly, a regional president for ANB Bank, which occupies a storefront on Walnut Street, one block off the Pearl Street Mall, doesn’t disagree with the assessment.

“I think the logic is probably good,” he said. “I think a city should be able to permit what kinds of business they want in certain areas, and I think that’s OK, as long as they don’t go too far.”

Becoming ‘anywhere’

A much more controversial option for Boulder would involve an ordinance that limits or outright excludes chain stores. That would qualify as “too far,” Appelbaum said.

“I don’t know if you do that,” he added. “That’s much more difficult.”

It’s not unheard-of, though. Just this week, the similarly concerned city council of Aspen gave early approval to a citizen-initiated proposal that would give the city the authority to deny chain stores in new buildings.

Jones said she’s not convinced that’s the correct path, but did express some disappointment with the fact that Boulder-born operations are slowly losing their foothold downtown.

“In general, you don’t want too many national chains. Then you become anywhere,” she said. “If you can’t distinguish between the Pearl Street Mall and the mall in Broomfield, then you have a problem.”

Before the council makes any final decision, other city bodies and business groups will be given the chance to offer input — an opportunity they did not have ahead of the ordinance’s unexpected introduction.

But because council members declined to enact an actual moratorium, and instead installed what’s technically referred to as a “pending ordinance doctrine,” the current pause is limited to 120 days.

“I hope we sent a signal that this is important,” Jones said. “Can you imagine if we ever lost the Boulder Bookstore? We have to help ensure these businesses stay here.”

Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, or

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