Is Boulder the “Knoxville of the West?”

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Lest anyone prepare to blast me for blasphemy before finishing the first paragraph, let me point out that I’m referencing an article I wrote just over a year ago: “Is Knoxville the “Boulder of the East?” It was in reference to an article published about then in Denver Life in which Kim Bumpas of Visit Knoxville was quoted as saying she hears that from tourists traveling from the west to Knoxville.

Visitor Kiosk, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Riffs, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Riffs, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

I noted my long-term interest in the city and the fairly inexpensive tickets via Frontier airlines currently (and still) offered between the cities. Similarities, as I mentioned, are there – surrounding mountains, universities in each city, a brewery and a culinary scene in each, an emphasis on active lifestyles, each city is more liberal than the state its in.

Differences also abound. Our liberal is their conservative. Commenters noted the much larger role of religion locally and perhaps more friendliness. Certainly, their culinary and brewery scenes are older, more established and likely more extensive. And I listed their accolades, which would likely be literally unmatched by any other city in the U.S. They are listed at or near the top in virtually every category of livability.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

I ended the article with this statement, “Still, all this talk of Boulder has given me the itch to go there. And realizing Frontier sells reasonably-priced direct-flight tickets only ads to the draw. Maybe I’ll visit that city and report back what I find. Maybe I’ll proclaim them the “Knoxville of the West!”

And so, I have. I visited very briefly, staying two nights in a great short-term-rental with which I was connected up via a reader of this blog, so that was sweet. My nights weren’t consecutive and the first consisted of arriving late, sleeping and leaving early. The second, however, I was able to spend an evening specifically in the Pearl Street Mall area, which is similar to our Market Square. So, I can’t really compare the cities, though the previous article pretty much covered such comparisons as I could find.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Hotel Boulderado, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Hotel Boulderado, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

That said, a significant connection between the two is the Pearl Street Mall and Market Square and I did have a chance to explore their version a bit. So, here are simply some similarities and differences I observed, served up for fun and nothing more. Both cities, obviously, offer a lot and in most of the overlapping strengths, they’ve been at it a lot longer.

We had dinner at Riffs and I had one of the best steaks I’ve had in a long time. We agreed that restaurant, along with many of the others we noticed, would fit in very well on Market Square. We had ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s for dessert and that highlights an interesting point: chain and local retail seems to coexist pretty seamlessly. There’s more local from what I could see, but Urban Outfitters, Ben and Jerry’s and Cheesecake Factory sat in among them.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

City Hall, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

The fact that Pearl Street Mall is probably five or six times larger than Market Square is probably the most significant difference. It made me regret even more the fact that TVA has decided to retain their towers, thwarting any hopes of extending retail northward from Market Square for the foreseeable future. That it is so much larger probably lessened the impact of the presence of more national chains as they don’t represent a great percentage of the large area.

The blocks are filled with fascinating sculpture and echos of place in the form of rock gardens for children to enjoy and rock features through which everyone passes. The presence of a visitor’s kiosk which appears to be manned by a live person during the day was also interesting. A small outpost of Visit Knoxville on the square would probably have a line much of the year, in my opinion.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Beat Books, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

There were many bookstores and coffee shops and most seemed to be doing well on a mid-week night. Those two things feel like the soul of a city, to me, and to have so many made a real statement. Beat Book Shop alone with its stacks of vinyl, books and tshirts could have kept me busy for an afternoon. It made me realize we have room for more of each and we’ll likely see more coffee shops at the least.

Hotel Boulderado is their old world style hotel and it made me very happy to consider that the Farragut is on its way back. A proper hat shop and a tea shop were also to be found and made me think we could probably support both. Long advocates of cycling, a kiosk of available bikes for a 24 hour, month or year-long payment sat at about the midpoint and would be very easy for tourists to use. That would be so easy to do on Market Square.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Also found in much larger numbers: high end art galleries. We have a good start with galleries, but it seems like something on the order of a Liz Beth Gallery would fit in very well with the Art Market and other galleries located downtown. It’s something that would serve both residents and tourists.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Rental Bikes, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

One of the funny things I noticed was how many restaurants were named simply what they are. “Latin American Restaurant,” “Falafel,” and “Bohemian Beirgarten,” don’t leave much doubt what you’ll find when you walk in the door. Seriously, the restaurants looked amazing and I’d love to stay there for two weeks eating at a different one each night.

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Visitor Kiosk, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado, June 2017

When I wrote the article thirteen months ago I didn’t seriously imagine I would be there so soon. I’m both happy I was able to stop by and completely unsatisfied with the brevity of the stay. I hope to return and sink my teeth into how they have made the progress they’ve made as a city and to, hopefully, glean some implications for Knoxville.

In the meantime, I can tell you that if you visit you would feel very much at home on Pearl Street. And the flights to Denver are cheap with the airport about forty-five minutes from Boulder. Highly recommended outing if you’re looking for a quick getaway.

Comments

  1. Carol S. says:

    Wow what a boost for travel to Boulder, it looks fabulous. Thanks for sharing, on my list of places to meet friends and vacation.

  2. Kat O'B says:

    I’ve thought about a tea shop in Knoxville- that would be cool. I would also love to see Union Ave Books expand into the adjacent space. I know nothing whatsoever of the viability of such a plan, but I think it would be great if our own indie bookstore could grow and offer more. I think of Malaprops, with the coffee shop and larger visitor space, and Iove the idea of adding a vinyl section too.

  3. Great photos! I love the Pearl Street Market, and Boulder really is a wonderful place. What is missing from the conversation though, other than the $40 chocolate bar, is the extreme difference in cost of living between the two cities. If Knoxville were more like Boulder, few of the current residents of our scruffy city could afford to live downtown…

  4. Great article. I don’t think there is one formula to a successful downtown and, if anything, Knoxville should look to its own unique past and not necessarily try to lengthen Market Square to be more like the Pearl Street Market. Gay Street was the retail hub of the region at one time and it could recapture that energy with infill development on the existing parking lots and replacement of some dormant office spaces with retail. Some chain retail could be part of the mix. As to closing streets in the core of downtown, I don’t see the need. Jane Jacobs would tell us the narrow streets open to traffic with on street parking add to the vibrancy of an urban area. Look at Greenwich Village. Now Henley, JWP, and to a lesser degree Summit Hill – that’s a different matter.

  5. TVA is still selling one of their towers though. Personally, I don’t mind the towers being there. The more tall buildings we have downtown the better (although they could use a bit of an exterior refresh). If another established company sets up shop in the other tower, both towers get a makeover, and someone just decides to demolish the PLAZA, we could still extend market square along the other side of Wall Avenue. Thoughts?

  6. Hey thanks for these shots! Boulder is on our bucket list and the similarities to Knoxville in your pictures is uncanny. I agree with everyone about the hope of expansion of downtown outside of the square – slowly but surely I believe it will happen.

  7. Robert Maddox says:

    If the TVA Towers plaza is out for now, are there other opportunities for creating Market Square extensions to enlarge our pedestrian-only areas? Union Avenue, Market Street, Wall, or a couple of blocks of Gay all seem to be possibilities.

  8. Ken Sparks says:

    Dear Urban Guy: I recognize you qualify your comparison between the two cities, I think it still is a stretch to ask the question in your title. Seems to me it would make more sense to ask: Will Knoxville become the Boulder of the West? Having been to Boulder twice (many years ago), I can safely say the biggest thing the two cities have in common are our Market Square revitalization and their very established Pearl St. Market. And, yes, both cities have universities, which help make both cities more diverse and progressive. But, outside of those similarities in the general downtown area, we are quite a contrast to Boulder. That contrast includes our priorities, our politics, and our provincial approach to new ideas. Before I get “blasted” from readers, I should add that some of these characteristics (ie, slower pace, methodical, reliable, safer, family values, lower cost of living, etc.) are the very things that make Knoxville endearing to residents who were raised here, which includes me. But, an example of contrast is how it took Knoxville over 20 years to revitalize Market Square and develop it into the nucleus of downtown activity. And, that downtown redevelopment actually started in the Old City (late 80s) before reaching and finally transforming Market Square. That’s amazing now that we see what Market Square offers us. And, as you mention, Market Square activity could migrate further north if it were not for the TVA twin towers between the square and Crown Plaza. If TVA would cooperate and make this property available (only half occupied) to downtown development, it would open up huge potential. Those government offices served a valuable purpose once upon a time. Now, TVA offices could be anywhere else in Knox County, especially since most of their projects are outside of Knoxville. Having said all that, I do think Knoxville is certainly the Boulder of TN, and could eventually become all that Boulder is.

    • Please, someone take a wrecking ball to those fugly towers and develop something visionary and people-friendly. The sooner the better.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Just having some fun. I went into more detail about the similarities and, particularly, the differences the first time around. Really just intended to show readers pictures of a space that is very similar to our Market Square.

      • Ken Sparks says:

        Sorry, I should have read your older article, to be fair. And, thanks for posting those great pics. They give us hope to see what we can grow into. Keep up your valued reporting!

    • Great response to similar article.

  9. Interesting to note: You wouldn’t even have to rent a car to go to Boulder. Fly in to DIA, take the passenger train to downtown Union Station, find the bus station on the lower level, buy a ticket, look for the line for the Boulder bus (if in doubt, follow the scent of something akin to a skunk; note: it’s not a skunk). The bus is very nice — sightseeing-quality, in fact. It takes you to a bus station just a block or so from Pearl St. Mall.

    Now, on the downside, Frontier doesn’t offer daily direct flights to DIA and stops offering them altogether from October-March, I believe (ski season)? This is dumb, but no room on the flights for skis or snowboards I guess.

    • Usually Frontier’s seasonal Knoxville-Denver service runs mid April to early January. The only reason you can’t book past November 1 right now is they have not extended their entire booking window yet past that date. It should be extended any week now. They did offer year round service when they started in 2011 on the route, but my understanding is the loads were not good January through March. As a result the route became seasonal. With that being said, it is unique that Frontier still serves Knoxville. The only similar sized market they still operate to east of the Mississippi is Greensboro.

  10. But you don’t have to pay $40 for a chocolate bar from a Market Square shop, unlike from one of those downstairs “boutiques” on Pearl St. What’s up with that, Boulder??? Granted, it was damn good chocolate…

  11. Oren Yarbrough says:

    The photos make the Pearl Street District look amazing! I have high hopes for the Farragut and other projects moving South on Gay Street to widen the lens of focus on downtown retail and nightlife. Already we have the new brewery opening at the base of the Holston. I still stand by my strong opinion that Union Avenue has the greatest potential of any street that’s not Gay or Market to sustain more retail and food places. The massive parking lot across from Nothing Too Fancy and the parking lot across from the new Marriott Hotel are the next developer frontier’s of Knoxville with the greatest pay off for the pedestrian experience of the city. I’m hopeful and excited to see downtown in the next 3-5 years.

  12. “Most Colorful Shop Ever” award goes to Into the Wind. What a great pic of it all lit up at night.

  13. Walter Davis says:

    Dear Knoxville Urban Guy,
    Thanks so much for the Boulder photo collection. The next time you travel there you should spend time on the Naropa University campus. Over ten years ago, I spent a week in Boulder while I taught a workshop on community organizing for social justice. Now imagine, teaching a course on social justice in a school founded in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. While inspired by Buddhism, It is ecumenical and promotes non-traditional activities like meditation to supplement traditional learning. It is accredited and one of few schools like it. What you would like is to attend the Beat poets gathering under the auspices of its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I wish could have been there for that.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I know there is so much there I need to explore. That sounds like something that would be very interesting.

Speak Your Mind

*