Main Street closing

A digital sign sits at the corner of Second Avenue and Main Street announcing that Main will be closed to traffic Friday through Sunday. The weekend closures are possible through Labor Day weekend.

A move onto the sidewalks and streets on the weekends is intended to help downtown Walla Walla businesses, but it will also eat up parking spaces along Main Street in the process.

With the first weekend closure of a portion of downtown’s main thoroughfare rolling out Friday morning, city and downtown officials have scrambled on a number of ways to add parking or direct vehicular traffic to existing public and usable private lots.

Among the additions: Colville and Spokane streets, north of Main Street, will be open for head-in parking directed by onsite attendants.

Officials aren’t certain yet exactly how many spaces will be created through that process. With permission from Baker Boyer Bank to open its private lot for public use on weekends, the spaces will help offset the loss of more than 125 parking spots, including handicapped-accessible parking spaces, along Main Street between Palouse Street and Second Avenue three days a week.

The extended road closure starts this weekend and is expected to run through Labor Day, pending results of the change.

Announced early this week, the concept is an answer to rollbacks of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start initiative. Under the tightening announced by the governor last week, indoor service at taverns, breweries, wineries and distilleries is prohibited. Indoor dining at the same table is limited to members of the same household. Those changes take effect today and could be devastating to businesses that just survived a two-month closure, officials say.

In response, the city, Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance put heads together to try to come up with a plan that will allow those businesses to continue to operate, even if they can’t have guests inside. Moving out was the idea.

“This isn’t going to make everybody happy. But we’re trying to make it work,” said Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Kathryn Witherington.

“We can try something and maybe save our town, or we can do nothing and wait for the unknown to happen.”

Witherington said changes and adjustments are inevitable through the process, a product of trying something new and with little time to prepare.

Some retailers, for instance, worry that without parking and vehicular access they could be missed by consumers who perceive the concept to be specific just to food and beverage operations.

“If all it does is completely stall traffic, then we can pull the plug,” Witherington said.

With permitting expected to be approved for those who seek it, all businesses, including retailers, will be able to extend across the sidewalks and into the roadway as far as the angled parking spots.

A 20-foot lane for pedestrians will be provided in the middle of the street, an announcement this morning from the city explained. Additional 42-inch pedestrian lanes will remain on the sidewalks.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy, so we’re taking every opportunity to help these merchants sustain their livelihoods,” City Manager Nabiel Shawa said in a prepared statement. “We hope these closures encourage local residents to come out on the weekends, do some shopping, enjoy a safely distanced meal outdoors and help support their neighbors in the business community.”

Handwashing and sanitizing stations have been set up throughout the area.

The downtown is notoriously regarded as being short on parking. With the pandemic in place and many businesses continuing to operate remotely, more space than typical has been available, Witherington said.

City-owned public parking lots within a five-minute walk of First Avenue and Main Street supply about 500 spaces, said Walla Walla Parks & Recreation Director Andy Coleman. That does not include the on street parking directly downtown.

The Port of Walla Walla has public parking at its lot at Second Avenue and Sumach Street.

Meanwhile, Witherington said she continues to seek parking options from private land owners for public weekend use. Private lots that allow this are expected to be marked with sandwich boards.

Locals are encouraged to walk and bike downtown, Coleman said.

“As long as people are willing to walk a few blocks, I do not anticipate parking being a problem with the closure of Main Street,” he said.

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.