Vacationing diners, families shopping and teenagers on bikes enjoying summertime freedom are bringing Copenhagen Drive back to life.
While gradually reopening to the public after a 3-month pandemic shutdown, Solvang retailers located along Copenhagen Drive – between Alisal Drive and Second Street — were notified by the city of Solvang's new Marketing & Tourism Steering Committee, largely comprised of local business owners and local representatives, that the main thoroughfare would close to vehicular traffic to help ease limitations imposed by COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
"I don't think it's helped us — it might have hurt us a little," Sue Manning, owner of Elna's Dress Shop, said of the change. "Some customers are a little bit older and they don't particularly want to walk. They're used to just parking."
A common complaint among retailers affected by the new layout is the lack of notice and clarity around the downtown transformation, as well as a loss of parking for those customers who are used to the convenience of running into and out of a particular shop.
"It's cute. The only bummer is the loss of parking," said Mystic Merchant store manger Heather Mueller. "If you're not from around here and don't know the alleyways, parking could be tricky to find because of the construction going on."
Mueller says that although the concept was rolled out quickly and the objective was not clearly communicated to shopkeepers, her hope is that business picks up with the help of the street closure.
First Street Leather store manager Travis Mueller said the impact of the Copenhagen Drive closure, which included the development of a number of large wooden parklets that feature outdoor seating, is a positive change for his shop.
"Having this pedestrian area where people can gather and hang out is good for business," he said, pointing to the new seating situated directly in front of his leather goods shop. "That table is being used every day. People are now just hanging out, not just walking by."
Travis Mueller also added that since the weekly Farmers Market recently moved from First Street to Copenhagen Drive on Wednesday, he was able to track 20 patrons who visited his store from the market.
But Mueller said that due to the lack of communication by the marketing committee, most retailers don't understand that they can maximize the street closure with sidewalk sales to help boost sales.
"Although [the marketing and tourism committee] are very willing to help," Mueller said, "we just need more advance notice."
With the exception of intersecting cross-streets, Copenhagen drive will be closed to vehicles and opened to foot traffic from Alisal Road to Second Street.
Solvang Toyland clerk Diana Tellez says the combination of the Farmers Market relocating and the street closure has had a positive impact on their store. She said an influx of customers visited on Wednesday as a direct result of the Farmers Market.
"Yesterday was really busy, but today is kind of slow," she said.
A server at Solvang Restaurant packing up a long table now situated outside on the sidewalk in front of their famous Abelskiev to-go window from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, said business is going really well these days.
He says he is optimistic about Copenhagen's closure, especially given their inside seating capacity was reduced by half since COVID-19 health guidelines were introduced.
Cali Love Wine tasting room associate Khalil Hayes echoed those sentiments, saying the opportunity for more seating is a win for their shop.
Solvang City Council members got an earful during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to consider a proposal for a mixed-use development that calls for the demolition of Veterans Memorial Hall.
"We really like the outdoor seating, even though it's a little less convenient and requires some extra work and upkeep," he said.
With the health guidelines driven by the pandemic, Hayes noted that their already limited capacity had been diminished to less than 25 people.
"As you can tell, we're pretty small," he said. "[Parklets] really help with opening up our capacity."
The meals, which started Monday, are being offered at more than 40 locations throughout Santa Barbara County. They are available to anyone 18 years old and younger. No paperwork or registration is required.
Although retailers have expressed mixed feelings about the overall success of Copenhagen's closure, visitors say they are enjoying the open street vibe.
"There's nothing like this in Calabasas," said Calabasas resident Steve Dangcil, seated at a new parklet structure with his 7-year-old, who was polishing off a serving of fries and chicken strips. "Being outside is a good idea. Who knows how long [pandemic] it's going to take. Solvang is usually a stop on the way to somewhere else, but now that I'm looking at this and how he [son] likes this, we're going to get back out and stay the night. I didn't think there would be so much going on here."
Toting shopping bags and taking a rest in the shade provided by a parklet, married couple Monique Rodriguez and Miguel Garcia visited from Los Angeles to celebrate their 6-year anniversary. They said the street closure is a welcome sight.
"I like it. I think it's really nice because you don't have to worry about cars hitting you," Rodriquez said, laughing. "It's out in the open – it's fresh air. Everybody's been indoors the last three of four months. I like this better than how it used to be. It reminds me of a Hallmark movie."
Santa Barbara County public libraries are beginning the process of extending curbside pickup services to their respective communities, signaling an impending reopening nearly three months after the pandemic forced library closures and halted all in-person business.
Garcia agreed, explaining that the new layout reminds him of the festivals held in Arcadia, where two to three street blocks are closed off to traffic and people are free to roam.
Down the street, Shanté Rodriquez, of Lompoc, stood outside of Solvang Toyland with a few bags in hand waiting for her 10 and 11-year-old niece and nephew to finish up their toy shopping.
Rodriguez explained that they had just come from picnicking at Solvang Park, which is something they do on a monthly basis. She said parking was no more hassle than usual and would not deter her from visiting Copenhagen Drive in the months ahead.
"I haven't been here since the street was closed," Rodriguez said, "but I like it."
Three separate workshop sessions will be conducted on June 27 at the Solvang Veterans Hall, and facilitated by City staff and developer Ed St. George.
The Solvang test site is expected to remain in place through the month of June.
In an effort to save money, time and forge ahead on campaign promises, Solvang City Council members opted to approve, rather than send to the polls, an ordinance limiting annexation for 20 years.
Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News.
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