Momentum is growing among downtown merchants and property owners to close North Mill Street between Main and Short streets and convert it to a pedestrian mall, similar to Cheapside.
Closing the street to traffic is a recommendation in the city's downtown streetscape plan.
"It would be great for my business," said Eric Boggs, an owner of Goodfellas Pizza on North Mill. "We could put more tables out front. People would love it."
The Cheapside Entertainment District Association favors the closing. "No one had any negative views at our last meeting," Boggs said.
Sandy Fields, owner of The Rosebud and Silks Lounge bars, has pushed the idea to close Mill late at night for years. "It would be great for downtown," Fields said.
Narrow sidewalks and crowds of people spilling out of bars has worried Fields to the point that she hires security to keep customers out of the street at night. "I don't want anybody to get hit by a car," she said.
After years of not getting support from city officials, Fields sees the idea gaining traction.
"What we're shooting for is a central location downtown like 4th Street Live in Louisville, or Beale Street, where you can walk freely throughout the street," said Bob Estes, president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. The district would include Mill and Cheapside, a street closed temporarily last year, then permanently.
"This is the only block of downtown lined with old buildings that face each other across the street. It could be a beautiful pedestrian area," said downtown developer Phil Holoubek, who is pushing the idea.
Closing Mill would not mean sacrificing street parking. Mill has only four unreserved parking spaces during the day, said owner Sonya Forschner, owner of Ivos hair salon.
"As soon as you park an SUV out there, we're gone. Nobody can see us. We would have much better visibility with a mall," she said.
The idea of closing Mill Street has its critics as well. Attorney Carolyn Kenton, whose office has been on the street for 17 years, adamantly opposes permanently closing Mill.
"I have a lot of elderly clients who can't walk from the Short Street lot down here," she said. Even with little parking on the street, "cars can stop to let somebody off."
Banning cars in favor of pedestrians would strengthen the identity of the developing entertainment district in the west end of downtown, proponents say.
"Anything we can do to encourage a European feel to downtown, we should do," said Len Cox, owner of Graves Cox store in Triangle Center at the corner of Mill and Main. "Mill and Cheapside would make a nice U-shape area for people to walk."
He predicted it would become "a great destination spot."
The Urban County Council approved the streetscape plan, but council action is needed to close the street, said Harold Tate, president of the Downtown Development Authority.
"We need to hear from police and fire to see if there are safety issues. And we need input from business owners and property owners downtown," he said.
Tate said Mill could be closed on Friday and Saturday nights at first, as an experiment.
But he said, "The concept is exciting."
Urban planner Steve Austin estimates the conversion would cost less than $1 million.
However, a Mill Street pedestrian mall is not in Phase 1 of the streetscape budget, Tate said. That first phase includes new sidewalks and buried utility lines on Limestone from Euclid Avenue to Fourth Street, plus sidewalks and rain gardens on portions of Main and Vine streets.
Proponents such as Austin want to move up Mill Street on the streetscape priority list.
Councilman Jay McChord said one way to pay for closing Mill is to make only partial improvements on Vine Street in the short term. "A Mill Street pedestrian mall would be low-cost, high-impact infrastructure" that could be completed in time for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, he said.
"It could help you create real critical mass activity in your downtown," McChord said.
Councilwoman Diane Lawless's district includes the Mill Street area. "I haven't talked to traffic engineering, but it seems like a simple thing to do. It would be a really neat thing to do," she said.