9. Public Space Comeback

Once a common feature in American Downtowns, then widely derided, an old public space form is reasserting itself at The Crossroads of the World and remains successful in places here and abroad. Pedestrian malls deserve a fresh look in Downtown planning.

Among the gifts defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1970s and disbursed to local governments were grants in aid to finance construction of pedestrian malls in retail centers. Facing unprecedented commercial decline,  cities and towns were desperate for virtually any financial aid. Tallying the annual fiscal harvest from various Federal agencies became an activity in itself. More grants seemed to imply that prosperity was just around the corner. The Secretary of Commerce met with the Hudson Department store owners in Detroit to see if something could be done to save Downtown.

Pedestrian malls were assumed by both grantee and grantor to be just the trick to save the department, chain and specialty stores. With federal construction funds, municipalities removed all or most vehicular traffic to create a broad, landscaped, lighted walkway between facing stores. Without the menace and nuisance of auto traffic, it was believed shoppers could proceed to window shop and spend in an environment believed to be competitive with the shopping malls that were stealing the best stores. Before the federal money was exhausted, pedestrian malls had become a feature of hundreds of communities. Envisioned principally as a structural solution, pavers were laid and lights install but little attention was given to the underlying problem, market deficiency.

Within five or ten years it was clear that the malls would not fix what was wrong with America’s Downtowns. Department stores continued to go under. Vacant shops attracted weaker enterprises. Merchant leaders  retired and relocated and anchor businesses failed. With fewer pedestrians, business districts began to acquire a reputation for crime and still  fewer customers came. Letting people walk in the street was not a solution to the fundamental weakness; too many Downtowns, with or without malls, failed to offer convenient, useful, attractive goods and services.

Downtown Trenton, NJ had converted two long blocks of State Street into a pedestrian only segment, adding a handy parking garage and some attractive lighting. When the larger stores continued to close, the elected officials blamed the mall. A consultant study observed that old stores in old Downtowns were suffering almost everywhere, including Newark, NJ which had lost three department stores.  The larger New Jersey city had no mall to blame. Out of town shopping was gaining and diminishing relative incomes was cutting local spending. The consultant’s remedy for Trenton, later adopted, was to insert (through redevelopment) new office workers and more attractive retail on the mall’s first block. The developer liked the mall and testified in its favor and a poll of office workers registered strong support for continuing this Downtown feature. Nevertheless, the governing body preferred through traffic to pedestrianization and the city paid to put the cars back.

About this time, public space experts began advising local planners to remove their pedestrian malls as a step toward economic revitalization. More traffic was said to be the new route to prosperity, a formula as uniform and as carelessly considered as the earlier pedestrian one. Federal largess, however, was exhausted; in most cases, local funds were needed to put the traffic back. Pedestrian malls were neither the solution to Downtown decline nor was their removal. People don’t shop from cars. Other, more reliable solutions emerged with time.

Despite the continuing consultant bias against pedestrian facilities, a surprising number still exists and a new one of blockbuster proportions, more popular and prominent than the earlier ones has been opened.

Wilmington, DE

Wilmington shortened its mall, keeping the blocks with the opera house and shops nearest office workers and dropping those said to be too expensive to clean. In so doing the city missed an opportunity to create a commercial walkway to several new office towers, the Amtrak station and a new mixed use development and walkway along the river.

Brooklyn, NY

The city struck an agreement with the USDOT by which the latter would finance substantial improvements in the buses and subways at Fulton Street if the retail operators would pool their resources to save the commercial district.  This was among the first business improvement districts in the United States, financing safe, clean and marketing services. Although altered over time, it remains successful decades later .

Miami Beach

In conjunction with the movement to preserve and upgrade the art deco architecture, the Lincoln Road mall  has been embellished through renovation and has added several cultural facilities. Traffic free, the mall is so quiet in the evening one can hear the hundreds of chatting diners from  blocks away. Actor Michael Caine created one of his restaurants here.

Boston, MA

The Bay City, seeking attractive outdoor settings for residents, shoppers and visitors beyond Faneuil Hall, created a public open space with benches and some sidewalk vendors in the heart of the old department stores district.

Reading, England

Encouraged by anti-sprawl policies almost unknown in the US, most of Eng  land’s town centers incorporate shopping centers in pedestrian environments  along with other commercial features. There is an easy flow in Reading where    shoppers pass from mall to independent store to another mall, registering higher footfall counts than all but the largest US Downtowns. Shopping is an efficient process here. Blessed with abundant transit, Reading opened up a small river to pedestrian view as an added amenity. Pedestrian malls remain popular throughout Europe.

Burlington, VT

Celebrating a quarter century of success, the Church Street Market resembles the Reading arrangement with a mix of concentrated shopping center managed stores and independent shops. It also had its roots in Vermont’s efforts to save its Downtowns. With 100 merchants and year round events (an Icewalk festival and sidewalk sales), Church Street offers people goods they want to buy, advanced thinking compared with all the towns that auto traffic would turn the trick. Among the innovations, businesses can rent display space on the mall. This is working capitalism, not public space run with a non profit view of success.

Philadelphia, PA

An ambitious local developer purchased a large derelict brewery site, creating hundreds of immediately popular apartments in a residentially untested, formerly industrial section. With what appeared to be European inspiration, three short blocks of an entirely pedestrian street have been devoted to retail and dining carefully chosen to appeal to the mostly youngish residents and those  drawn there from other sections of the city. An advantage, the developer manages the mall.

New York City

Other than Nassau Street in New York’s Financial District where daily crowds overflow the sidewalks, Manhattan had seen little pedestrianization.  Recently, however, Mayor Michael Bloomburg has exhibited a knack for creating popular open spaces where least expected. Over the past three years, the city has gradually moved Broadway’s auto traffic from unneeded roadway segments, creating new places to sit, sip and gawk in the heart of Times and Herald Squares. Showing a winter hardiness comparable to the downjacketed young people who will nurse  beers on Denver’s Sixteenth Street mall (arguably another pedestrian mall), New Yorkers and visitors are drawn to the new public spaces in almost any weather.

The first phase  has since been greatly expanded. With the cooperation of three business improvement districts, Broadway traffic has been entirely redirected from the two “bow ties” (Broadway angle intersections with Seventh and Sixth Avenues). The extended facility takes pedestrians through the entertainment district and retail blocks to Macy’s anchor department  store. Who imagined there was this much space for people to sit or wander? Who could envision Macy’s with hundreds walking comfortably in front on attractively landscaped former streets? This great mall is intended, not to fix a retail problem, but to enable people to enjoy themselves in this most crowded corner of the land. Like successful shopping centers, the  formula is a mix of fun and consumerism.

Other successful surviving examples exist in Boulder, CO; Charlottesville, VA; Madison, WI and San Antonio, TE. Manchester, England, when rebuilding its town center, created a street where none had been before simply to facilitate pedestrians moving between new and old destinations.

What’s in a name?  So badly hammered was the term pedestrian mall that planners may be reluctant to accept the earlier, discredited descriptive. New York, however, embraces the label.

An unbiased look at mall history turns up considerations that have contributed to the successes and failures:

  1. The mall needs to be managed, not simply to keep it swept, but to enable it to function as a dynamic marketplace.  Business improvement districts can add the necessary private sector perspective local governments lack. This absence was probably the most important factor contributing to Downtown’s continued decline after the malls were built. More effective business attraction programs than most places have today are important. The rival shopping centers recruit constantly.
  2. Lincoln Road is gorgeous but how it looks is an insignificant consideration. Like any town center, it must offer the mix of commerce, culture and entertainment that will draw people.
  3. As ever, copycat planning can be ruinous. Local opportunities should shape the outcome.
  4. Mixed use districts with nearby office workers and residents are vital elements in success.

Downtowns have many strong new assets—place marketing by business  improvement districts, the restaurant revolution, unprecedented numbers of  Downtown residents, diminished concern about crime. Downtowns are on the way up without shelters from the rain, heat or air conditioning. The desperation of the ‘seventies should not drive today’s planning  decisions. Malls work best when they embellish the Downtown experience in convenient, useful commercial centers. Neither  guaranteed successes or failures, the outcomes are driven by local conditions, inspiration and leadership.

Lawrence Houstoun has written extensively on business improvement districts and  on destination urban parks, urban linear parks, and unexpected parks with unexpected financing in the US and Europe.

Allentown, PA's pedestrian mall emphasized shelter from rain and snow.

Crystal City outside of Washington has a fairly successful underground pedestrian linkage among its major buildings, connection to the METRO subway, underground shops and maps to connect users with at grade shopping and other features.

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