Cars or Pedestrians Downtown?
That’s a Good Question.
There’s a couple of things that I try not to talk about, even with friends and family: religion, politics and converting city streets to pedestrian plazas. If you want to raise the temperature quickly suggest to a retailer that you’re going to close off their street to vehicle traffic. In the world of retailers cars carry people, people buy products, and product sales means profit. The logical extension of this leads to the conclusion that no cars = no profit, no profit = no business. Yet there have been some terrific examples of successful pedestrian plaza’s that created more profit and more businesses. So are pedestrian plaza’s the bane or boon of retail downtown?
A Success Story
Go to Charlottesville Virginia and you’ll hear how their pedestrian mall area was a critical part of the renaissance of their downtown. Here’s some pictures and an excerpt from Charlottesville’s description of it’s old Main Street that was closed to cars.
“A wonderful mix of restored and renovated buildings that typified small “downtowns” throughout the country can now be seen by visitors as they enjoy shopping, dining and visiting along the brick-paved pedestrian area. The Downtown Mall is a vibrant collection of more than 120 shops and 30 restaurants (many with outdoor cafes, left) housed in the historic buildings on and around old Main Street. Enjoy dining al fresco (in season) at a number of fine restaurants, try shopping at one of the unique boutiques or meander by flowing fountains.
The pedestrian Downtown Mall was created in the 1970s to revitalize the City’s downtown area. With numerous shops, restaurants, offices, art galleries, street vendors, a cinema complex, the Downtown Recreation Center, an ice skate park and a hotel/convention center, the Downtown Mall is a lively place for business and fun.”
Interestingly, the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, now a vital business, entertainment, and retail area, spent roughly twenty years as a somewhat depressed stretch until an ice skating rink and multiplex opened on it in the mid-1990s. Charlottesville’s experience suggests that there are two traffic generators: 1)cars or 2)arts and entertainment. If you get rid of one you better be sure to have a lot of the other or else retail will suffer.
History of Pedestrian Malls
In the 1960s and early 1970s many mid-sized cities in the United States experimented with installing pedestrian malls in their downtown areas, as a response to the commercial success of self-contained edge-of-town shopping malls. Downtown retailers wanted to preserve their businesses; the cities wanted to defend their tax base. In 1959 Kalamazoo Michigan became the first American city to adopt a pedestrian mall for their downtown area, closing two blocks of Burdick Street to automobile traffic.
A number of the early experiments with car-free zones were failures in the respect that they cut off automobile traffic from retailers without offering an alternative traffic generator. At one point there was a reported 200 pedestrian plaza’s but as of 1997 there were about 30 pedestrian malls in the U.S. Some notable examples are Ann Arbor, Michigan, Oak Park, Illinois, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, Ithaca Commons in Ithaca, New York, the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, St. Charles, Missouri, Salem, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa, Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Florida, the Fulton Mall in Fresno, California, the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado, State Street (Madison) in Madison, Wisconsin, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, Minnesota, The Grove in Los Angeles, California, Santana Row in San Jose, California, and many others. Typically these downtown pedestrian malls were three or four linear blocks simply blocked off to private street traffic, with fountains, benches, sittable planters, bollards, playgrounds, interfaces to public transit and other amenities installed to attract shoppers.
Success in College Cities
One thing to note from the list of pedestrian mall cities is that almost all of them are also college towns — home to the University of Michigan, University of Virginia, Ithaca College, Cornell, University of Wisconsin, University of Colorado, University of Denver, University of Iowa, Lindenwood University, and the University of Santa Monica. It would seem that large academic institutions are potentially excellent sources of traffic but that traffic is still looking for arts and entertainment opportunities.
The San Antonio River Walk is a special-case pedestrian street, one level down from the automobile street. The River Walk winds and loops under bridges as two parallel sidewalks lined with restaurants and shops, connecting the major tourist draws from Alamo Plaza to Rivercenter, to HemisFair Plaza, to the Transit Tower. Most downtown buildings have street entrances and separate river entrances one level below. This separates the unavoidable automotive service grid (delivery and ambulance/police vehicles) and pedestrian traffic below. It’s an extensive system which achieves a nice balance among retail, commercial, office, greenspace and cultural uses. It gives the city an intricate network of bridges, walkways and old staircases, providing haptic and visual complexity. From an urban planning standpoint, the River Walk may be the best pedestrian-only realm on the continent, no motor vehicles or bicycles allowed.
In the French Quarter of New Orleans certain streets are closed off at designated times. A number of beach communities (e.g., Daytona, FL) have also tried to restrict vehicles at certain times. And still other cities, e.g., Coral Gables Florida and Virginia Beach, VA promote car free zones by offering free trolley service on certain weeknights and times.
In Kent ?
Since arriving in Kent I’ve had a number of people tell me that we need to go ahead and close off Franklin Street (where it is already bricked) and make that a pedestrian plaza. We’ve got a lot of the right pieces, e.g., University city, brick paved street, so I understand the concept and I think it definitely merits some discussion but I’d also say that until we have a stronger arts and entertainment district the experience in other cities suggests that we may not get the results we want.
I’d like to see more efforts to use temporary road closures to promote downtown events, much like we do at the Heritage Festival and Franklin is a great street to use — plenty of parking nearby and close the river with some of our more successful business establishments along both sides. The Heritage Festival is a great traffic generator and that’s why closing the road during the festival works. Maybe we can try to do smaller mini-events, like all the DICE sponsored ice carvings, cider festival, summer movies, etc. to create a more exciting place for pedestrians to visit while still providing traffic flow for those times when the events are not underway.