DTM 2030: Will Charlottesville’s Pedestrian Mall Survive in the Long Run?

Hold on now! We all love our DTM, but allow me to indulge in some hypotheticals…

It’s been interesting to note that many of the reasons that business owners on the mall have for insisting that the crossings at 4th and 2nd street remain open to traffic — less congestion around the mall, easy access for deliveries, safe drop off points for people, easier access to parking, more visibility because of drive-by traffic — could be enhanced even more if the pedestrian mall were, well, removed entirely and East Main Street were re-opened to traffic.

Sound far-fetched? In 2016, that’s a big reason why city leaders in Fresno, California closed the Fulton Street Pedestrian Mall, one of the first and most innovative of the main street pedestrian malls that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and re-opened Fulton Street to traffic. While the Fulton Street Mall appears to have deteriorated in ways our DTM hasn’t, that doesn’t mean there might not be something to learn from its demise.

Like the DTM, the Fulton Street Pedestrian Mall was originally developed to revitalize the downtown area, but decades later that objective came full circle and city leaders began lobbying to bring traffic back to the street as a way to revitalize the area. The move relied heavily on data gathered in a research study conducted by Fresno State University, which highlighted the grim history of these pedestrian mall projects. According to the study, these projects have had a 89 percent failure rate, while only 11 percent have been successful. Most have been removed or repurposed. While we like to credit some visionary developers, restaurateurs, and cultural leaders for the eventual renaissance of the DTM in the early to mid-1990s, the Fresno State study points out that the 15 remaining pedestrian-only malls, including the DTM, share basically the same main characteristics — they are either near a University or a beach, in communities with populations under 100,000, or in places that were already popular tourist destinations to begin with. As the study points out, one of the main reasons why many of the pedestrian malls failed was because they were too big and closed off too many blocks to traffic. At 8 blocks, our DTM and the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach are the two largest pedestrian-only malls in the country.

It’s also interesting to note that the reason sited for the failures of these malls have to do with issues that our DTM has been struggling with for years — lack of proper maintenance, design improvements, management, and marketing; a perception of it as a place for crime, homelessness, and panhandling; inconvenient parking; the development of suburban retail centers; and the general desire of visitors to be able to “park in front of the store.”

According to the Fresno State report, once cities and downtowns removed their pedestrian malls and restored them with a main street, there was “almost always immediate success.” The report identified 19 former pedestrian malls that saw dramatic decreases in vacancy rates, and increases in retail sales and private investment, once the main streets were restored.

“In somewhat of an ironic role reversal, the Main Street approach has become so successful in terms of placemaking and economic development that even suburban shopping malls are modeling themselves after urban main streets to attract customers,” the report says. Think Stonefield.

In many ways, downtown businesses are still dealing with the decision to close off East Main Street and create a pedestrian mall. At the time, most businesses were vehemently against it, saying it would choke off business by denying customers access to their stores. For years they were right. They may still be right in the long run.

Of course, scrapping the mall might seem like a crazy idea [never mind the disruption and cost, and the fit historic preservationists would throw], given how it has become successful as far as pedestrian-only malls go, and has certainly grown dear to many of us, but when DTM businesses bristle at the idea of cutting off traffic across the mall, and argue that they need the increased visibility and access they provide, aren’t they acknowledging [whether they realize it or not] that even more visibility and access— say, a gloriously restored East Main Street Street, with bustling sidewalk culture and a main traffic drag — would benefit their businesses even more?

“I specifically selected my location on one of the crossing streets based on the perceived access to parking and easy shopping,” writes 4th Street business owner Megan Giltner [Derriere de Soie] in a recent op-ed in the Daily Progress, “ and we have benefited from the drive-past traffic tremendously.”

Karen Walker, owner of Hedge on 4th Street, told C-Ville Weekly that her business doubled when she moved from the mall to the cross street, and she hired two more employees.

So then are businesses in the deeper interiors of the mall at a disadvantage because they go unseen by the traffic that circulates around the mall? Is foot traffic alone enough to ustain retail business on the mall?

So what ever happened to Fulton Street in Fresno? A year after the street was restored, an observer writing in The Fresno Bee says things began to change.

“….Downtown Fresno, and especially the Fulton Street corridor, has a long way to go but is undoubtedly a more lively and vibrant place to be.
“When you look down the street now it looks like an actual big-city downtown,” said Craig Scharton, a downtown revitalization expert and former Fresno City Council member. “And there are always people on the sidewalk.”

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David McNair View All →

DTM is maintained by Charlottesville journalist David McNair. Got a news item or new listing? Contact me at dsmcnair@gmail.com.

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