Un-pedestrian malls

On my way to yoga in the Cherry Creek district of Denver, Colorado, I always get a little annoyed because the perfect street for me to turn down bans cars. Well, the other day I saw that Fillmore Plaza was coming out and street is going in. It gave me a little but of joy, but some sorrow as well. I love to walk and not get run over by cars, so I’ve always been a fan of the pedestrian mall concept. Good ideas in one area, however, don’t always translate to good ideas in other areas. Let’s review the amazing discovery of pedestrian malls and how Fillmore Plaza blew up my best pedestrian mall theory. Hang on tight, folks, this is going to be a wild walk.  

A horrible shot of the Fillmore Plaza's deconstruction. My car can't wait until the vehicular discrimination comes to a close.

My amazing discovery of pedestrian malls—about 30 years late

I’d never seen a pedestrian mall until I left for college. So when I finally saw them, I thought they were new—and wonderful things that every town should have. This false sense of pedestrian paradise was due to the fact that my first pedestrian mall experiences were malls in Boulder, Colorado, Denver, Colorado and then Ithaca, New York—all generally successful pedestrian malls today. I remember thinking, “why don’t they build more of these?” The truth is, people had been building them for 30 years—some 200 or so—by the time I went to my first one, but many weren’t working and had already been torn out.

Beginning with a two-block mall built in 1959 in Kalamazoo, Mich., downtowns across the U.S. turned to pedestrian malls as a way, in part, to battle the migration from downtown to suburban communities and shopping centers. Part of the problem, though, was that people generally like to drive to stores, and these pedestrian areas didn’t generate enough traffic to support businesses that lined these areas.

I had my first inklings of trouble in pedestrian paradise when I lived in upstate New York for a couple of years. Buffalo has a giant pedestrian mall, or should I say a giant, non-pedestrian mall. It was completely vacant on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a pretty unnerving to feel like you’re closed off from the rest of world, and someone could just jump out from behind any planter. No one could hear your cries of terror or see you pulling some wicked karate moves to fend off the attacker. Even Ithaca’s successful pedestrian zone was a little sketchy at night—well-dressed hippies always begging for a buck. Who knew if they might throw a hacky sack at you. Those things can kill.

I know, I know, pedestrian-mall-lovers, there are still successful pedestrian malls. And, yes, other parts of the world have thriving pedestrian malls. After learning about the history of pedestrian malls, though, I was just shocked at how many there were. There were even some in my hometown that were torn out long before I was old enough to comprehend something like a pedestrian mall.

One of the key points from this realization is that what works in some areas, doesn’t always work in other areas. Trendy city planning and economic development items make me nervous. (yes, I’m a city planning nerd) Like indoor malls, which are failing all over the place. Now there’s an emphasis on power centers as the holy grail of shopping. Just because it’s wildly successful in one area, doesn’t mean that it will work in your community. Like replicating Silicon Valley in terms of economic development—every city wants a Silicon Valley, but there are some things that you can’t plan for design. Some things amazingly just happen.  

The oh-so dramatic collapse of my pedestrian mall theory

Despite the failure of so many pedestrian malls, I, as a non-sarcastic, non-cynical person, am always looking on the bright side. In this case, I tried to figure out common elements that seemed to make successful pedestrian malls, well, successful. One thread I thought I pinpointed in successful pedestrian malls was  small amount vehicular interaction, like cross-streets cutting through Boulder’s Pearl Street mall or the crazy buses plowing down the middle of Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Limiting the span of purely pedestrian zones seemed to make malls more successful. Then Fillmore Plaza threw a monkey wrench—not to be confused with a pipe wrench—in my seemingly irrefutable conclusion. This pedestrian mall is one block long in the middle of generally pedestrian-oriented shopping area and it is getting torn out. Yes, absolutely shocking, I know. 

As I thought about it and read arguments for and against tearing the mall out, I harkened back to indoor malls. As Pace Underhill pointed out in his killer read, Call of the Mall, people like to hang out at malls, but hanging out in them doesn’t equate to spending money in them. A lot of local residents argued that Fillmore Plaza shouldn’t be torn out because it provided a convenient park. However, I can understand the retailer’s viewpoint as well: stopping by a park doesn’t equate to buying. Sure, if there was a candy shop or a grocer along the mall, then people popping in to visit the park might purchase something, but the shops along Fillmore Plaza are what I would consider destination stores. Most people would probably not go hang out at the park and then decide to pop into the local Hermes to buy a zip cardigan in medium gray for $1,350. My little mind can’t really even understand what most super-high-end stores actually sell.

Tiny Fillmore Plaza had good intentions, but I guess size doesn’t matter if it isn’t the right area. They will be keeping the plaza-like feel, and the capability to close off the area for events, which appeals to me. Kansas City did something similar in their downtown Power and Light District. On a pretty much dead day, we were able to walk along car-laden streets without feeling like we were trapped in a deserted alley preparing for some hippies to spring upon us. At the same time though the city was gearing up for the Big 12 Tournament. They were starting to shut down some of the streets with nice-looking brushed steel barricades that made me think they shut down this area often for pedestrian-oriented events. Balancing the need for cars, people, and hacky-sack-free zones, I like.


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