If you’re joining us late: Fresno, California, is determined to revive its struggling downtown by re-opening a fabled pedestrian-only mall to car traffic. This has become the focus of intense debate pro and con. For the most recent pro, see this. For an extended con, go here.
Now readers weigh in about experiences from other North American cities.
1) Pedestrian malls sound good, but … A reader describes the process of turning from skeptic to believer, when it comes to the value of projects like the one Fresno is about to undertake.
This reader, in North Carolina, writes:
In theory, I support pedestrian malls. The main street in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina [see opening photo], where I live, was turned into a mall in the late 70s. I work downtown and for years I walked down that strip, sat on the benches and ate my lunch, etc. I was vaguely in favor of the concept. Then the boosters wanted to turn it back into a street.
I didn’t understand what the big fuss was about, when the downtown boosters were touting this change. The street is only a few blocks long. It begins at the Capitol Building and ends at the Memorial Auditorium.
It isn’t a thoroughfare, it doesn’t go anywhere, how can it matter if it is a street or a pedestrian mall? The street itself has limited parking, so most everybody who goes to an event on Fayetteville St. will still have to park somewhere else and then walk there, just as they would if it were a pedestrian mall. I could not, and I still cannot, see the difference.
But I was wrong.
It was partly because of a large number of other factors, tax incentives, demographics, etc, but downtown is booming, and it is clear that turning that few blocks into a street made a critical difference. Even if almost nobody who goes to the weekend events actually drives or parks on that street.
It is strange, but true.
2) Look around you, in D.C. A reader reminds me of part of the story I’ve left out so far:
You forgot Washington D.C. in 1968? In 1975? Been downtown lately?
Pennsylvania Avenue revitalization; the core downtown; 14th Street and H Street NE are the hippest places rather than smoldering from the riots. Lots of good reasons and it did not happen over night.
Indeed. When I first came to Washington D.C. in the 1970s, the “U Street Corridor” (for instance) meant something very different from what it does today. Then: very tough. Now: very hip. When people from some city I’m seeing for the first time tell me, “It’s hard to explain how different this part of the city looked a generation ago … ” this is one way I can envision what they’re talking about.
3) Or look at little bit south, to the home of UVA. From a reader who has spent time in Virginia:
Charlottesville, Virginia, has an interesting story. They closed the main downtown street to cars and built a brick pedestrian mall in 1976. It was a ghost town for 20 years. Then the council made a concerted effort to get people living downtown, and (whether because or in spite of those efforts) living downtown became cool. By 2000, it became one of the great downtown success stories.
I think it had a lot to do with a population that WANTED a nice central downtown place to go. If people ask themselves "Why would I want to go downtown when the shopping mall complex has a Googleplex and an Olive Garden?" then the city officials and developers who want higher property values downtown have an uphill battle.
Now I live in Jefferson City, Missouri, which is trying to get its downtown going. It helped to get a new generation of developers who wanted to do something with the buildings instead of just sit on them.
Not sure to what extent the city had much to do with it. Most important I think was the economic downturn, ironically, because our town is the seat of state government. Young people came here to get state jobs, and now they want a town that is fun to live in, so change is starting to happen.
4) And let’s consider Denver. From a reader who doesn’t want me to go there:
When I was a boy downtown Denver was a vibrant place with numerous large department stores, and several old-style movie theaters. It was the place to go to see the Christmas displays in the department stores windows, see a movie, or shop.
Suburban malls killed both the stores, and the theaters. [JF note: you could apply this preceding sentence to two-thirds of the places we’ve been across the country.]
Now both 16th Street and Larimer Street (formerly our "skid row") were closed to traffic and both have been incredibly revitalized. 16th Street now has free shuttle buses to the pedestrian's travel from one end to the other. Larimer street is full of attractive restaurants, coffee shops, and small arty stores.
Metropolitan State college on the west side of the downtown area has exploded. The University of Colorado now has a peripheral campus there. We have a large convention center and a symphony/theater.
Our football stadium is not far from downtown; both a baseball and basketball/hockey stadium are on the periphery.
A large area just north of Larimer street, formerly rail yards and warehouses has been redeveloped into chic housing, restaurants and bars. It's the place to go before and after sporting events.
In recent years, light rail has been added to connect central Denver with the suburbs. Soon it will also connect with DIA airport.
I am doubtless prejudiced as native Denverite and lifelong resident, but I believe Denver serves an excellent example of urban redevelopment.
The only negative in my mind is that the population has also exploded. I am nostalgic for the quieter "cowboy town" of my youth. The entire eastern range of Colorado's mountains seems destined to become an L.A.-like sprawl (yuck!). Please don't move here.
On the last point: I admire Denver, but no worries. I am not a mountain guy.
5) And let’s not forget Calgary. A reader in the north writes about Calgary, and the institution of “Jane’s Walks,” or urban explorations in the tradition of the great Jane Jacobs.
As an inner-city dweller and transportation activist, I’ve followed with interest your recent reports on downtowns and pedestrian malls. We have the quite successful Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall in Calgary, which is closed to cars daily until 6 p.m. when it becomes a narrow one-way filled mostly with taxis; the current controversy is whether to allow bicycles to ride it during the day. I’ve seen good and bad examples of pedestrian, shared and “complete” streets in my travels.
The other issue you raise today is how much is any discussion of “downtown” a coded talk about race? I would say yes, but only to the extent that race is shorthand for crime and poverty that makes other people feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
For most of the 20th century, Calgary herded many of its urban problems into a blighted area east of the office towers and City Hall—bounded by two rivers and the Canadian Pacific Railway. It still contains disproportionate numbers of drunks and drug addicts, three shelters and a hostel, many Aboriginal people and low-income seniors.
Now the city is undertaking a massive private-public redevelopment called the East Village. My photos from a May 2nd walking tour with the area alderman are in an album with map and some captions.
This walk was one of 30 in Calgary as part of the worldwide Jane’s Walks honoring the late urbanist Jane Jacobs.
The irony—admitted by city planners—is that Jacobs advocated “bottom up” development based on existing people, culture, and structures, while the East Village is a classic example of “top down” planning. In fairness, they have made efforts to incorporate some of the existing buildings and people in the plan. Moreover, it was the city authorities that created the blight, so I guess it makes sense that they should take responsibility for the fix.
6) On the other hand, maybe none of this will work in Fresno. In some earlier installments I mentioned the belief by older residence of Fresno that the city’s big plans for downtown were destined to fail. Also, that the gap between north-side sprawl-suburbs and south-side downtown, quite small in travel time and physical distance, still represented an enormous barrier. Here’s one such opinion that has just come in:
I live in Fresno and just want to give you my impressions as to why downtown Fresno is such a bust.
I have been in this town for almost 40 years. I came from Chicago as a young newlywed all those years ago. I like Fresno. In fact, I love this place. But I get very frustrated with downtown and its issues.
I [have a professional job with the school district] and I work just north of downtown. My husband recently retired as [another professional position] and worked downtown. So, we both have familiarity with the area.
That said, Fresno is a split community. You have people with means who live in north Fresno and then the poor people who live elsewhere. I don't know if you have been here [!!] but if you start driving southward from north Fresno, you can see the neighborhoods deteriorate before your eyes. By the time you get to downtown, the surrounding neighborhoods are pretty bad.
The school where I work is in an area where the average income is $14,000 per year. So, you are talking real poverty here. I, myself, have no qualms about where I work. I actually love my school and the surrounding area. I love those families and those kids. It's a great place. I make home visits and I don't feel in any danger.
But, you would be surprised how many people will not go south of Shaw Avenue. [JF note: this is the current shorthand for the north/south dividing line.] There is no draw to go to downtown Fresno...
My husband and I have gone to baseball games there and the place is just dead. It's depressing. We have driven to Visalia to go to concerts at their Fox Theater which is downtown and that place is hopping! Every time we go, we wonder why Fresno can't look like downtown Visalia. There has been a lot of construction with condos and apartments downtown and they are lovely. I mean really pretty. The problem is that if you live down there, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. You have to drive out of the area just go go grocery shopping...
You have myopic people in north Fresno who won't even bother trying something new and you have powers that be downtown who just don't seem to be able to get it right. Tear up the street, leave the street, bring in more cars, leave out the cars. For Pete's sake, it's a damn carousel that goes round and round and nothing of consequence happens...
There are positive changes happening but I just get frustrated with this situation. I predict that it will be the same old same old. Long after I am dead and gone, this discussion will still be happening. I love this place but Fresno just seems to live up to its reputation—or down to it, as the case may be.
Which means that ten years from now, today’s happenings in Fresno will become one more example of that city’s cycles of frustration—or a Raleigh- or Denver-type story of an approach that has worked elsewhere panning out yet again.