Downtown Mall turns 30

Downtown Mall turns 30

On Monday, July 3, Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall turned 30. The City is celebrating with speeches, bands and a slide-show retrospective to commemorate the Mall’s commercial success. Here at C-VILLE, where several former Mall deadbeats have joined the ranks of the productively employed and regularly showered, we note the Mall’s birthday with a bittersweet air as our favorite stretch of brick sets aside childish things.
    When builders laid the ceremonial final brick in the Mall on July 3, 1976, the Mall was born under the optimistic gaze of City leaders, who doted on the new pedestrian thoroughfare like proud parents. Business leaders and politicians conceived the Mall as a golden child that would deliver shoppers to Downtown, which in the 1960s faced the spectre of declining business (spurred by the development of Barracks Road Shopping Center in 1958).
    Yet by the time the Mall hit adolescence in the mid-1980s, the kid was obviously failing to meet expectations. Old people shuddered at the sight of the Mall’s long, dark blocks, devoid of life after 5pm—except for the punks and homeless people crouched in shadowy doorways. The only people who hung around the Mall at night were denizens who came to see bands like the Circle Jerks at Muldowney’s or X-rated movies at the Jefferson Theater, back when it used to show skin. After partaking of such debauched pleasures, these brave souls swilled beer at one of the Mall’s three watering holes: Miller’s, Fellini’s or Eastern Standard. Three was all they had, and they liked it. Liked it? Hell, they loved it!
    City leaders, however, weren’t so keen on this slack-assed teenage Mall. By the mid-1990s it was time for the Mall to grow up and start earning its keep.
    In 1988, Mall businessman Jon Bright led a group that organized the first Fridays After 5 concert series, which helped to prove that the Mall was a better place to party than to shop. Six years later, developers Lee Danielson and Colin Rolph completed the Charlottesville Ice Park and Regal Cinema—major projects that accompanied a blossoming of bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes and—perhaps most importantly for the Mall’s nighttime vitality—a surge in apartments available for rent on the Mall, along with a renewed interest among young professionals in “Downtown living.”
    In 2002, the Mall turned 26—an age when many experience what sociologists now call a “quarter-life crisis,” marked by disappointment in one’s current situation and anxiety over the near future. Indeed, in 2002, City Councilors proposed a dramatic revitalization of the Mall’s east end, a development that includes a grand amphitheater, a swanky bus transfer station and a brick walkway known as “President’s Plaza.” Other efforts to “mature” the Mall include tourist-friendly signs, stricter rules for sidewalk vendors, the eradication of newspaper boxes and stronger police presence. These changes haven’t always sat well with those who remember the Mall’s rowdy younger days.
    In its 30s, the Mall will see more changes. Developer Keith Woodard has plans for a nine-storey condo project, while Oliver Kuttner wants to build a nine-storey hotel. One of the last grungy outposts, the Jefferson Theater, has recently been sold to developer Coran Capshaw and closed for renovations. At 30, the Mall is starting to look like a real adult: Its bricks may be falling apart, but it’s running with a much swankier crowd.
    Sure, change is good—but sometimes we’d just like to see the Circle Jerks one more time.