Downtown Mall at 40: Is innovation still around?

Photo by Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad AP Photo by Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad AP

Even in November, balmy weather and the Virginia Film Festival had throngs out on the Downtown Mall. But it wasn’t always that way. For years after Charlottesville bricked its main street in 1976, the place was a ghost town after 5pm.

Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s early 1970s vision of a bustling public space took 15 to 26 years to fulfill, depending upon whom you ask, and what we see today is an anomaly when so many other pedestrian malls of that era failed.

Why one succeeded in Charlottesville is now the stuff of textbooks. Whether the city can continue innovation into the next 40 years—well, that’s up for debate.

We’re dying here

The explosion of suburban shopping centers in the mid-20th century contributed to the urgency of doing something about downtown, which was emptying out as department stores like Leggett and Miller & Rhoads left for Barracks Road Shopping Center and Fashion Square Mall.

“We could see for ourselves downtown Charlottesville was dying,” says Charles Barbour, the city’s first black councilor and mayor. “There were empty buildings and closed up businesses. The question was what to do about it.”

Charles Barbour, the city first black mayor, was one of two councilors to vote for the pedestrian mall, the other three deemed to have possible conflicts of interest. Photo by Eze Amos

UVA history professor and former Miller Center head George Gilliam was elected to City Council in 1972, running with Mitch Van Yahres and Jill Rinehart, who became Charlottesville’s first female councilor. “We had a joint campaign brochure that said we were interested in turning Main Street into a tree-lined pedestrian walkway,” says Gilliam.

He and Barbour are the only surviving members of the council that supported proceeding with the pedestrian mall, although only Barbour and Van Yahres actually voted. The others—Gilliam, Rinehart and Francis Fife, who died last year—were sidelined because of conflict of interest concerns.

Gilliam credits Alvin Clements, president of Central Fidelity Bank, for coming up with the pedestrian mall idea. “A lot of business people were in favor of doing something dramatic to save downtown,” says Gilliam.

“The feeling was the failure of the central city would be an existential threat, and if we didn’t do something major, we were going to lose the central city,” he says.

Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall was dedicated in 1977 and is a pedestrian mall success story. Like Charlottesville, it’s in a university town, one of the indicators for malls that made it. Photo courtesy Downtown Boulder
Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall was dedicated in 1977 and is a pedestrian mall success story. Like Charlottesville, it’s in a university town, one of the indicators for malls that made it. Photo courtesy Downtown Boulder

Why some pedestrian malls succeeded

Big during the 1960s and 1970s, pedestrian malls have a surprisingly high failure rate—89 percent of the 200 or so created during that time, according to a Fresno, California, study, which detailed certain indicators in the success of the 11 percent that survived.

• 80 percent are in areas with populations under 100,000

• Are near a major anchor like a university or beach, or tourist destination like New Orleans or Las Vegas

• Are designed to be a relatively short number of blocks

• Have a varied mix of activities and uses

• Have a large population of captive users, such as workers and residents

• Have efficient public transportation

• Have extensive nearby parking

• Have strong anchors, including a retail component

• Have frequent upgrades

At a retreat after the 1972 election, City Manager Cole Hendrix suggested soliciting proposals from landscape architects, and Deputy City Manager Bern Ewert was familiar with the work of Halprin, who had done Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, recalls Gilliam.

Halprin came to Charlottesville in the spring of 1973 and spent the weekend with the Central City Commission, a downtown business group of about 30 led by Clements, according to Gilliam.

Participants had to surrender their wallets, except for $1, and participate in exercises “that had us appreciate the difficulties people faced living in the central city,” says Gilliam. That included trying to buy food with that $1 with no grocery nearby, considering the second floor of buildings and exploring alleys.

“We were forced to look at things we’d seen for years but looked at in different ways,” says Gilliam.

Cole Hendrix was Charlottesville’s city manager until 1995, and even during the bleak years, he never wavered in his support of the Downtown Mall. Photo by Eze Amos

Bringing the community in to create a public space was a first, says Beth Meyer, who was recently dean of UVA’s School of Architecture. She estimates 20 were involved in the public participation. “That was a big deal then,” she says.

With the first African-American and woman on City Council, “they were trying to make the city more inclusive, more open,” she says. “It was very idealistic.”

Halprin’s charrette was unusual, agrees former mayor Satyendra Huja, who came to Charlottesville as a planner in 1973. “Previously decisions were made by a few select leaders,” he says. “This one involved citizens.”

The mall was very controversial from the start, says Gilliam.

“Many downtown business owners said, ‘Our business will never make it if there’s no parking in front of the store,’” says Gilliam.

Some owners were strongly opposed to the ped mall idea, such as Harry O’Mansky, owner of The Young Men’s Shop, which closed after 90 years earlier this year, and was then located on the corner of Main and Second Street SW. “That’s why the mall stopped at his store,” says Barbour.

Selling the idea to merchants was key, says Hendrix, “because essentially they were going to pay for it with a tax, with the city throwing in some money.”

And then, as now, parking was an important concern. The city built the Market Street Garage beside City Hall to help with that issue.

On July 3, 1976, the first four blocks of the Downtown Mall branching west from City Hall were finished and dedicated, according to Hendrix. Two-block segments were added west toward what would become the Omni Hotel, and later on the east end, the front of City Hall was bricked and an amphitheater build.

The city entered into a public/private relationship to build what is now the Omni, which sat on land from the Vinegar Hill urban renewal that had “languished,” says Hendrix. The hotel opened in 1985, and the first year it “brought 75,000 people downtown that wouldn’t ordinarily be there,” according to Hendrix.

He concedes there was a “scary period when the city owned that hotel for a few months” because the developer couldn’t get financing. “That was when the meals tax opened to finance the city part of it,” says Hendrix.

Urban renewal shift

Today the destruction of the primarily African-American Vinegar Hill neighborhood is seen as a terribly misguided city decision. But in the 1960s, urban renewal was all the rage—and a reaction to it played out in the development of the Downtown Mall.

Downtown Charlottesville embodies the change in urban planning from the mid-20th century to the late 20th century, “a shift away from a demolition-oriented program known as urban renewal to a more socially conscious, preservation-oriented form of planning,” writes UVA historic preservation manager Sarita Herman in a 2010 Magazine of Albemarle County History piece, “A Pedestrian Mall Born Out of Urban Renewal.”

Harland Bartholomew and Associates, the firm hired to “clean up traffic problems and ‘blighted’ residential neighborhoods”—Vinegar Hill—in an attempt to reinvigorate downtown business, was the first to propose a pedestrian mall, writes Herman.

But Bartholomew’s vision was very different from Halprin’s mixed-use plan. He advocated a “neighborhood unit” revolving around parks and schools, with separate commercial and industrial areas. For Bartholomew, mixed-use “contributed to problems of disease, crime and general immorality,” says Herman, and the automobile was “given primacy,” as evidenced by Vinegar Hill turned mostly into a parking lot.

Courtesy Ed Roseberry/C'ville Images
Downtown Charlottesville before Main Street became off limits to autos. Courtesy Ed Roseberry/C’ville Images

Landscape architect Nathan Foley, who also wrote a 2010 article called “Orchestrating Experience: The Context and Design of Charlottesville’s Pedestrian Mall,” says, “The mall is partly the result of the city trying to heal the wounds created after decades of racial tensions and the ‘urban renewal’ demolition of two downtown neighborhoods, Vinegar Hill and Garrett Street.”

Halprin’s original plan was to stretch the mall’s north-south boundaries eight blocks to Court Square and Garrett Street, says Foley.

Barbour acknowledges the impact race relations had on the mall. “The council I served on, we were just coming out of segregation,” he says.

The dark years

Once downtown became a pedestrian mall in 1976, after 5pm, “You could shoot a gun and not hit anyone,” says Huja. “It was totally empty. And the physical conditions”—the water and sewer—“were really bad.”

Gilliam says the city was advised it would take 10 years to see a benefit from the mall. “Point of fact, it took 20 years,” he says.

Gilliam believes the Omni helped get people downtown. He also cites investors who built condos on the upper floors of mall buildings. “The ice rink and movie theaters were major factors,” he says. “The development of restaurants was absolutely critical.”

“The first 15 to 20 years, the mall sort of languished,” says Hendrix. “Businesses wouldn’t stay open at night. Those that did didn’t give it a fair shake, in my opinion.”

Interestingly, even during those long years when the mall was a ghost town, none of the former city officials C-VILLE spoke with thought it was a horrible mistake.

“Nope, I never felt that way,” says Hendrix. “It was the advent of restaurants that changed it.” He, too, counts the Omni as another contributor to the success of the mall, along with the construction of the Water Street Garage in 1993.

“If we’d been able to put on a real marketing campaign to attract businesses earlier, that might have been a good idea,” he adds.

Bob Stroh, former general manager of Charlottesville Parking Center, says the reason the mall didn’t die during its early years was because of the federal, state and local government offices, including City Hall and the courts, and the banks, which remained big employers even after the department stores moved out.

“All that infrastructure kept downtown going when retail was hollowing out,” he says, as did the city’s investment in security and cleanliness.

Mostly, he attributes the success of the mall to “the city’s unwavering support.” City officials, he says, “stuck to their guns when people wanted to put the street back.”

Stroh also credits Oliver Kuttner, who built the Terraces, which houses Caspari, and Lee Danielson, who instigated the ice park and Regal Cinemas. “They had a vision for downtown that wasn’t necessarily what the city saw,” he says. “Lee saw downtown as an entertainment center. I don’t think that vision was very clear until he stated it and developed it.”

While restaurants are credited with drawing people downtown, some see the proliferation of them potentially turning the mall into a food court at the expense of retail.

“Shopping is one of the reasons people travel,” says Stroh. “Maybe a few less restaurants wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were replaced by nice stores.”

And Stroh scoffs at the idea “that we can’t have chain stores.” Urban Outfitters is one of the few that has nighttime traffic, he says. CVS stays open later, he says, but the biggest challenge still facing downtown is “how to encourage retailers to stay open.”

The mall today

Halprin already was a renowned landscape architect when Charlottesville hired him to design the Downtown Mall, and his reputation has only grown since then.

“He is internationally the most important landscape architect in the 20th century,” says Meyer, a renowned landscape architect in her own right.

The New York Times has called his plazas in Portland, Oregon, “the most important public spaces since the Renaissance,” she says.

“I think it’s worthwhile for those of us who live in Charlottesville that the mall is understood as one of Halprin’s significant projects,” says Meyer. “It’s the subject of books and articles by people outside of Charlottesville. People who come here to see the Lawn and Monticello now want to see the pedestrian mall.”

Key to Halprin’s designs is movement between spaces, which was influenced by his wife, a choreographer and dancer, says Meyer. The trees, the fountains, the runnels, the light—they all play a part in his vision, and even today, “I’m pretty confident the experience of that place is pretty authentic,” she says.

But Meyer does have concerns about retaining Halprin’s vision going forward. She believes the mall should have its own staff to maintain it, rather than being overseen by parks and recreation. And she would like a business improvement district to maintain the mall.

In 2009 the city controversially replaced the bricks in Halprin’s distinctive herringbone pattern on the mall, a $7.5 million project. “The alleged restoration was because the bricks hadn’t been maintained,” says Meyer. “They could have hired a couple of masons and had them on retainer for life.”

She also worries about the health of the 40-year-old willow oaks that line the mall, which her UVA colleague and former planning commissioner Bill Lucy says contributed to the success of the mall when the trees began to create shade and a microclimate.

The bricks used to come up to the trees, but now they have grates, so they get de-icing salt, putting them under a different ecology, Meyer says. “The trees are more stressed because of the changes. They’re not going to be there forever.”

Perhaps Meyer’s greater concern is who gets to use the mall.

“Originally there were 150 movable chairs designed by Halprin,” she says. “They’re gone. It’s great we have such an active café culture, but it’s privatized the mall.”

She mentions the city’s restrictions on panhandling, later ruled unconstitutional, as another way of privatizing the public space. And the Pavilion “feels private,” she says.

“If you look at who lives near the mall, you don’t have that same demographic group on the mall,” says Meyer.

“When public space—the only place you interact with people who aren’t like you—is privatized, it restricts the community,” she says.

Herman is on the same page in her 2010 article on the mall. “Today the mall is a niche market, primarily serving an upper middle class population,” she says. She points out that most businesses are upscale, while the mall lacks essential services like grocery, hardware and department stores.

But for many of those who have been with the mall since the beginning, the dream has come true.

“My wife and I enjoy going to the mall and sitting in a café and seeing all the people, which is what we envisioned,” says Hendrix.

“My takeaway is how much people love it,” says Stroh. “People love going there and seeing people. It’s a very social place with an incredible history that in most cases has been preserved.”

And in a nod to the Free Speech Wall, he says, “It’s a place where people go to express their opinions.”

Stroh stresses that the mall is not a separate entity from downtown, but is “the jewel in the crown” of Charlottesville. “It’s not overreaching to say it’s the heart of our community.”

Charlottesville 40 years from now

While the city can pat itself on the back for having a cool, iconic pedestrian mall, there are critics who don’t see that sort of innovation going forward.

“Charlottesville is a place that plans and plans and plans and doesn’t do anything,” says Meyer. “It’s frustrating that we don’t have the capacity to come to a consensus about things.”

“Councilors are elected to make decisions,” says former mayor Barbour. “You could study something to death. I believe in making decisions. We’re a town that can innovate.”

Architect Jim Rounsevell says the city leaves too much to staff “to form the urban landscape,” and he thinks Charlottesville should have its own architect or urban designer—not urban planner.

“Instead of elaborating on the success we’ve had with the mall, we’ve gone backward,” he says. “There’s no deliberate effort to design the city.”

He describes the process as “reactive” in the cases of finding a permanent home for City Market, which will be part of a nine-story mixed use development that was called Market Plaza and is now known as West2nd, the need for parking that led to the purchase of the Lucky 7 and Guadalajara parcels, “the worst possible place,” and the Transit Center, which was supposed to be on West Main to overlap with trains and buses, but is “essentially useless” in its location on the east end of the mall.

He continues the list: West Main—“all of that is reactive”—and the “whole debacle with the Belmont Bridge,” which he says illustrates how city staff put out an RFP “with no consideration that we can do something else here.”

He notes that when a plan for the strategic investment area south of downtown was commissioned, “The poor guys who did the study were deliberately told not to consider the Belmont Bridge,” which Rounsevell says is a white spot on the plans because they were told it was a separate project, not part of a “more holistic design approach.”

Rounsevell cautions about another trend he sees: block-long buildings like the Water Street Garage. “It’s a dead zone,” he says. “No one goes there.”

He fears the same will happen with West2nd. It closes First Street, which he calls “ill-advised.” Block-long buildings “don’t reflect the diversity of the urban setting,” he says.

But just as there are critics, there are defenders of how the city is grappling with its future.

“Sometimes we talk and talk because the idea is no good,” says City Councilor Bob Fenwick. “People are afraid we’re on the cusp of making bad decisions in landscape architecture.”

He cites the decision to move the statue of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea in the West Main plan. “We have to be careful,” he says. The plan to make Belmont Bridge one lane in and one lane out of town he calls “breathtaking.” And not in a good way.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin is more upbeat about what’s happening now.

The West Main Street improvement plan is multimodal, and adds new trees and underground utilities. “To me, that’s pretty darn innovative and exciting,” she says. “It’s taken 28 years to get to this point on West Main.”

Controlling the odors emanating from the Rivanna waste treatment plant in Woolen Mills uses a process that wasn’t available 10 years ago, she says. “That’s pretty innovative to me.”

And Galvin has been a leading advocate of the strategic investment area, which includes Piedmont Housing Alliance’s redevelopment of Friendship Court—without displacing residents.

Early childhood development and employment training are part of the plan. “That’s innovative, and more than just affordable housing,” she says. Ultimately, the Neighborhood Family Health Center on Preston Avenue will be located in the SIA, as will an apprenticeship program.

“We’re intent on getting people out of poverty,” she says, which could be the most innovative vision of all.

“The Downtown Mall can’t be the only trick we have,” says Galvin. “It’s time to have another.”

Timeline of a pedestrian mall that worked—eventually

October 1959: Barracks Road Shopping Center opens.

1964: Vinegar Hill is razed, displacing approximately 500 residents. The city apologizes in 2011.

February 1974: The only two city councilors deemed not to have conflicts of interest vote for the pedestrian mall. Construction begins on the Market Street Garage, and the Paramount Theater closes.

July 3, 1976: Future first lady of Virginia, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, dedicates the Lawrence Halprin-designed mall.

May 1, 1985: The city-financed Radisson Hotel opens and soon becomes the Omni Hotel on the newly extended mall.

Spring 1988: The first Fridays After Five concert takes place.

November 1993: The Water Street Parking Garage, under construction for six years, opens.

June 1994: The eastern end of the mall gets a grassy amphitheater and a tunnel to Lexis-Nexis.

November 30, 1995: York Place opens, on the site of Rose’s, with 20 apartments and 11 retail spaces.

May 1, 1996: Lee Danielson’s Charlottesville Ice Park opens.

August 28, 1996: The controversial mall crossing at Second Street, which Danielson insisted upon, opens a couple of months in advance of Regal Cinemas.

December 15, 2004: The $14 million refurbished Paramount reopens with a performance by crooner Tony Bennett.

July 30, 2005: The Pavilion, which some described as a “lobster trap,” debuts on the east end of the mall with a performance by Loretta Lynn and her pal Sissy Spacek.

March 26, 2007: The federal funds-grabbing Transit Center opens beside the Pavilion, despite concerns its location wasn’t multimodal.

January 2009: Construction on Halsey Minor’s Landmark Hotel grinds to a halt.

2009: The city controversially re-bricks the Downtown Mall for $7.5 million, but keeps Halprin’s unusual 4-by-12 brick size.

October 25, 2009: Halprin dies at age 93.

Halprin exhibit in D.C.

The National Building Museum in Washington opened The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halpin last month in conjunction with his 100th birthday, and Charlottesville is one of 30 sites featured. The exhibition runs through April 16, 2017, and then will travel around the country.

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