Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trafficking In The Answers For A Better Downtown

It seems the perfect time to revisit two ideas about downtown streets that deserve new life.

One deals with Fourth Street from Union to Beale and the second is Main Street, which is neither main nor a street.

During the design of FedEx Forum, it was suggested by Looney Ricks Kiss – probably our most nationally known architectural firm and well-known for its place-making – that Fourth Street should be realigned from Union Avenue to Beale Street.

Sense Of Arrival

The firm’s charge was to design a downtown arena that was unsurpassed in the U.S., and as part of that work, the firm recommended that the intersection of Fourth Street be moved about 150 feet east of the current intersection at Union. The concept was for Fourth Street to become an attractive boulevard that would move pleasantly at a southwesterly angle toward Beale Street.

The new Fourth would have given not only FedEx Forum a sense of arrival, but it would have done the same for the east end of Beale Street. While the idea may have been driven by esthetics, there was also the thought that the new alignment could give new prominence to the Fourth and Beale intersection, which has been the death knell for so many business ventures.

Conventional wisdom on Beale Street is that the Fourth Street end of the street is just seen as being too far removed from the activity on the street, and the floundering businesses on that end of the street give weight to that opinion.

Bonus Points

However, the real bonus of the new alignment was that it would eliminate several eyesores - including the dingy hotel and the deteriorating, frequently empty building - across from Autozone Park. There also was the potential for removing the abandoned bus station that stands on the southwest corner of Fourth and Beale today.

Unfortunately, some powerful downtown interests had other ideas, and the idea died. Some opposed the plans because they had plans of their own for the bus station, and others seemed intent on making as much traffic as possible go by Peabody Place. In the end, it was a lost opportunity that would have linked the baseball stadium and the arena in an attractive and resourceful way.

Another reason for the realignment was that Union Avenue was seen as a major connection point for MATA and this would encourage basketball fans taking the bus to their college and pro games. Of course, no one knew then that the Forum allegedly would have its very own multi-modal transfer center.

Modest Proposal

As for Main Street, former design director for the National Endowment for the Arts Jeff Speck said in his recent presentation about 12 modest proposals to improve Memphis design and connectivity that for $50,000, we could put traffic back on our moribund pedestrian mall.

It may sound like too little too late. After all, the mall has already strangled the life out of what Main Street used to be and turned the teeming street into modest pockets of activity in an area begging for vibrancy and animation. Is it only a pipe dream that traffic would inject some renewed economic life into a street whose only retail store between Union and Poplar is the beloved peanut shop?

We didn’t come to share Mr. Speck’s opinion easily, but at this point, it just seems like it’s worth a try. After all, it’s not like he proposed turning Main Street into the autobahn or even turning it back like it used to be. Rather, he recommended two lanes of slow-moving traffic.

Failing To See Failure

Also, as co-author of Suburban Nation and a founding adherent to New Urbanism, it’s not as if he is hostile to walkable, dense downtowns and a high quality public sphere. If there is a monument to faddish planning trends, our Mid-American Mall is the poster child.

While some editorial writers opine that 30 years may not be enough to consider the pedestrian mall a failure, it’s long enough for us. We’d like to think that we’ll actually have the chance to see signs of life on Main Street before we have to use a walker to get up there.

Maybe we are just too old. We remember when Main Street bustled. There’s no question that it would have in time been transformed by the shift in consumer loyalty to suburban malls, but like subsequent trolley construction, mall construction and reconstruction often killed off the very businesses that it was designed to support.

All About Convenience

Shoppers abandoned downtown pedestrian malls across the U.S. as inconvenient and inaccessible, and Memphis was no exception. In our defense, we were not the only city that chased the pedestrian mall as the answer to our downtown’s ability to compete with suburban malls. About 200 cities flirted with malls for a few blocks and some like us consummated the relationship with our entire main downtown shopping district.

While a few pedestrian malls remain and are thriving, they seem to be largely located in college towns. In big cities like ours, the trend is much more to returning some traffic to the malls.

In a study of malls built in the 1960s and 1970s in Santa Monica, Eugene, Oak Park, Sioux Falls, Vicksburg, Baltimore, Ithaca, Memphis, Miami Beach and St. Joseph, it was found that 70 percent of them were successful for a few years but then business declined. By 1989, half of them had either totally or partially opened up their pedestrian malls to traffic and two more were thinking about it.

Real City Center

It’s worth remembering that the trolley system itself was a recognition of the fact that our pedestrian mall just wasn’t working. Of the cities that reopened their malls, all reported gains in business.

We’re not Pollyannish about this. The return of downtown to a real city center with retail stores and boutiques will be slow and arduous, but it seems worth a try to return cars to the street and see what happens.

The most we’d be out, according to Mr. Speck, is $50,000, and we’ll spend a heckuva lot more than studying what our next magic answer will be.

Worth A Try

We don’t have to make a final decision today. We can return traffic to Main Street for six months and just see what happens. Right now, we all have our own opinions, but if we are willing to experiment, we can actually see what will happen.

Here’s the thing. Mr. Speck is just the latest urban expert to recommend the return of cars to Main Street. In fact, a couple of weeks before he spoke here, the Center City Commission’s retail consultants arrived at the same opinion. And there were others before them.

We know that we Memphians don’t handle change well, but we owe it to ourselves to find out if this idea can really work. It’s not as if much is at risk anyway since Main Street is now largely abandoned storefronts punctuated by an occasional restaurant, and on non-baseball nights, the inactive streets cause safety concerns that keep many visitors from walking even a couple of blocks up the mall.

Getting At The Answer

It’s been about a decade since Chicago ripped up the pedestrian mall that was strangling State Street to death. Without cars, the street had a deadened fell like a ghost town, city officials said.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rode one of the jackhammers in a pavement-breaking ceremony and said the pedestrian mall was so unpopular no one would even take credit for its invention.

That same fact may tell us all we need to know about our own pedestrian mall.


Anonymous said...

Wow, it's hard to wrap my head around this idea that there are pedestrian malls that are on the decline. I couldn't imagine Denver without its mile-long pedestrian mall, which always seems to be quite the happening place. They've actually been extending it in recent years -- the pedestrian corridor is more like a mile and a half, now.

b said...

As much as I love the mall, there's so much vehicular traffic on it now (construction and government vehicles) that reopening it to cars probably won't be that much different.

My chief complaint, as a downtown worker, is that there is never a trolley when you need one. I work at the north end of the mall and my bank is at the south end. I can walk from Main and Jefferson to Peabody Place at lunchtime and never see a trolley. Without reliable people movers, how can businesses on the mall be expected to flourish?

Midtowner said...

And what of the supposed arguments that light rail (and the Trolley is a form of light rail) attracts businesses? Remember this before spending $400+ million on a LR to the airport.

The businesses on Main Street were dying off before the pedestrian mall was put there. The mall was an attempt to help them but, in the end, it hasn't.

I suggest we look at Chattanooga. The transit authority there owns the parking garages at each end of one of their main streets. The buses on that street are free!!! You pay to park and ride the bus free. What a concept. And btw, the buses are electric.

You're not going to get people to go thru the hassles of driving downtown, finding a place to park (and paying for it), then paying to ride the Trolley, and then walking in the weather ... Why do all of that when you can drive to Wolfchase, park for free, and walk around in air conditioned comfort?

You could however build garages at each end of Main Street and do as Chattanooga does ... they pay to park and then ride the Trolley free. It may help or it may not ... but what we're doing isn't working and I doubt letting cars drive down Main Street will work either.

Of course ... having a citywide bus system that was worth a flip might help a bit too.

gatesofmemphis said...

Re-aligning the grid seems like a pretty invasive way of fixing the 4th street promenot (to steal Speck's phrase). The problem is like 3rd street, writ large: there's nothing to pull anyone out of Beale Street down 4th towards Union, or from Union down 4th towards Beale. On the west side of 4th the only standing structure is W.C. Handy's house. The rest is mostly surface parking and the yard surrounding the house. The bus station you mention is gone, replaced by the much bigger eyesore of surface parking.

Do we not have any planning tools to encourage the filling of holes in small lots? Or do we have to move to mega-developing and grid-shifting to accomplish even the simplest of things?

Anonymous said...

Smart City: What do make of Atlantic Station in Atlanta? It seems like a synthetic pedestrian mall to me. You park underground and then ride the escalator up to street level where all the stores are. There is some street level parking as well. They also appear to have some condo/apartments above some of the retail shops. But the whole thing is somethng they built from scratch. In fact, I noticed several developments in Atlanta that were clearly modeled on neighborhoods in NYC or some of the other Northeastern cities. BTW, I personally have never been to Chattanoga, but find midtowner's suggestion intriguing, and I live on Main Street.

Midtowner said...

Anon 11:08 - I've looked at a couple of places on Main Street and I'm still considering moving. The one thing I do know, I don't want a place on the side facing the Trolley. That is one noisy piece of equipment.

I grew up by railroads tracks and I'm sure I would get used to it ... but I'd rather not pay all that money and get that racket.

And I especially wouldn't do it if it were opened back up to traffic. I get enough thumping cars going down my street now.

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