Monday, July 21, 2008

Trafficking In A New Old Idea For Main Street

Sometimes, it's awfully hard to tell that there isn't supposed to be traffic on Main Street Mall, but tomorrow night, the first steps might be taken to making it official.

At 5 p.m. tomorrow (July 22), the Memphis Center City Commission is holding a meeting to receive questions and opinions from the public about returning traffic to the mall. The session, called "Transportation Options for Main Street," will be held in the Memphis Cook Convention Center's Riverbluff Room. If you want to speak, you need to fill out a registration card and hold your comments to two minutes (leading some of you industrious souls who need more time with the option of developing a team approach to your jointly-held opinions).

As for us, we can submit our opinion pretty simply: Just Do It.

Three Strikes

We acknowledged as much in a May 15 post about realigning Fourth Street and opening Main Street to cars. Our opinion was further solidified when Maurice Cox, new director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts, essentially said amen to the recommendation made in early May by his NEA predecessor Jeff Speck, who delivered his 12 "modest suggestions" for improving Memphis. Mr. Cox was the third national expert this year who has told us to open up the street.

While you might discount the suggestion from a retail consultant being paid by the Center City Commission, it's hard to do it when it's backed up by two leading urban designers in the U.S. In his July 10 presentation to the Center City Commission's annual meeting, Mr. Cox summed it up nicely: "If a technical fix doesn't work, have the courage to change course. If the pedestrian mall closed to traffic isn't working, open it up to two-way traffic."

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 realm. If there is a monument to faddish planning trends, our Mid-American Mall is its 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 there.

Maybe we are just too old. We remember when Main Street bustled. We remember when it teemed with people and highly-prized people-watching perches in Court Square were hard to come by. It's inarguable that it would have in time been transformed by the shift in consumer loyalty to suburban malls, but like subsequent trolley construction, Main Street Mall construction and reconstruction often killed off the very businesses that the mall was designed to support.

All About Convenience

Shoppers abandoned most downtown pedestrian malls – with notable exceptions that offer crucial lessons about downtown vibrancy and animation - 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 magic answer to downtowns' ability to compete. About 200 cities flirted with malls for a few blocks and some like us consummated the relationship with our entire main downtown shopping district forbidding traffic.

While a few pedestrian malls remain and are thriving, the trend today is more about returning some traffic to the malls.

In a study of malls built in the 1960s and 1970s, 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 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 that 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 6-18 months and 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. 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. More to the point, it creates a dead zone that even a Verizon commercial can't duplicate.

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.


Zippy the giver said...

And we miss the point of how it died again. It was pretty good when the population was smaller, had more discretionary cash to spend coupled with stores actually being there, parking, and safe passage was a given and people were friendlier.

None of those things exist in that spot today.
People don't go to buy where there are no stores,
Won't take two modes of transportation to go to one place,
Can't get on a train at home and ride it to Main street,
Can't park the car they will have to drive to main street,
Don't like to be or eat and drink in places that smell like a smelly dirty toilet,
Won't go to places that are looking unsafe,
I doubt it will turn around no matter what you do.
You are thinking inside the box, using old dead tools that, not only have you already used before, but, they didn't work before either. Maybe if you use them with a smile on your face it will work?
Doubt it.
If the economy turns around in less than six months I'll eat ,,,some fatty food, the doctor says it's OK for mne, and if enough stores take up residence there to draw customers in 18 months I'll eat more, and if it's safe and stops smelling like urine and horse fecies, I'll take another bite, and if walking cops are in enough population from North to South Main to feign a safe atmosphere and those officers show a bit of good sense instead of just hanging around chatting up women, I'll look like a buffalo.

I have an idea, get every business owner and manager on Main street from North to South to read "Service America" in six weeks, (by Ron Albrecht and Carl Zemke), from cover to cover, every single word as fast as they can.
Then have them connect a water hose to the front of their stores in the A.M. and wash all that urine into the drain. Use soap for two weeks, just water after that.
Have them show up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare their stores goods for sale and have them open at 6:30 a.m. they can close retail at 9:00 p.m., later if they wish. NO Liquor stores, just retail and restaurants,
dry cleaners, tailors, shoes, cool furniture, and a business incubator that changes storefronts every week, use the "baby businesses" it spawns to populate empty space at a serious rent and utility discount for one year. Make all restaurant employees take a serve safe course or be fired. You could do that all over Memphis and I'd really appreciate it. There is a diner in Germantown Poplar area that has cockroach pooh ON the INSPECTION CERTIFICATE AND the bathroom is DISGUSTING!
There is no way they aren't paying off the inspector. Little issues like that of a total lack of excellence allowed to go on will turn an entire area into a ghost zone, sorry, a "DEAD ZONE" people just disappeared there.

Anonymous said...

Rats run a maze looking for cheese, they never go down a hallway that had no cheese again. They find the cheese quickly that way.
Why do Memphis leaders keep going down the same tunnel over and over?
No, I don't want to read a plethora of reasonable sounding problems that excuse stupid behavior.

Anonymous said...

nail soup.

Anonymous said...

This will damage if not destroy the residential trend on the mall. This will destroy the pleasure of sitting outside of one of the restaurants lining the mall(at least one end of it). Without additional parking, this will be a pointless exercise, as no one will be able to park at all of the wonderful new stores that will suddenly spring up. Most of all, it is treating a symptom, not a disease. Until there are more businesses people and money downtown, all the trafffic lanes in the world wont make one bit of difference. This town cannot support the kind of retail that some people are claiming will majically spring up when traffic returns. The real problem is that at 9AM on Tues there is one car visible on Madison from the 1st TN building as far as the eye can see west. There are a handful on Union, which has cars by the way and the best store on that street from the stadium to the interstate is a coffee shop surrounded by car repair shops and burned out buildings. We need to stop chasing quick fixes like this and get on with attracting business and growing a middle class.

Anonymous said...

I would say that growing a middle class is the best perscription for many of the urban problems of today. However we (the nation) quit doing that around 1980. Since then we have elected political leaders, local to national, that support the continued polarization of two classes in the US. I fear Marx was right. He just didn't quite understand the power of false consciousness.

antisocialist said...

I firmly believe it is important that we make the mall more skate-boardable. Think about it! A big linear skate park. There could be some awesome ramps and stuff added to enhance the skateboard experience craved by the creative class.

This linear skate park could become a blue ribbon model for other communities throughout these United States to emulate. Without a doubt, the creative class we covet would prefer to live in our skateable downtown, rather than mire themselves in some archaic biking community such as Portland.

All sarcasm aside, I don't think it is a bad concept to open the mall to vehicular traffic.

Zippy the giver said...

OK, a solution, sorry, I wasn't thinking that way when I read the article, it just didn't elicit that response from me, my fault.

I think it would be better as a street luge track!
You could put really fast electric rail vehicles to pull at the start.
Maybe a high-speed rail system, or a mag-lev train. Get from the train station to the pyramid in 4.2 seconds. Just kidding.

I'm no genius, but, it didn't go empty from not having stores, though, when they left that helped. It went empty from not having safe residential areas with disposable incomes and staple needs around it. It stopped supplying what the customers needed, the customers stopped supplying what the stores needed. THAT has been changing a lot!
Without a big anchoring grocery store within walking distance it will never get better. You have to have staples and essentials in an affordable manner in the walking area. You need to woo Office Max or Depot, or Staples, Krogers, Aldi's, or Schnucks, Royal can change it's line, Walgreens or Ike's, and a Target.
Without those stores down there, that new living space will become tenement housing.
It's like that sustainable community idea you posted about earlier, you can't rebuild without using that as an anchoring paradigm to think through every choice.
You've sort of picked who the customer is with the housing style you have been developing there, now you have to support their lives by providing the places they go to get supplies for living or they will move out within a couple of years. If you want it walkable, then MAKE it walkable.
Give Rite Aid, Krogers, Staples, Costco, Jackson Hewitt, and a local appliance store new census data and a demographic report on all the new tenants/owners in the area, even if you have to generate it this year, and give them an incentive to have a presence in the area and some locations.
You need an ecumenical house of worship on the bluff. People who walk want to be able to worship in walking distance. I suggest a beautiful glass cathedral resembling of the one that burned, overlooking the mighty Mississippi. Inside it could have an area for all versions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and who ever wants to worship.
Then you could have a business incubator to begin to fill out the other things no one could think of. An incubator that can be a kitchen, an office, or, a manufacturing/printing plant could come up with ideas specific to that area and could come up with businesses that could be successful everywhere, headquartered in Memphis.
Just spitballin.

Zippy the giver said...
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Zippy the giver said...

All that said, timing is everything and you can't build a "community" without a "matrix design" not the movie, but basically a spine. Once you have the matrix anchored in, the customers need to be there at the same time, or, you will have an empty store then you have to deliver the goods and services properly or they won't be back. Be 100% of the reason that customers return, not because they have no choice.
There was a small grocer down there, and no people to buy from them, or, there would still be one because someone would have opened one when they closed or bought the biz.
Then there is the "quality of service" issues Memphis suffers from. If you can get all that handled at the head you got this licked and it won't matter if there are cars or not. They'll have to slow down for the trolleys though. I'd leave those in.

Michael Roy Hollihan said...
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Michael Roy Hollihan said...

Open up Main Street to vehicular traffic, with parking along the side, same as other downtown streets. Parallel parking would offer more slots, but I'm not sure there's space enough.

Talking about inter-related problems, parking downtown is the elephant in the room that city leaders seem to want to ignore. Why hasn't the city been working to develop a space that can be converted into another parking garage, city-subsidised if need be? Instead, they keep bringing in more and more businesses and events, then let the city-as-it-is absorb the extra vehicles as best it can. Which means overstuffing the private lots. That makes no sense.

It also used to be that you could catch all the city busses you need almost anywhere downtown. When the dimwits decided to put the new MATA bus terminal at the FAR END of downtown (and it turned out to be the wrong end when the Pyramid flopped and the Pinch didn't become the growth area) it created an untenable situation.

Few people want to walk eight blocks or more from wherever they are downtown to the bus terminal. Almost as many don't like paying extra for a trolley ride or a connector bus to get there, besides the hassle of having to walk to where the trolley runs instead of catching the old busses that ran nearby.

I understand the wisdom of decreasing bus traffic so as to increase space for other vehicular traffic, but the city and MATA went too far the other way.

SCM, you might also want to look into the federal subsidies for the trolleys downtown and along Madison. The first was due to expire this year, I think, and the Madison line is due to expire soon after. That's several millions of dollars going away from MATA at a time when their fuel prices have nearly doubled. Tell me that's not a recipe for cutbacks and diminished service.

For the life of me, I do not understand why MATA hasn't been investigated. It's over-ripe for it.

And not to be too snarky about it, but the same urban design "leader" types who are redesigning downtowns today to resemble the downtowns of fifty-sixty years ago are the same twits who talked cities into creating those urban malls in the first place! Fashions and trends, my friend, and the easily-folled, gullible types who buy their blather.

Cities had strong downtowns until the Sixties because of the weight of historical inertia. It's where the businesses always had been. The majority of people at the time lived within a few miles of there, and the transportation web was designed around that centrality. Easily done; easily followed.

Then came the "sprawl" as you call it of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. It was, in my mind, the explosion of the middle-class in America which is, I think, a good and healthy thing. Folks moved farther out to find space, instead of living in cramped neighborhoods (drive through Cooper-Young and really look).

Business moved to follow them and, logically, the centrality of the downtown to a city disappeared, except as government, police and the legal establishment are "central" to daily lives. Folks didn't want to drive all the way downtown to search for parking, so offices followed too.

The idea of a "central downtown" is a holdover from an earlier era. Especially in the technology/information age, it's not really necessary. Government could, and should, build more satellite offices to cut down on travelling downtown. Police already have satellite precincts.

And using government as a tool for forcing people to move back into denser, smaller-lot or tower living is non-democratic. We used to live that way, which is why the wealthy moved out along Peabody and Madison and Monroe decades ago. The old neighborhoods between the Pyramid and Rhodes College were the sprawl of their day, but with better built, longer-lasting homes. The Parkway Villages and Westwoods of the Fifties and Sixties are a problem in the brewing that's being looked at from the wrong angle.

Anyway, enough of that. With the large populations of 21st century cities you need lots of space. That requires cars (albeit better designed ones!). That means streets and parking. Let's optimise those first.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: Thanks for your fresh perspectives, and it's good to have you back, my friend.

Zippy the giver said...

Hollihan is right on a lot of counts!
Well, there are a lot of developments going on downtown, there is a ton of residential, people who don't want to have to drive to get to work will opt to live near it. NO NEED FOR ADDITIONAL PARKING.
Since tower bldgs are way more efficient at heating and cooling, their bills will be lower for energy and transportation.
Main street USED TO BE about fashion, now it needs to be about supporting a sustainable community such as staple items and necessities. New York City isn't a big city full of people because they whined about sprawl, they just didn't sprawl unless they had to. It's still a city today. They use a lot of busses and trains. The stops are convenient. The busses have to be cheaper than the trains. If the train money has dried up and they can't be made profitable for the same rice, strike them.
Not everyone and I mean most young people do not want to live in a McMansion with a lawn to mow and a car to support.
This city is full of shills for land developers.
No one ever wants to figure out that they need to do something different here. It's like there's no oxygen here.