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.
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.