Nur Asri is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates
|Main Mall, Charlottesville VA|
It’s been almost sixty years since the first pedestrian mall in the US opened in downtown Kalamazoo, MI. Designed by Victor Gruen, the father of the suburban shopping malls of America, the Kalamazoo mall has since been opened to one lane of traffic after forty years of being completely pedestrianized. The fate of the Kalamazoo mall is unlike that of hundreds of other counterparts across the nation. In fact, according to one study, pedestrian malls in the United States have an 89% rate of failure.
Pedestrian malls are often characterized as being public streets designated for pedestrian-only use and closed to vehicular traffic. The predominantly downtown feature rose between the 1960s and 1980s as an attempt to attract shoppers back to downtown cores following the flight to suburbia. Since its heyday, over 170 pedestrian malls across the country have been completely removed, combined with transit, or continue to struggle.
The Problem with Pedestrian Malls
Since its inception, pedestrian malls have posed several issues for downtowns including crime and safety, low retail visibility, and lack of customer convenience. Collectively, these issues have resulted in a less attractive shopping environment, lowering foot traffic and customer dwell times. When these patterns emerge, the retail mix also starts to shift away from comparison and destination goods and services, and vacancies become a common sight.
In Poughkeepsie NY, for example, the Main Mall which was in existence from 1973 until 2001, failed to stop the decline of the downtown due to growth of immediate suburbs and shopping malls, and also the rise of vagrancy problems on the mall. Following the opening of the Dutchess County Department of Social Services nearby and the lack of assistance and programming on the mall in the 1980s, Poughkeepsie began to attract loiterers and transients on the Main Mall and was no longer a preferred shopping destination amongst County residents.
|Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica CA|
Too often the design of pedestrian malls often neglects heightening visibility of stores to various types of customers. Since malls are closed off from the rest of downtown, enhanced store signage and increased wayfinding is needed to direct customers towards businesses on the mall. Blade signs, A-Frame signs, large fonts, and clear logos were often left out of consideration. Placement of signs at every entrance to the mall was often disregarded and ended up leaving those customers driving in cars around downtown out of the picture.
Finally, the lack of convenient parking spaces and well-maintained pedestrian pathways to parking structures or transit stops on the periphery of downtown drove customers away from pedestrian malls (no pun intended). Even business owners operating on the malls found their operations disrupted as they often no longer had a dedicated, convenient spot to load/ unload goods. Accessibility of the downtowns became disrupted as a result of pedestrian malls.
Getting the pedestrian mall right
Despite these potential problems, some pedestrian malls have managed to survive and continue to be attractive environments for shopping downtown. And as we’ve found, there are a myriad of factors that enable these malls to be successful.
- Co-locate the mall near large anchor institutions and attractions
|16th St Mall, Denver CO|
Having institutions and anchors such as universities, hospitals, museums, convention centers, and stadiums/arenas, ensures that there is a constantly high flow of pedestrian traffic year-round in the downtown that is likely to spill onto the pedestrian mall. The City of Denver’s 16th Street Mall, for example, sees large numbers of pedestrians annually thanks to its close proximity to the Pepsi Center (home to national hockey team Colorado Avalanche), University of Colorado, Denver Performing Arts Complex, Colorado Convention Center, and Coors Field, home of the major league baseball team Colorado Rockies. Last year alone, the Colorado Rockies saw close to 3 million attendees to their games for the season.
- Build a captive downtown audience
|Upper floor housing on 2nd St, Santa Monica CA|
The visitors to attractions and destinations are still quite temporary – there are ebbs and flows in their movements. However, residents and workers have a more consistent daily pattern of movement and they’re likely to pass through the pedestrian mall at least once a month, if not a week. In a survey conducted in downtown Santa Monica, 82% of residents were found to visit the Third Street Promenade at least once a month. Furthermore, making dense downtown housing available not only creates captive shoppers for businesses, it also ensures that residents have their eyes on the mall at night, creating a safer environment for shoppers.
In the 1950s, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade mall failed because most stores closed by 5pm when no one lived in the immediate area and there were no late-night entertainment options and few restaurants. Today, there are mixed-use residential buildings on adjacent streets, numerous hotels and office buildings in the area, creating a strong day-to-night captive audience for the pedestrian mall.
- Ensure active ground floor uses
|AMC Theater Third St Promenade, Santa Monica CA|
To ensure the pedestrian malls are active and safe 18 hours of the day, ground floor uses should be zoned for active uses that cater to a wide range of audience. Operating hours of retailers and services on the ground floor should be long and late-night hours should be maintained for a sizable portion of ground floor uses. This is easy to get at when there are restaurants, bars and entertainment venues along the pedestrian mall – just like Pearl Street Mall in Boulder CO. Santa Monica also successfully achieved this with a 21-screen cinema on Third Street (and zoning out cinemas from other nearby areas – an extreme solution).
- Keep length of mall short
Of the 11% of pedestrian malls that have survived since the 1960s and continue to thrive, a hundred percent measure between one and four blocks in length – and no more. The short blocks allow ‘minimal disruption to traffic circulation and permit cross-traffic to pass through the mall’, solving for issues that may arise around convenience and accessibility for shoppers and businesses.
- Mitigate traffic diversions and design the pedestrian experience from afar
If a mall is to be located on a street that already experiences high levels of vehicular traffic, some traffic diversion will inevitably occur and this may potentially result in the loss of customers who are driving to the area and who are seeking convenient parking. Measures must be taken to mitigate such impacts and may include clear signage to guide drivers to the nearest available parking lots and to guide visitors between the mall and parking areas, well-lit and well-maintained pathways and alleys connecting the mall, distinctive entrances to the mall, and large and varying store signs.
In addition, two-way roads should encircle pedestrian malls (instead of one-way roads) to make adjacent roads safer for pedestrians and easier for driving customers to turn around on.
- Maintain and program
|Busking on Bourke St Mall, Melbourne (Australia)|
Finally, pedestrian malls that have continued to thrive have been consistently clean and well-maintained. This ensures that visitors are welcomed by an inviting public realm. Programs and events such as busking and festivals have also been carried out throughout the year at successful pedestrian malls in order to build experiences for shoppers who are seeking more than just physical products.
Having a centralized, coordinated management group for the pedestrian mall enable smooth operations and program delivery and can really contribute to the overall success of a mall.
Just a Word of Caution
Although the above factors laid out here may help you implement a robust and integrated pedestrian mall, the mall does take a lot of stakeholder engagement, rallying support, and A LOT of capital before it can succeed. Remember – of the approximately 200 pedestrian malls built in the 60s and 80s, only 11% have been successful and even then many had to re-invest and re-strategize their malls over the years.
Pedestrian malls aren’t for the faint of heart.