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Kansas Town Retains Pedestrian Mall, Concrete Awnings

July 27, 2009 Pedestrian Mall, Planning & Design, Travel 15 Comments

St. Louis will soon see the North 14th Street Pedestrian Mall go away.  It will become, simply, North 14th Street as it was prior to March 1977. Cities all over the country have gone through similar projects to undo what was largely a failed experiment conducted by planners.  Often these car-free pedestrian zones quickly became pedestrian-free zones.

In 2007 I learned of Atchison Kansas from Bonnie Johnson, assistant professor in urban planning at the University of Kansas, in nearby Lawrence Kansas.  Unfortunately I was unable to visit Atchison KS on that trip.  So what is so compelling about a town of 10,000 people on the bank of the Missouri river?  Their downtown pedestrian mall.

Last week I finally made it to Atchison Kansas to see it for myself.  I knew in 2007 they were preparing to update the pedestrian mall.  Not remove it, but update it.   This town embraces their failed pedestrian mall.  The update is now complete.

The pedestrian mall is 3 blocks of Commercial Street just West of the Missouri Mississippi River (view in Google maps):

The mall has it’s origin in disaster:

Atchison became known as “the city that refused to die” after rebuilding from two flash floods that swept through the downtown in 1958. The devastation of the floods hastened the replacement of many of the oldest commercial buildings and led to the construction of the pedestrian mall that today is the heart of the downtown district.  (source)

But worse than cutting off traffic in front of the storefronts are the concrete canopies running along both sides of the mall:

Source: Wikipeda (click image to view)
Source: Wikipeda (click image to view)

The above picture was from before the current remake.  They had the perfect opportunity to reopen the street to traffic and more importantly to remove these horrible structures.  Instead they got new sidewalks and benches:

The grass is green and the trees are mature.  The hard surfacing underfoot is no longer dated looking.  But those ghastly concrete canopies remain:

In decades past planners tried to create a uniform look for commercial areas — much like the new open-air suburban malls would have.  But as you can see the former bank building, center above, is ruined by the canopy passing in front of it.  Big surprise, it is vacant.

Many of the storefronts are vacant or at least appear vacant. It is hard to tell because they all have entrances off the rear alley behind the buildings.  One active business had a sign on their mall entrance directing people to the alley entry.

So customers arrive and park in one of the parking lots behind the buildings (above) and then enter the rear-facing entrance (below).  Brilliant plan!

Above is the same alley in another block.  On the left the trucks are parked in “front” of an auto parts store with another parking lot on the right.  The Commercial Street entrances are secondary to the rear alley entrances.  They had the chance to undo this mistake but instead they put in new sidewalks and street furnishings.

The cross streets have always continued through so if you are walking the mall you encounter traffic just as you would if you were walking along a normal street with traffic and on-street parking.

The blandness of the uniform canopies and signage is the opposite of what makes for a vibrant street — varied awnings, storefronts and signage.

Atchison City Manager Kelly DeMeritt:

DeMeritt looks forward to the renovation of Atchison’s open-air, pedestrian mall built in the 1960s. “The mall will give a huge economic boom to our retail district,” she says. “It will be the last piece of the puzzle that really will finish the downtown.”  (source)

Economic boost?  Finished?  Translation: another 40+ years of unrealized potential which is a pity because Atchison is a cute town.  DeMeritt is younger than the mall.

Just up the hill to the North of downtown is a great old neighborhood.

Small town commercial districts can be quite charming.  They can also get screwed up to the point they no longer funtion as they should.  But rather than admitting a prior decision was a mistake, they throw good money after bad.

As a general rule I prefer spaces that have pedestrians, cars, bikes, scooters, and transit all balanced and mixed.  Spaces with large numbers of pedestrians but none of the others are rare but pleasant when they do occur. But car-free spaces without pedestrians are boring.  Spaces dominated by the car to the point that pedestrians & cyclists are absent are horrible.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "15 comments" on this Article:

  1. Thor Randelphson says:

    West of the Mississippi River?

    [slp– Thanks, Missouri River is what I meant.]

    • Atchison was my hometown. They built the mall when I was a child, approx 8 years old. I loved it then….I love it now. Maybe the people in Missouri simply don’t appreciate the beauty and simplicity it depicts. It’s beautiful at Christmas, and a delight in the summer. Grow up people!!!

  2. Jimmy Z says:

    Most midwestern small-town downtowns are dead or dying, thanks to the mid-century highway bypass and/or freeway and the chain stores choosing to locate where they have more vehicles driving by and they can have their acres of parking. So while the canopies suck architecturally and the mall itself here isn’t very successful, at least there ARE businesses downtown, even though their back doors are now their front doors. And what would really inform this discussion would be an analysis of the relative success of the businesses in the 200, 300, 700 & 800 blocks (no mall) compared to those in the 400, 500 & 600 blocks (mall). I’d expect a similar dynamic, with both the parking and the main entrances being in back, even with an active street in front.

    Like pretty much anywhere else in the midwest, one can look at the aerial photographs and locate the old Walmart (west on 73, empty parking lot) and the new Walmart Supercenter (south on 73) – this, for better or worse, is true retail heart of the community. The concrete canopies downtown make little difference, it’s all about the parking. Taking out the grass and trees and bringing back the street and the street parking would have a bigger positive impact than taking out the canopies and keeping the street carfree, but as long as most of the parking is in back, that’s where most businesses are going to keep their front doors . . .

    [slp — the other blocks have angled parking in front and front entrances.]

  3. Angelo says:

    It’s strange that you havn’t done a case-study of the revitalization of Saint Charles’ Main Street yet. I witnessed its rebirth during my 4 years of college at Lindenwood. It probably fits your requirements and preferences almost to the “T”, Steve.

  4. Jimmy Z says:

    re. this week’s Weekly Poll – McKee’s Northside Development is, by far, the most important future project for St. Louis . . .

  5. prudentdriver says:

    I agree that the awnings are horrendous. From a construction point of view, my guess is that there was not enough money in the budget to remove them. Removing them would be a PITA and, therefore, very expensive.

    A comment about the poll: My idea of a most critical project would be to totally eliminate the elevated and depressed sections of I-55 and I-70 entirely by constructing a tunnel a la I-755 from the I-44/I-55 split to the new Mississippi River Bridge–with strategic exits into/out of downtown and I-64 along the way. Decommission I-55/I-70, knock down all of the elevated sections, put a lid on the depressed section, and call it Memorial Boulevard. Memorial Boulevard will have a large right of way which provides plenty of room for vehicles, bicycles, people, and landscaping.

  6. Chad says:

    Typical mid-century architecture! How anything can be so disrespectful of the past and oblivious to its own ramifications is shocking to me. No wonder there is such a deserved backlash against architecture from this era; its very existence was predicated on the destruction and ruination of cities, pedestrian environments, and cohesion.

  7. James says:

    I got to see the concrete canopies along Broadway in Columbia, MO come down during my time as a student there. Vehicular access was never blocked, and downtown was always lively, but removing the canopies opened up the entire area psychologically.

  8. Angelo Stege says:

    I dunno, Chad, not all of it was so bad..there were some genuine architectural gems…however… it did establish the pattern of forcing the city to conform to the building rather than making buildings that conformed to the city.

  9. bassistonline says:

    Kirksville, MO is somewhat notorious for the same awning blunder. A locally-based planning company has been recommending their removal to the local gov’t.

  10. Eric says:

    Removing the concrete canopies was a huge improvement for Downtown Columbia. It looks so much better now.

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  13. I finally made it to Atchison Kansas to see it for myself.Its great!!

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