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The (former) Pedestrian Malls of Illinois

August 10, 2010 Grad School, Pedestrian Mall, Politics/Policy, Travel 19 Comments

A year ago. I was starting my Capstone (thesis) for a masters in urban planning & real estate development at Saint Louis University. My focus, I decided, would be on pedestrian malls – once open streets permanently closed to vehicular traffic.

Last fall I documented roughly 160 such malls built in North America between 1959-1984. Documenting the year removed, if so, proved far more difficult than I thought. The Capstone remains unfinished.

On Friday, while driving to Chicago, I realized I should narrow my focus to the ten former pedestrian malls in the state of Illinois. A manageable number where I could collect and examine data.

Neil Street, Champaign IL
ABOVE: Neil Street in Champaign IL was once a dead pedestrian mall

So far I’ve visited Chicago (State Street), Elgin, Freeport, Rockford, Danville, Champaign, and Decatur. Last night stayed in Springfield and I’m checking out their former pedestrian mall this morning. I skipped Oak Park (inner ring Chicago suburb) because I visited there l last year. That leaves only Centrallia left to visit after today.

In visiting each of these I was amazed at how different each town is today. Big & small, college & industrial, rich & poor. Besides the failed pedestrian mall experiment, each town looks to have been repeatedly raped by urban planners, civil engineers and architects.

– Steve Patterson

[Note: This post was written on my iPad with a photo from my iPhone. Not all editing features are easily available, but I hope to produce more posts this way.]


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. Al Fickensher says:

    Downtown Rock Island, one of the Quad Cities of Iowa / Illinois and right across The River (there's only one The River in America) from Davenport, Iowa where I type from, has an current pedestrian mall of two blocks length.

    I can't offer info as to its success, but I do observe that the city seems unsure of what to do with it. They've had it for maybe 25 years or so and it can't hold any day-time business and seems to only be able to hold the perception of being a noisy-class bar district.

  2. Mike says:

    I grew up in Springfield and my family owned a building that was on that pedestrian mall since early in the 1900s. The pedestrian mall made a great cohesive with the Old State Capital as a center for both locals and tourists. I was sad to hear the mall was 'reclaimed' by a street.

    • I discovered this morning the one block of Adams is still closed to traffic. With all the wide one-way streets in downtown Springfield it was kind of refreshing. For the purposes of my research, it takes at least two blocks to be a mall.

  3. Lkinsell says:

    what do you mean by “repeatedly raped”?

  4. Alexander Wilson says:

    I was in springfield and Champaign, it was amazing to me the quality of the cities downtowns, springfield's Lincoln M is a huge draw and the area around the old capitol building is really metropolitan! it was great. In Champaign i was equally suprised! Green Street is compareable to the loop in quality and traffic!

    • The many one-way streets made Springfield feel like a place you drive through quickly rather than stay a while. Champaign's Green Street is great but the lack of on-street parking made it feel like a pass through. Perhaps a good trade-off for the generous sidewalks?

  5. guest says:

    Working in a small retail area, I think my perspective differs slightly. Yes each town is different, but there are some things that must stay constant. If anyone else needs help suppying their stores, I suggest checking out Store Supply Warehouse who supplies to small, independent retailers. They stock and sell more than 1,600 retail fixtures and store supplies, including display cases, racks and shelving, shopping bags, hangers, pricing and tagging guns and mannequins. http://www.storesupplyblog.com/.

  6. JZ71 says:

    I need to take exception with your perception that these cities were “raped”. The design community did not act alone; politicians and citizens were and are both complicit in any negative impacts on the built environment. We can dream and come up with some pretty whacky ideas, especially with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, but we're not the ones writing the checks, providing the vision or the goals, nor having the final approval. So, if you want to classify us in sexual terms, “prostitutes” is probably more accrate – these were consensual acts, done for money; no one was coerced . . .

    • The “solutions” came from the experts: planners, architects & engineers. Read the studies, as I've done, and you will see the general public went along with the advice of the professionals. These experts were conducting very costly experiements in communities.

      • JZ71 says:

        But it was the government – mayor, city council, planning director – and the local business community who were pushing the design community to come up with these “better ideas” to address the shift to suburban living. “Planners, architects & engineers” didn't force Joe Citizen to give up public transit and buy a car, he did it very willingly, on his own, and then demanded free parking and freeways. We were then given the choice of being very good at “traditional” solutions (and starving) or shifting to the new suburban solutions (and living well). We could join the Peace Corps or we could work for a developer. Rarely, beyond our own homes, do we have the final say. Our clients write the checks, so we solve their problems as they see them!

        • These ideas originated with the planners, engineers and architects. They talked and wrote about them for years, finally a city took the bait and radically remade their downtowns to match the vision of the experts. Then the media hyped the success in the “improved” town and the average citizen thought they should give it a try or be left out.

          • JZ71 says:

            The only reason they “took the bait” is because businesses in the urban core were following their customers to the suburbs and the traditional downtown model was failing. It's the opposite of “If it ain't broke, don't fix it”. Cities realized that they had a problem and were essentially “throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks”, everything from pedestrian malls to new facades to new parking lots to tax credits, and it continues today. Designers were, and are, tasked to come up with new ideas, and we do. Are all of them great, or even good? No! But to equate whacky ideas with raping the urban fabric ignores the responibility our government leaders have to protect our citizens' health, safety and welfare. The real challenge becomes identifying which “experts” are actually right?!

            One example – the 1947 St. Louis Comprehensive Plan envisioned 35 local airports: “It is reasonable to assume that the developments in air transportation during the next few decades will parallel that of automobile transportation”. They didn't get built, for multiple reasons, yet the “experts” said there was a critical need for them.

            Another example – the 1947 plan envisioned the CBD remaining the core of the region: “The present district, bounded by Twelfth, Franklin, 3rd and Market Streets, is sufficiently large to satisfy the demands of a metropolitan population of 2,000,000 persons.” Once that failed to materialize, panic set in, and the band-aids started to come out.

            The 1947 plan also criticized mixed uses: “Three major conflicts in the land use pattern are revealed by detailed examination of various neighborhoods. These are: Smaller off-track industries scatter into older residence areas instead of grouping in well-defined areas. Apartment houses scatter into single-family districts instead of grouping and creating their own beneficial environment. Many stores and shops scatter into residence areas instead of grouping into well defined centers.”

            Current thinking has swung to the opposite extreme, with form based zoning and mixed uses now being the politically correct answers, the ones to be sold to willing governments as the panacea to their loss of business, taxes and residents. It's not much different than the efforts made to sell interstates or enclosed regional malls in previous decades. In reality, all answers have a place. The real problem, especially for zealots, is the “one size fits all” assumption. The only thing that has changed is that one set of experts has been replaced by another set.

            Life is complex and everyone lives it differently. What works well for a soccer mom doesn't work well for a single urban professional or an elderly couple. To quote the 1947 plan: “Excessive provision in present zoning has been made, not only for commerce, but for apartment house districts and, to a certain extent, for industry and for railroads and other “unrestricted” usage. We cannot have a city without people. Many people prefer single-family detached dwellings even in the large modern city. Without careful planning and zoning for large single-family dwelling areas as well as for good parks, streets, transportation and other improvements for all types of dwelling areas, we will repel rather than attract people who may wish to live here.”



          • Citing the 1947 plan is rich since it was the work of the leading bad planner of the day, Harland Bartholomew. Read his writings going back to his 1917 arrival in St. Louis and it is clear his civil engineering bias against the 19th Century streetgrid. His firm authored many of the plans that wrecked hundreds of cities. Sorry Jim, he and others were leading the unknowing public down the wrong path.

          • JZ71 says:

            And how do we know that the “experts” of today (like you) aren't doing exactly the same thing?! Only time will tell . . . .

  7. Rick says:

    JZ –

    Great point. What role do architects have to guide clients on good planning?


    • JZ71 says:

      Rarely does a clent come in and say “Just build me something.” A client has a goal and, usually, a budget. They usually also have a vision, with some degree of clarity, of a style or what they want the final product to look like. As architects, we're charged with several, at times conflicting tasks:

      – solve the problem
      – stay in budget
      – know and comply with goverment regulations
      – protect the public

      In addition, most of us want to do “good” design, to leave a positive mark on our built environment. The challenge we face is that our clients often have a different definition of “good”, and we walk the line between standing up for our principles and getting paid.

      My personal experience, primarily in commercial architecture, is that government and developers have a bigger impact on final designs than many architects do. They both have the ability to, and do, set specific design requirments, everything from zoning regulations to site development requirements. Architects end up relegated to a secondary role, of designing to meet these multiple, detailed requirements.

  8. JZ71 says:

    Apparently, it's not over yet – San Juan, PR is headed down the road of eliminating cars to make their city “better”:




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