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The Worst Main Street Revitalization Ideas

Main streets across this country, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, have been abused by urban planners over the second half of the 20th Century trying to find the right formula to reverse the exit to the edge.

In big cities you had white flight and schools as explanations for flight but in many small towns these reasons didn’t exist.  They didn’t have the mall on the edge of town drawing customers away from main street.  They had only the single school district.  However, many had Wal-Mart pulling customers out of the existing downtown’s.

The “solutions” were almost universal from big city CBD‘s to suburban areas to small towns.  With some exceptions these all failed:

  • One-way traffic – charming main streets were turned into high speed roads to get through town.  See Collinsville IL and many others.
  • Elimination of on-street parking – Saw this in Springfield MO.  A street where you could drive through but you couldn’t stop and shop.
  • Pedestrian mall – a few have done well but most separated remaining customers from remaining stores.
  • Indoor mall – an alternative to the open-air pedestrian mall is the enclosed indoor mall.
  • Removal of projecting signs – main streets were cleansed of unique signs.  Projections were viewed as a bad thing.
  • Uniform signage – uniformity was considered an asset. All businesses were encouraged to have the same font & size.
  • Concrete canopies – numerous towns were sold the idea of uniform concrete canopies over the sidewalks.  Beautiful facades were bisected.
  • Modernize facades – cheap modern materials covered detailed old storefronts.  Sometimes the original facade can be restored but often they are damaged beyond repair.
  • Structures over roadway – Salina KS has 4-5 open grid structures over their main street.  Adds nothing but a dated look.
  • Parking in rear – Many towns built excessive parking behind main street buildings.  With new rear entrances the street out front became useless.

Visuals of some of the above, all coincidentally from Kansas towns:

Atchison KS
Atchison KS
Parsons KS
Coffeyville KS
Salina KS
Salina KS

Agree?  Disagree?  Have additional “solutions” to add to the list?  If so, use the comments below.

– Steve Patterson


Kansas Town Retains Pedestrian Mall, Concrete Awnings

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


Tearing Out A Pedestrian Mall

Soon we will see crews doing to St. Louis’ North 14th Street what I saw yesterday in the town of Rockford Illinois:  ripping out a tired pedestrian mall  (Map).

Crews began ripping out the two remaining blocks last month.

There were 48 retailers, restaurants and salons on the mall when it opened in 1975. Today only two of those 48 are still there. Five years later, in 1980, retail establishments on those four blocks were already being decimated as shoppers flocked to shopping centers and the CherryVale Mall that opened in 1973.   (source)

The same story can be told in places where the mall was seen as the way to lure shoppers away from new open-air & enclosed malls in the suburbs.  Rockford appears to have been on the cutting edge with efforts to revitalize their downtown.  Cutting edge planning has been destructive to cities and their downtowns.  Revitalization efforts today are often simply to undo past mistakes.  Rockford’s retail area is now firmly embeded in the think ring of sprawl.  The 21st century version will be different than it was 75 years ago but also different than it has been over the last 30 years.

I had lunch inside the restaurant you see pictured with the outdoor seating.  I asked my waitress what she thought of the mall going away.  She didn’t want to see it go. I should not the mall was older than she was.

She was skeptical of the plans for having traffic on the street.  “I hope it works out,” she said.  Indeed, I plan to return after the Main Stret reopens.

– Steve Patterson


Un-Malling 14th Street

December 4, 2008 Pedestrian Mall 30 Comments

The year was 1977.  The city was hemorrhaging population at an alarming rate (nearly 170,000 between 1970-80).  What to do?  Emulate the suburbs! So why not close the street grid and create a pedestrian “oasis”?

Advertisement in the paper in 1977.
Advertisement in the paper in 1977.

Except it never quite turned out as expected.  The pedestrian space was free of cars but it also appeared empty most of the time. There is indeed safety in numbers.

Next year sometime 14th Street will be a through street for the first time in 32 years.  This experiment that last 32 years will finally be over.  Many experiments were tried in cities — the money was found to do the experimenting but harder & more costly to undo the results of the experiment.

Above: Work continues on buildings facing 14th.  The street will re-open in 2009.
Above: Work continues on buildings facing 14th. The street will re-open in 2009.

If only the citizens had run off the mad scientists promising suburban bliss inside our historic neighborhoods.

Did closing 14th street slow down population loss or speed it up?  My instinct tells me we would have lost population anyway.  But had the street not been closed this neighborhood commercial district might have had a better chance of rebounding in the last 30 years. Unlike other areas that simply had to worry about the buildings, in Old North they had that plus a dead pedestrian mall with no population to populate the space.

The day in 2009 when the ribbon is cut and the street is reopened I will be there front and center. Then I’m going to Crown Candy for a banana malt!


SLU’s New Pedestrian Mall to be an “Urban Oasis”

Saint Louis University is continuing its quest to completely screw up the city’s historic grid system of streets by closing yet another street. From the sound of it, the city could solve our crime problems simply by removing streets. Here is the full press release:

August 21, 2007

Matt McEuen

Green Space, Flowers to be Added to Medical Center
Saint Louis University soon will increase beauty, safety and accessibility to the Medical Center with a new pedestrian mall.

The area along Vista Avenue between Grand Boulevard and Carr Lane Avenue will be transformed into an urban oasis that mimics green space near the Doisy College of Health Sciences building as well as parts of campus north of I-64/Hwy. 40. The section will be bordered by the School of Medicine complex on the north and the building that now houses the department of neurology and psychiatry on the south.

Pedestrians will be welcomed to the mall [by] one of SLU’s signature red brick monuments, and beautiful landscaping, trees and flowers will provide a parklike atmosphere. Safety also will be enhanced, as city streetlights will be replaced by upgraded lighting that will shine brightly on the mall.

In addition, SLU’s design and construction team is extending the “green” attributes of the Edward A. Doisy Research Center to the mall project. By removing heat-soaked pavement and adding more grass, the area will become more environmentally friendly.

Work on the new pedestrian mall is scheduled to begin soon and has been approved by both SLU and St. Louis City. In preparation, Vista Avenue between Grand Boulevard and Carr Lane Avenue will close permanently the morning of Friday, Aug. 24, and all parking meters will be removed. Parking still will be available along other city streets, and patients visiting the neurology and psychiatry department may park in the rear of that building.

I’m not sure where to start exactly. I know, let’s start on Vista Avenue a couple of blocks to the East.


While these blocks have had some demolition, most likely by SLU buying up properties and razing the buildings, the area is solid and enjoys lovely tree-lined streets. You don’t think you are in the CWE by any means but it is pleasant enough.

However, the institutions are invading the area. Rather than use the neglect tactic offered by Paul McKee, SLU and others use the cut of their street access method to de-value an area. Vista, the last remaining street between Park and Chouteau open to Grand, is the 5th such street to be closed. Earlier projects have eroded the grid and forced traffic onto other roads. With each closed street the power and control of a single institution grows and neighbors can see the writing on the wall — don’t bother investing in the home and neighborhood because we will be next. And so it goes…


Bicyclists and others that prefer low-speed side streets are increasingly forced onto bigger and bigger roads. Motorists too are forced onto the same streets as well, adding to congestion that at one time was mitigated by a variety of choices. So now cars that might be on seven east-west streets have only two. This is why suburbia doesn’t work well — all the traffic is forced onto big roads. With each street closing we make our city less and less bike friendly. The above cyclist, with his helmet tilted too far back and not protecting his forehead, is riding northbound on Carr Lane Ave (yes, Lane + Ave). The block of Vista to be closed is the background.


Above, this woman walked along Carr Ln as did many others — all heading to the above entrance where Carr Ln used to continue north.


Again, many are headed into this “front” entrance where Carr Ln once existed. As you can see, many arrive by bike.

Rather than remaking Vista into an “oasis” it would be nice to see somebody do something with Carr Ln. Above is looking southbound from Vista. This is one block east of and parallel with Grand. Carr Ln gets considerable bike & pedestrian traffic yet it is a horrible street — rough pavement and lacking sidewalks on both sides! It seems many SLU Medical school folks are parking on Park Ave for free rather than use SLU’s oversized parking garages.


OK, I lied. Carr Ln does have a sidewalk on the west side of the street, shown above. I’m sure as people continue to walk in the street, soon to have more traffic due to the closing of Vista, they will be comforted knowing that on Vista they will have flowers and a ubiquitous SLU brick marker.


They walk in the street because the debris from SLU’s retaining wall and overgrown weeks block what little remains of the one sidewalk.


Getting closer to the corner with Vista the plants are quite large and the sidewalk area is completely un-passable. No wonder people walk in the streets. But, I can’t see SLU or the city fixing this small section of street as it is likely next on their list to close. Like McKee they have a master plan kept hidden from public view.


Vista Ave, above, is an ordinary street. Nothing special about it really other than it serves its purpose of connecting people and places. Removing the street and adding in a wide sidewalk and some greenery is not going to make it special. Improved lighting is good but without people passing by on cars or bikes the pedestrian is vulnerable. Security would be enhanced by improving lighting and having actual building entrances onto the street. This block contains 19 short-term and convenient parking spaces.

The above building is on the south side of the upcoming oasis. This modern building is attractive enough but the side facing Vista is lifeless. The side facing Grand is lifeless too —- the entrance has been closed off.


Yes, in one of the classic ways to kill a street the entrance has been cut off. Both sides of Grand have seen entrances removed for years — gradually removing people from the sidewalks.


Signs, such as the one on the above entry, encourage you to use the parking lot entrance. Nice.  Yesterday, the day before the street closing, no signs were posted alerting the public about the planned change.  It will likely come as a complete surprise to many. 
Very deliberate actions have been and are being taken which reduce pedestrian friendliness, make cycling less accessible, force cars onto fewer and fewer through streets and signal to neighbors that they are next to be forced out. All this is done in the guise of improving an area and making it better. Over a long period of time this university’s “investment” is welcomed by everyone. Clever, very clever.