In the last 40 years, roughly 200 cities built pedestrian malls, currently only about 30 remain. While they differ in size, shape, and success, most started--and some failed--in an attempt to revitalize a failing commercial district.
In 1959 Kalamazoo, Michigan closed off a two-block section of Burdick Street to automobile traffic, becoming the first U.S. city to adopt a pedestrian mall concept. In the 1960’s and 70’s many urban area’s experimented with pedestrian malls as a way to redevelop their downtown retail after being abandoned by developers for self contained suburban malls.
Some of these cities have seen success in the form of an economic boon such as Charlottesville, Virginia. This small city of just over 40,000 swells to 60,000 when school begins at the University of Virginia (UVA). Created in 1976, East Main Street was converted to an eight-block pedestrian mall, which is currently home to over 120 unique shops coupled with 30 restaurants.
Other successful malls include the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado; 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado; City Center in Oakland, California; State Street Mall in Madison, Wisconsin; Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, Florida; Ped Mall in Iowa City, Iowa; The River Walk in San Antonio, Texas; Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California; St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida; and Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts.
While the reason behind the success of pedestrian malls is debatable, I have personally visited eight of them in recent years and they all are similar in that they have a tight streetscape with numerous shops and restaurants, coupled with street performers or entertainers in a relatively short (8-10 block) area. Most also are relatively close to a major university.
So why hasn’t Buffalo’s pedestrian mall seen the success of these other cities? Is it lack of foot traffic, lower population, lack of retail, the building of the light rail or a combination of all or none of these factors?
Of course, the answer isn’t simple. As a resident on the mall in downtown Buffalo for over five years, I have been witness to its successes and failures. While the population of the city has declined over the last several decades, the population downtown has grown more recently with businesses as well as residences, albeit slowly!
I don’t believe population or foot traffic has anything to do with the relative failure of the pedestrian mall. Foot traffic at certain times or for specific events can be relatively high. During the day the mall can be crowded especially during the lunch hour, when office workers hit the streets looking for places to eat or to run errands. The M & T free concert series and the Downtown Country Market only add to the traffic.
For events such as Thursday at the Square concerts, Curtain Up, First Night Buffalo, or any other concert, sports, or theater happenings the traffic can also be high. The problem lies in the fact that people flow to and from these events with little or nothing to do. Granted, people may dine or have a couple drinks, but they don’t spend time on the mall because there is almost nowhere on the mall itself to eat or drink, let alone shop.
Obviously, lack of retail is a huge reason for any commercial district not being successful, especially a limited-access pedestrian mall. It should be noted that Buffalo Place, the private non-profit agency that runs the pedestrian mall is not at fault for these underpinnings. The largest problems with our current mall are the length, width, and the large gaps of retail-unfriendly buildings.
The mall length is way too long, especially considering the lack of retail. The large gaps between the little retail that exists is enough to discourage pedestrian interest. The block between Chippewa and Huron which contains M & T’s Gold Dome Bank and is highlighted by Fountain Plaza, creates somewhat of a gap in the flow of the mall.
The block between Huron and Court Street has a smattering of retail, mixed with abandoned and rundown buildings, and is anchored by the Hyatt Hotel. From Court to Church Streets stands the monolithic Main Place Mall, which in itself is counterproductive to good retail marketing with an outdated facade and little or no outside access to the few retail outlets inside.
Once you head further south, only City Grill and the Ellicott Square Building stand as barriers to blasé high rise office buildings and sense of isolation. Almost to the foot of Main Street, the new Erie Canal Harbor is a ray of light, but does not yet offer the type of retail or restaurants that make a mall successful.
In order to make Buffalo’s pedestrian mall function well, it would need a complete makeover. First of all it needs to be narrowed. As it stands now even a large crowd can seem sparse, maybe a center landscaped median or new centrally located LRRT stations would work best. It may not even be practical considering the width distance between buildings.
The length of the mall is entirely too long. It should be shortened to a potentially more successful length of about 4 blocks. Ironically, the blocks that could become most successful, the 600 block (Theater District) and the 700 block, which has the tight streetscape with lots of retail venues available, are the ones being considered for traffic again.
The section between Seneca and the foot of Main would be must beneficial with vehicle traffic due to its somewhat isolated location and the virtual tunnel effect of the HSBC building. The sections of Main Street immediately north and south of Lafayette Square could work with a mix of retail and apartments and if something is done with Main Place Mall, especially major exterior renovations.
Would I like to see a flourishing pedestrian mall in Buffalo? You bet! But I’m afraid that the current mall is too long, too wide, and doesn’t have the retail friendly buildings necessary to become successful. Will returning cars to Main Street bring us the retail and success that accompany it? Who knows? Anybody have a coin?