Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Truth behind Downtown Mall slowly coming out

Events planned for the 30th anniversary of the Downtown Mall. All begin at 5 p.m.

June 30: The Downtown Mall’s past, present and future. City Hall.
July 6: Opening ceremonies. Central Place.
July 7: A celebration of downtown arts and entertainment.
July 8: Family day

Downtown Mall: Charlottesville's public square

By John Yellig, Daily Progress staff writer, June 25, 2006

Walking the Downtown Mall today, it’s hard to imagine cars passing that way. Willow oaks tower 30 feet above weathered bricks that seem more forest floor than paving material. Children burst from the Virginia Discovery Museum’s front door without a thought of looking both ways for traffic.

But 32 years ago, the main drag that would become the mall was awash with double-parkers and traffic jams as drivers motored east to west along East Main Street, the heart of the central business district.

Downtown had been struggling to maintain its economic foothold in the face of stiff competition from Barracks Road Shopping Center, which opened its first stores in 1958. The modern convenience and aesthetics of such suburban malls had over the previous decade drawn shoppers away from downtown, which business leaders at the time described as cluttered with utility wires and excessive signage, short on parking, hard to access and bedeviled by poorly maintained buildings.

Between 1966 and 1970, downtown’s share of Charlottesville’s total retail sales fell by 2.8 percent, while Barracks Road saw its share increase 14.2 percent.

Something had to be done.

In 1969, Downtown Charlottesville Inc., a collection of major business leaders, began to seriously push for something that had been bandied about for years as a way to bring shoppers back downtown: a pedestrian mall. Similar projects were in vogue as other American cities battled the same forces that were leaching the lifeblood from urban centers. This large-scale project would "put a new face on Charlottesville," boosters said when they presented the plan.

Charlottesville officials have a series of events planned for the 30th anniversary of the Downtown Mall. All begin at 5 p.m.

June 30: The Downtown Mall’s past, present and future. City Hall.
July 6: Opening ceremonies. Central Place.
July 7: A celebration of downtown arts and entertainment.
July 8: Family day

The $6 million, 20-year proposal envisioned a pedestrian mall stretching from West Second Street to Ridge Street, with South Street serving as the primary downtown thoroughfare. Water Street would be closed to traffic during the day.

The Planning Commission adopted the plan in 1969, and while it never came to fruition, the seed of building a mall had been sown. When leaders finally took the plunge, the mall they built would take decades to finally provide the returns they envisioned.

This week marks its 30th anniversary.

Moving ahead required major public relations work to win support, especially from local merchants.

"There were a lot of merchants that were concerned because they felt if they couldn’t see cars, there wouldn’t be anyone coming to the downtown," said Cole Hendrix, Charlottesville’s city manager from 1971 to 1995.

In the hopes of swaying public opinion, "Mall Day" was held April 13, 1971, to provide a glimpse of life with a pedestrian mall. Main Street was closed to traffic from Belmont Bridge to West Second Street, and the 400 block was designated a "model section," complete with landscaping and a sidewalk café. The band Reddog, "featuring hard rock and blues sounds," performed along with the Harmony Grits barbershop quartet and other acts, according to a Daily Progress article. Helicopters were on display at each end of the "mall."

"City’s first ‘Mall Day’ rated a hit," the Progress headline proclaimed.

Despite leaders’ best efforts, public opinion was still heavily opposed to the mall.

A local business owner took out an ad in The Daily Progress listing then-Councilor Mitchell Van Yahres’ home phone number and asking residents to call him to let him know how they felt.

"My wife took all my calls, and she hasn’t forgiven me," said Van Yahres, who went on to a long career in the House of Delegates.

Another ad told Director of Community Development Satyendra S. Huja, who would become one of the mall’s biggest advocates, to "go back to India."

But that’s OK with him.

"I performed the lightning-rod function," he said.

In February 1974, Councilors Van Yahres and Charles L. Barbour cast the only votes in favor of building the mall. The rest of the council - Mayor Francis Fife and Councilors Jill Rinehart and George Gilliam - abstained because of potential conflicts of interest.

Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, 1975, traffic stopped on East Main Street forever. Barricades went up and construction began.

Disruptions to life downtown were common, as construction equipment rolling across earth made raw from the street’s removal broke underground water mains, creating a muddy mess.

"It was an awful mess," Van Yahres said. "That’s when everybody hated it. I figured we’d gone too far by then [to turn back]."

The construction woes only added to the controversy, with names such as "Cole’s Hole," in honor of the city manager, "Council’s Folly" and "Little Watergate" suggested as appropriate titles for the new public space.

On July 3, 1976, a final, commemorative brick was laid at Central Place in front of a decorative, modern-art fountain, and the new mall was official. The fountain, comprising a pool surrounded by three stone obelisks, is supposed to represent Three Chopt Road, which set the alignment for Main Street. The road was identified by three slashes cut into trees.

Originally, the mall was only five blocks long, stretching from East Fifth Street to First Street, partly owing to a threatened lawsuit from a business owner and a shortage of funds for a proposed extension down side streets.

Several months before the dedication, a Daily Progress story touted the new mall a "commercial renaissance," and noted an increasingly tight market for rental space, increasing sales and the popularity of the new Market Street Parking Garage, which had opened the previous summer.

While several businesses closed or relocated during the construction because of the extensive disruptions, officials deemed the first years of the mall relatively successful. The honeymoon didn’t last long, however.

"It worked well the first couple of years, then it started to have its problems, and then it went all the way to looking like it was a failure," Van Yahres said.

In 1978, talk turned to redeveloping the far western end of the mall, the former site of the historically black Vinegar Hill neighborhood. The area had sat empty since the neighborhood was razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.

In 1983, the city loaned a developer $9.5 million to build a hotel and conference center and extend the mall, partly financed through the levying of a 3 percent meals tax and a 4 percent increase in the city’s lodging tax.

Local hotel owners balked at the idea of public money helping to bring a new competitor to town. Lawsuits followed and the city eventually prevailed, but not before the case had worked its way to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The $23.9 million Radisson Hotel was owned by the city for a few months in 1985 before being sold to a firm that hired the Omni-Dunfrey Corp. to manage it. The grand opening was held May 2 and the hotel was renamed the Omni Charlottesville Hotel that December.

In 1988, a national recession began to take its toll on the mall. Many businesses had already left because of slow sales and there was a general perception that the mall was struggling.

The Omni’s opening, as well as the McGuffey Art Center, which opened in 1975, "stopped the bleeding," but times were still tough, Van Yahres said.

"In my opinion, you could shoot a gun down the mall and not hit anyone," local architect Bill Atwood said. "A lot of people forget how bad it was."

Something had to be done.

In 1988, the first Fridays After Five concert was held, beginning a tradition of music, beer and food. The weekly outdoor concerts were the first demonstration that perhaps the mall’s salvation lay in entertainment, not retail.

"The original reason for putting the mall in was to make it a downtown shopping area for the community," Van Yahres said.

Huja said leaders needed to recognize that downtown could never compete with the modern shopping mall. A new identity had to be formed, with entertainment, food and culture as the main attractions.

"Downtown can’t compete with shopping centers," he said. "It must have a new role."

Atwood, whose architectural firm’s office was just off the mall, began pushing for what would later be known as the Charlottesville Downtown Foundation, a public-private corporation that would use $150,000 in seed money from the city to host events, promote downtown and improve safety. The CDF replaced Downtown Charlottesville Inc., a private corporation.

On Jan. 27, 1990, safety issues came to a head with a man eating at the Fat City Diner on the mall was beaten to death after exchanging words with a fellow diner. Police patrols were stepped up and high-intensity bulbs were eventually installed in streetlights.

In 1994, the City Council granted the controversial request of developers Lee Danielson and Colin Rolph to open West Second Street to traffic. Despite widespread public opposition, Danielson and Rolph, who had plans for a movie theater and ice rink on that block, successfully argued that the crossing was necessary to increase attendance not only at their businesses, but at other establishments as well.

Danielson told The Progress at the time, "I feel the burden it’s placed on me."

In 1996, the Charlottesville Ice Park and Regal Cinemas opened, stoking the embers of a long-smoldering economic renaissance.

"For the first time ever, we discovered we don’t need what we had before," Atwood said. "For the first time, the talk of ‘we need an anchor store’ went away."

The Regal’s opening, combined with the Vinegar Hill and Jefferson theaters, brought the number of theaters downtown to nine.

"If you look around the United States, there are very few downtowns with nine screens," said Bill Lucy, a University of Virginia architecture professor and member of the Planning Commission.

Restaurants and bars opened and closed over the following years, but the mall’s identity as an entertainment destination had been secured.

"It probably was the salvation of the center city," said Al Clements, a banker who led a commission that helped plan the mall back in the 1970s. "It took longer to come to fruition than anyone anticipated at the time, but I think if you look at it now, it has to be regarded as a success."

Lucy said there is a common misconception that the theater and ice rink saved downtown. Rather, they were built at a time when downtowns nationwide were experiencing a rebirth.

"The investments that occurred from 1995 on were important, but they were certainly playing with a raising tide, which was a national phenomenon," Lucy said.

In 2002, talk turned to the revitalization of the east end of the mall. Except for Fridays After Five concerts, that end had always lacked the attractions enjoyed by its western counterpart.

With $3 million in federal transit money to work with, the proposal began with a bus transfer center and the extension of the mall past Seventh Street. The proposal grew to include a redesign of the amphitheater that had been home to Fridays After Five since 1995.

In 2004, ground was broken on Presidents Plaza, as the new east end is known. Final plans included the Transit Center, closing East Sixth and Seventh streets for the mall extension and the construction of the First Amendment Monument and the Charlottesville Pavilion amphitheater.

The 3,700-seat amphitheater, which opened in July 2005, is a project of local real estate and music mogul Coran Capshaw, who built it with a $2.4 million loan from the Charlottesville Industrial Development Authority. Capshaw used his music industry clout to book such big names as James Brown, Loretta Lynn and Lyle Lovett.

Local residents have complained about the noise escaping the Pavilion, which prompted manager Kirby Hutto to install acoustic baffles under the tarp. Hutto has asked for residents’ patience, saying the Transit Center, scheduled to open this fall, will further dampen the music escaping the amphitheater.

The Downtown Mall is Charlottesville’s public square, and as such, everyone has a unique opinion on how it should be developed. Controversies arise every time a change is made.

Critics blast the Transit Center for everything from its design to its cost to its utility. Still others have labeled the cloth-roofed Pavilion a "lobster trap" or a "Conestoga wagon."

In May, the City Council agreed to open a southbound vehicular crossing at East Fourth Street for a one-year trial. Business owners had lobbied hard for the crossing, arguing that it is needed to make up for the closure of East Sixth and Seventh streets.

Many mall lovers, such as David RePass, who retired to Charlottesville from Connecticut in 1998, were furious, arguing cars should not be driving across a pedestrian mall.

A proposal for a nine-story building at First Street has aroused even more anxiety from some traditionalists.

"Everything is ad-hoc," RePass said of developmental controls. "There’s nobody really, sort of, monitoring the mall as a whole."

Since the first pedestrian mall was built in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1959, an estimated 200 cities have followed suit. Of those, only around 30 remain, and that number is dwindling.

Success depends on many factors: critical mass, attractions, aesthetics, safety, convenience--and perhaps most importantly in Charlottesville’s case: patience.

Contact John Yellig at (434) 978-7245 or

Analysis by the new media

This is one of the most balanced and least revisionist articles I've seen about the mall. It acknowledges that the mall was pushed through by a minority of supporters against the majority of opponents. So it makes sense that officials acting against the will of the people would be asked to resign, or "go back to India." The Council vote for the mall reflected the community's opposition.

While the article points out opponents (representing popular will at the time), the opponents are not identified. Who was the business owner that blocked 2 blocks from being bricked over?

In 1994 Council granted the first mall crossing "despite widespread public opposition". The article doesn't say who gathered or presented the 6,000 signature petition. That's more people than have ever voted for any Council member.

In 1990, a man was beaten to death at Fat City Diner. That's modern-day Bizou a couple doors down from Miller's.

In 2004, the President's plaza became the latest mall-related project that was opposed by more people than who supported it.

It is said that those who win write the history books. If politicians are allowed to write their own legacies, they will leave out parts that are unflattering to themselves.

But the Progress reporter gives enough balance so that an objective reader can see that the Downtown Mall could have been something to be proud of if it had support of a majority of city residents.

Few photos of Mall


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