Several years have passed since I last visited Charlottesville, Virginia. But I think often about the magnificent pedestrian mall that graces their downtown. Known as the “Historic Downtown Mall,” it is the area’s heart of civic activity, featuring more than 120 shops and restaurants located in pristinely maintained historic buildings surrounding Old Main Street. Eclectic in feel, it in many ways reflects the ethos and vibe that define this university town.

Historically, pedestrian malls had great appeal as centers of community vitality. Their beginnings date back to 1959, when Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first American city to adopt one for its downtown area. From there, the pedestrian mall concept gained momentum as 220 cities followed suit, closing downtown thoroughfares to traffic and paving them with cobblestones. With retail establishments and eateries serving as points of attraction for residents and visitors, foot traffic became abundant.

Today we are seeing a reversal of this trend. Urban experts point out that pedestrian malls have lost their luster, and as business activity has dried up, many of these streets have become barren and unsafe. In response, cities such as the aforementioned Kalamazoo have reopened their walkable streets to vehicular traffic, in line with a popular belief that automobile activity serves as a magnet for economic activity. “There is certainly evidence to suggest that the reintroduction of cars to these malls boosts economic development,” says Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm specializing in downtown and community development.  “Our experience has been that retail tends to work better when there is vehicle access, visibility and parking near storefronts.”

Storm Cunningham, CEO of Resolution Fund, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that provides resources for the renewal of communities and regions, takes the opposite approach. He believes cars should be reintroduced only as a last resort. “I think the failure of so many pedestrian malls has been primarily due to lousy planning, lousy choice of streets, lousy timing, and/or lousy design, rather than any basic fault of the concept. City leaders and planners are often quick to undervalue other processes that would help make these pedestrian mall assets a success.”

There are examples to prove right the positions of both Segal and Cunningham. Chicago’s State Street serves as a successful pedestrian-vehicular mall transformation. Recalibrated into an exclusively walkable corridor in 1979, fortunes there slowly declined, sapping the street of its economic activity and leaving it barren and unsafe. The city reopened the street to traffic in 1996, and the area is now thriving once again, with the reinvigorated Marshall Field’s store serving as the street’s flagship retailer.

In Sacramento, the pedestrian mall on K Street is the topic of debate. The conversation concerns a proposed initiative to reopen the streets to cars. Closed to vehicular traffic 40 years ago, the area is now suffering mightily for it, replete with abandoned storefronts, panhandlers, and trash-encumbered streetscapes. One of the nation’s few pedestrian malls with light-rail trains running down its center, K Street is locally considered the spine of the city’s downtown. One major question is how trains, bikes, cars and pedestrians will coexist together. “I’ve yet to see a pedestrian mall and light-rail configuration work successfully,” says Segal. “Add cars to the equation and you have an even greater logistical challenge.”

Blighted Streetscape Along K Street in Sacramento

Blighted Streetscape Along K Street in Sacramento

Challenges notwithstanding, the movement towards returning cars to pedestrian malls has a great deal of momentum behind it. However, there are still a number of holdouts in terms of exclusively walkable streetscapes. Third Street mall in Santa Monica represents one success story, although much of its foot traffic is attributed to a highly targeted tourist market. Riverside, California, is in the midst of a renewal effort for its pedestrian-friendly downtown, with the goal being to rebrand it as a destination hub. And plans are afoot for a Times Square pedestrian mall in New York, to better accommodate the 350,000 walkers and bikers who daily frequent the area.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.