The Failed Experiment of the American Pedestrian Mall
As a bicycle and pedestrian advocate who moved from Denver to Fresno, I was at first a little aghast to hear that Fresno was considering removing its pedestrian mall. It seemed to go against my logic and all that I had worked for. Yet, once I spoke with the practitioners and experienced the Mall for myself, I began to understand the challenges at hand. After listening to the insight from other downtown directors, analyzing the data, and observing national trends, I too posit that a vibrant main street will be an integral piece in Downtown Fresno’s revitalization puzzle.
Recently, the Downtown Fresno Partnership published the report, “American Pedestrian Malls: Trends Analysis, Necessary Indicators for Success and Recommendations for Fresno’s Fulton Mall.” The report (to be released soon) finds that Fresno’s Fulton Mall will be most successful as a main street, given the 89% failure rate of American pedestrian malls and the fact that Fresno does not have any of the indicators of success that the 11% successful pedestrian malls possess. The major findings of the report are:
- Pedestrian malls in the United States have an 89% rate of failure. Most have been removed or repurposed. Only 11% have been successful.
- Of the 11% successful pedestrian malls, 80% are in areas with populations under 100,000.
- Certain indicators need to be present for a pedestrian mall to be successful in the United States:
- Attached to a major anchor such as a university (i.e. Boulder)
- Situated in close proximity to a beach (i.e. Miami, Santa Monica)
- Designed to be a short length in terms of blocks (1-4 blocks long)
- Located in a community with a population under 100,000 (i.e. New Bedford, MA)
- Located in a major tourist destination (i.e. Las Vegas, New Orleans)
- Cities that have transformed their abandoned pedestrian malls into “complete” main streets have experienced turnarounds in their downtowns, with more investment, higher occupancy rates and more pedestrian traffic. 90% of these cities see significant improvements in occupancy rates, retail sales, property values, and private sector investment in the downtown area when streets are restored.
What does this mean for Fresno? Fresno’s Fulton Mall is a six-block pedestrian mall on the site of Fresno’s one-time “Main Street,” and the most densely built part of the entire Central Valley. Right now, the Fulton Mall is currently operating at 6% of its economic potential, with 70% of the historic buildings sitting vacant. It is not a success. Restoring it to the historic main street meets the model of success that has worked in hundreds of other cities around the country, catalyzing immediate investment on that corridor and surrounding streets. Opening up the Fulton Mall will allow for accessibility, economic competitiveness, a chance to save historic buildings, and the opportunity to create a vibrant urban center.
While transforming the pedestrian mall into a complete main street isn’t the entire answer, it is a key piece of everything else that is happening, including cooperation between public and private partners, high speed rail, bus rapid transit, partnerships with federal agencies via Strong Cities Strong Communities, Lowell Neighborhood revitalization, new downtown parking management, and Downtown’s first Business Improvement District.
Plus, it’s paid for. The City of Fresno received a $16 million TIGER grant to restore the Fulton Main Street. This money is a federal grant that can ONLY be used for this project, restoring Fulton to a street. The design options incorporate the art and character of Fulton, wide pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, streetscaping elements, multi-modal access (bikes, pedestrians, cars) and on-street parking.
This bicycle and pedestrian advocate says, “Get rid of the suburban shopping model design and give us back our urban streets!”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.