Tar Heel Tattler - April 2005

Cities try to recover from getting malled
By Frank Maley

It’s been nearly 30 years, but John Touloupas still remembers when Burlington closed part of Main Street to vehicles and built a pedestrian mall to try to resuscitate downtown, using about $650,000 in federal grants. “It upset me when they did it, because they stopped the flow of traffic,” Touloupas says.

That meant fewer customers for Zack’s, a hot-dog eatery he owned off Main Street. Many businesses didn’t survive. “When the mall was put in, all your retail business kind of dried up and went away and left a lot of empty buildings.”

Pedestrian malls fizzled in other Tar Heel cities, too. Most long ago admitted their mistakes, ripped up the malls and opened the streets to vehicle traffic. Raleigh has completed step one and is working on two and three. “With our 20/20 hindsight, the idea of closing them in the first place was just a silly one,” says David Walters, professor of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte. The idea was borrowed from Europe, but U.S. cities lacked the population density that kept the European ones busy.

For a few years after it was built for about $2.1 million in the late ’70s, Fayetteville Street Mall boosted downtown Raleigh and slowed the flight of retail activity, says George Chapman, city planning director for 24 years until he retired in February. But it couldn’t stop the exodus. In 1995, Belk closed its downtown store. On weekdays, office workers can be seen strolling or eating lunch, but only small stores remain to woo shoppers. “You could go there on any evening or on a weekend and find nothing more than a ball of dust rolling down the mall.”

The City Council approved an $11.2 million project in January to reopen Fayetteville Street to vehicles next year. But by itself, opening the street might not do much. Retailing in Winston-Salem never rebounded on the block of Trade Street occupied by its mall, now home to the headquarters for the city transit system, a parking lot and some offices.

After Burlington spent about $212,000 to reopen Main Street to traffic in 1989, things didn’t improve until Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, a medical-testing company, began renovating downtown buildings into offices. “That’s been the salvation for Burlington,” Touloupas says.