When I first heard about plans to turn the block of Mill Street between Main and Short into a pedestrian mall, I thought it was a good idea.
After seeing how a larger pedestrian mall has transformed downtown Charlottesville, Va., I think it could be a truly great idea.
The place was hopping. Hundreds of people were eating, shopping, listening to live music and visiting with each other.
The eight-block mall on what used to be Main Street has 30 restaurants and 120 shops in a mix of old and new buildings. At one end is a children’s museum and an amphitheater that hosts big-name performers and has free weekly concerts by local bands.
The mall has become a big tourist draw and economic engine. More importantly, it has become Charlottesville’s community front porch. Most of the people we saw there seemed to be locals. Some said they come every week between May and October.
It’s a good example of the urban planner’s maxim that if you build a city to appeal to its residents, others will want to be there, too.
The Downtown Mall was hardly an overnight success. More like a 35-year slog.
As with many American cities in the early 1970s, suburban growth had turned Charlottesville’s downtown business district into a ghost town.
So, in 1975, Charlottesville got on the bandwagon of cities building pedestrian malls. Many of those malls failed, such as Louisville’s River City Mall, although it would later be reborn as the popular Fourth Street Live.
But Charlottesville stuck with it, trying new ideas and making periodic improvements over the years. The city recently finished a $7.5 million renovation, which included new pavers and free wireless Internet service.
As with most successful developments, good design is key. The former street is 60 feet wide, with pedestrian corridors on each side and cafes in the center, shaded by giant willow oak trees. The trees make the mall pretty as well as comfortable in the summer heat.
The trees’ rapid growth was a pleasant surprise, said Rhetta Bearden, a guide for the local historical society who gave several of us a great downtown walking tour.
Planners knew that Main Street had once been part of “Three Notch’d Road,” a pioneer path from the James River to the Shenandoah Valley that got its name from hatchet marks on trees to blaze the trail. But they didn’t know there were springs beneath it that would make the willow oaks flourish, Bearden said.
If you compare Charlottesville and Lexington, you find that Lexington is a bigger city, with a bigger metro area. It also has more college students.
So what would it take to make downtown Lexington more of a people magnet?
One pedestrian block of Mill Street doesn’t compare with Charlottesville’s eight-block mall, but it fits nicely into a bigger picture. The block is strategically located between Cheapside and Victorian Square, both of which are having success recently with restaurants and bars.
With a little money and imagination, Mill Street could become the heart of a downtown entertainment district that would pull University of Kentucky students a few blocks north, Transylvania University students a few blocks south and a variety of Central Kentuckians in from the suburbs.
My guess is that a new skyscraper wouldn’t do nearly as much to revitalize downtown Lexington as a bigger community front porch.