Despite delay, Pullman Square is a downtown success

January 27, 2019

The Charleston Town Center mall has fallen on hard times. It was built with three anchor stores. The Sears store and its auto center across the street are closed. Macy’s announced last week it will close its store there. That leaves only J.C. Penney with an anchor presence.

The mall itself isn’t that bad of a place. But when the Taco Bell in the food court packs up and leaves, it indicates there is a problem.

The Town Center has had a good run, and it still has its good times. When the state high school basketball tournaments (boys and girls) are going on, the place is packed with people.

The signs of the mall’s decline in business became obvious a couple of years ago. And lately people have taken to social media to complain they no longer feel safe in its two parking garages.

The Huntington Mall, on the other hand, is doing pretty well. Even in January, weeks after the Christmas shopping season has ended, parking spaces can be hard to find on a weekend.

So what’s the difference? One is downtown, and one is out of town. The Huntington Mall is within the municipal limits of the Village of Barboursville, but it’s not like you have to drive through downtown Barboursville to get there.

For that reason, it may have been for the best that Huntington never got a mall on the downtown Superblock.

The Superblock was one of those great ideas that our best and brightest (often used as a compliment, but originally intended as sarcasm) urban planners gave us in the 1960s and 1970s. Tear down all these old buildings, and new development will rush in to fill the vacuum. Tear out two blocks of 9th Street to create a pedestrian plaza, and people will flock to the downtown to spend money.

Only it didn’t work that way. People who invested their own money instead of spending other people’s money knew that was not the future. Maybe they foresaw that empty acreage out near Ona would attract shoppers in a wide area from Gallipolis, Ohio, to Pikeville, Kentucky, to Nitro and St. Albans. The extension of utilities, particularly water, into rural areas and the building of new roads gave people less reason to live and work in town.

And so the Superblock sat vacant for two decades and the 9th Street plaza was a virtual dead zone for retail. In the late 1990s, the plaza was torn out and traffic was again allowed on 9th Street. The area is more vibrant now, although the area still struggles.

Pullman Square, which eventually filled the Superblock, was what that part of downtown Huntington needed. The down side was that it shifted a lot of business from 4th Avenue to 3rd Avenue. On balance, however, Pullman Square has been a plus. A downtown shopping mall like the Town Center probably would have struggled to survive, and its anchors might very well have abandoned it, just as they have done in Charleston. Sooner or later, someone would have built a mall outside town in an area that would allow a large number of retailers to build nearby, like what happened at Ona.

Maybe the urban planners had it right, but at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. Pullman Square’s developers might never have given Huntington a look if they had to do all the property acquisition and demolition themselves. They for sure would not have built their own parking garages.

As Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Some things that look like calamities are merely preparation for good things to come. Not all, of course, but some.

Here’s hoping the new owners of the Town Center can make their new project prosper despite the challenges — for the good of downtown Charleston and for the good of the larger region.

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