Nation’s First Downtown Pedestrian Mall Celebrates 30th Anniversary
KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) _ Thirty years ago, this quiet Midwestern city took a decidedly daring approach when faced with the decline of its downtown.
It banned cars from two traffic-clogged blocks and created the nation’s first downtown shopping mall, a pedestrian plaza with trees, flowers, park benches and fountains.
″It was a difficult decision because it meant closing off a busy portion of downtown - and to merchants, that meant customers couldn’t park in front of their stores anymore. Some people thought that meant certain death,″ said Ray Dykema, a retailer who led the effort.
But as shopping centers on the outskirts of the city began drawing more and more customers and Kalamazoo’s tax base began to deteriorate, the mall ″seemed like the only thing we could do if downtown was to survive,″ Dykema recalled Monday.
Residents of this southwest Michigan city are celebrating Kalamazoo Mall’s anniversary this month with a rededication Aug. 18 and a concert the following day by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, which performed at the opening ceremony in 1959.
Responding to the threat of suburban shopping centers that have sapped the life from central business districts of so many American cities, about 200 merchants formed the Downtown Kalamazoo Association and elected Dykema its first president.
The storeowners and the city approved a plan devised by architect Victor Gruen, an odd downtown savior. Gruen had designed the nation’s first indoor shopping mall, the bane of downtown retailers nationwide, which opened three years earlier in a Minneapolis suburb.
His plan included ripping up two blocks of a five-lane thoroughfare, replacing it with brick-lined concrete sidewalks, lawns and trees, and rerouting traffic around the mall.
″It was a phenomenal idea at the time,″ said Dykema, 84. ″We’ve allowed our cities to become gray and drab. You have to get back the village green.″
The plan also made economic sense.
″The thought was that if a shopper comes out of a store and wants to go to one across the street but has to wait for traffic, it gives her time to think about her feet being tired and she may decide to go home,″ Dykema said. ″The less obstacles there are, the better.″
The $65,000 project, which was split between the city and the merchants, resulted in record-setting profits and soaring downtown investment. Soon, the city expanded the mall to four blocks.
Municipalities across the United States and in some foreign countries sent representatives to Kalamazoo, and about 200 cities eventually built downtown pedestrian malls in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, said Elizabeth Stabler, vice president of the International Downtown Association in Washington, D.C.
″But the heyday of putting pedestrian malls into downtowns has passed,″ Stabler said.
Once the novelty wore off in Kalamazoo, sales began slipping and many stores either moved to the suburbs or closed, among them such anchors as Woolworth and J.C. Penney.
″Two years ago, downtown was experiencing probably its worst year,″ Mayor Ed Annen said. ″But things are back on track again.″
The Upjohn Co., the pharmaceutical manufacturer based on the outskirts of the city, has announced plans for a $122 million research center downtown, and Kalamazoo Community College is building a downtown campus.
Since most shoppers at the mall are downtown workers, any new growth downtown is good news for retailers. Currently, about 13,000 of the city’s 80,000 residents work downtown, most within a block or two of the mall.
Today, the well-maintained mall continues to battle against the ever- growing threat of suburban shopping malls and discount retailers. Though crowds form at lunchtime, several storefronts are vacant. Two anchor department stores remain.
″Considering the alternative, this turned out to be a very good gamble,″ Dykema said. ″I’m still inspired every time I walk on the mall.″