A Little Street Talk in Wausau….

Jim RosenbergBy: Jim Rosenberg

In all the talk about the proposal to re-name Stewart Avenue, another bit of street talk didn’t receive too much attention in the public dialogue last week. But two years ago, we had a big discussion about opening the pedestrian mall on Washington and the 300 block of Third Street to traffic. Mark Craig of Compass Properties first broached the subject and I was happy to join him because it was clear that this could create a more favorable downtown environment for both businesses and shoppers in that area.

Click for Larger ImageDuring the height of the debate, I visited my favorite urban laboratory, Paris. I took a picture of Rue de Faubourg – St. Denis that I felt showed a lot of what we were trying to do here. The street has an obstruction on the far end; a monument that creates the same situation as the Wausau Center does in Wausau. Before we became too weary of hearing how “This isn’t Paris” – something that I hear from time to time on other things — Mark Craig had a computer rendering put together showing the 300 block of Third Street with the street and angle parking applied to it.

It started out as an uphill struggle because frankly, nobody had really thought much about the downside of the pedestrian mall. It began in the early 1980s as part of the Wausau Center development and it seemed that once the choice was made, few ever questioned whether it was a good idea or not. The thought was to integrate the new eight square block downtown mall into the existing downtown. It looked kind of nice and it seemed like a good idea. I probably would have supported it at that time, too.

The problem was that it didn’t work. Instead of having eight blocks that were inaccessible by vehicles, we had 10 – and the last two blocks were further hampered by the fact that unlike the interior of the mall, they were exposed to the elements. Much as we might like to think that people ought to be willing to get out, walk and look around a little, many really aren’t unless they have a specific destination in mind and they often find those destinations from their cars. The pedestrian mall became a hangout for people that some folks found a bit intimidating and eventually, that element seemed to become the dominant image of the area.

Wausau wasn’t the only place that experienced negative outcomes from what was formerly the trendy urban design concept of pedestrian malls. Of about 200 pedestrian malls built over 40 years, only 30 remained by 2005, according Kennedy Smith of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Main Street Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that studies downtowns. There are very limited applications in which pedestrian malls seem to be successful. Those that I’ve seen involve a lot more foot traffic than we can expect and often, extensive mass transit use. But some people here were concerned that restoring vehicle access would detract from the downtown’s aesthetics and create an unsafe environment for people walking to and from Wausau Center mall and nearby shops.

Research from the Urban Land Institute provided success stories from other cities that had reopened pedestrian malls and Mark Craig offered a plan that actually made the pedestrian mall safer and just as pleasing, if not more, to the senses. The track record is clear. When pedestrian malls are re-opened to vehicles, foot traffic and business sales increase. More people translate to shoppers feeling more secure because fewer teenagers, vagrants and other people loiter on busier sidewalks. The bottom line is that what really attracts people is other people.

After months of discussion in the first quarter of 2005, we were able to get agreement from the Wausau City Council on 7-5 vote to re-open the pedestrian mall from Fourth Street to Third and up through the 300 block of Third Street, with angle parking added to Third Street. We accepted two-thirds of a loaf at that time because it became obvious that trying for the remaining block from the Penney’s ramp to Third Street would imperil our ability to pass the measure at all. We risked having at least another two decades of a pedestrian mall and its negative impact on Third Street if we overreached.

Today, everyone knows that the change didn’t create a dangerous environment for pedestrians. It’s attractive and the habitually full parking slots are a testimony to the fact that the re-opened street is used and useful. Business owners along that stretch regularly thank me for the effort and tell me how important it was. There are more pedestrians, too. So this year, we came back for the other third of the loaf: to open the last portion of the remaining pedestrian mall on Washington Street from the west. There was little controversy. There was no flurry of phone calls or letters to the editor. The concept had been proven in practice over two years right here on our streets.

Despite that, half of the Wausau City Council still voted against the change, which had been approved easily in the responsible committees. Had their “no” vote prevailed, we would have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild a failed pedestrian mall concept in a block of Washington Street bordered by a brick wall with no windows or access to the Wausau Center. It would have been done against the strident objections of investors and business owners in the area. It would have been done in the face of a mountain of contrary research and the proven success of the change in our own city. It wouldn’t have saved a dime. The mayor broke the tie to do the right thing and further improve downtown Wausau.

The main focus of that particular city council meeting had been about what we may choose to call one of the streets in our city. What we chose to actually do with another street is something that seems far more important to me.

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8 responses to “A Little Street Talk in Wausau….

  1. I say this…there is an informal study going on about the parking spots on the angle area by the Pedestrian Mall mainly being filled by people who own jewelry stores, or work at Pottery places.

    Just an interesting trend. We want parking for consumers…well actually we want parking so we do not have to walk.

    My favorite parking lot in this whole city is the one across the street from the Rogers. That is a nice lot.

    Did I just declare a lot a favorite? I need to meet girls.

  2. I will be honest. When I first heard of the concept of opening the pedestrian mall to vehicle traffic, I was not enthused. I kind of liked the concept of having a pedestrian mall (though to be honest almost never used it). However, I was 100% mute on the subject because 1) a developer who wanted to significantly increase Wausau’s tax base was in favor and 2) businesses directly affected were in favor. In my mind, it should be their thoughts that mattered. Not mine.

    I have no problem admitting when I am wrong (well, I do.. but on this issue I will make an exception). We still have nice, wide sidewalks. Having vehicle traffic on 3rd has not only made those businesses more visible and easier to get to, it has made downtown Wausau a little (not much, but a little) easier to navigate.

    Before I almost never walked the pedestrian mall (yes, because I am fat and lazy) but now from time to time if in the downtown, I will drive 3rd to see what’s there.. and yes.. I have been known to stop and shop.

    I once tried to access 3rd from the West, thinking that it was open from both directions… to my surprise it wasn’t. (We won’t discuss in depth what I did to get there, but I am sure it was not exactly legal.) I applaud the city for finishing the project and I really wished those 6 that voted against had said why they voted against. This was the closest thing to a high dollar no brainer that I have ever seen.

  3. Fast cars, and big trucks…above the law I say.

  4. I often get accused of being elitist and preachy when I complain about what “most people” do, but here I go again. 🙂

    To echo Jim’s statement in the post, it does never cease to amaze me that people will walk a half a mile across the frozen asphalt tundra of the Mega-Mart parking lot, but will not walk a couple of blocks on the sidewalks downtown with all the display windows.

    With that in mind, I always felt that the trouble with the downtown Ped Mall was that it was too small, not too large. It was sort of an overgrown sidewalk, and not really an open park-like experience.

    I realize you have to work with what you have, and so am not really being critical. But it would have been interesting to see what might have happened to have combined the 400 block and downtown into a widescale Ped Mall.

    Granted, it might not have worked either, people do not always do what is “good for them.” But personally feel that when it comes to Ped Malls and green space, the more the merrier.

  5. RE fast cars and big trucks.. it was the big truck which allowed my “unathorized” third st access. (was that a curb or a skateboarder… hmmm)

  6. Not to be argumentative, but this is a discussion, so I’ll chime in here on Bill’s comment.

    “… it would have been interesting to see what might have happened to have combined the 400 block and downtown into a widescale Ped Mall.

    Granted, it might not have worked either, people do not always do what is “good for them.” But personally feel that when it comes to Ped Malls and green space, the more the merrier.”

    * * *

    There are a couple problems with that approach that I think are very important:

    1. It flies in the face of everything we know about pedestrian malls and how toxic they really are in most downtown environments. What we’ve seen is that it’s a nice-sounding idea that looks attractive — and simply doesn’t work.

    2. While well-intentioned people experiment with initiatives aimed at aesthetics and ambiance, there are building and business owners who can be deprived of a return on their investments and their livelihoods. Potential new investors can shy away and existing owners may not be able see their way clear to reinvest in their buildings when we’re wrong in our guesses about things or fail to have buy-in from this critical stakeholder group.

    It took the better part of two years to legalize those chalkboard sidewalk signs, overhanging signs and alfresco tables downtown because well-intentioned people had placed a strict ordinance in effect in the late 1970s in an effort to create a more clean-looking, organized downtown environment. The outcome was really a more sterile downtown that put the needs of business people to make a living behind the desires of people who often had nothing more at stake than their opinions. That’s not right and the new sign ordinance that we produced did not leave us with a cluttered, unattractive downtown. Instead, it helped animate the environment.

    The point? There is a need to properly weigh the stakes that different parties have in the discussion and to understand that the most important business of downtown is, after all, business.

  7. I like green space, dont get me wrong. However, keep in mind downtown green space is high dollar property not generating tax revenue.

    There is a need for some green space in big urban areas just to remind us of what real life is like. Our 400 block is not too much.. or to little.. I think it fits just right.

    But as far as “the more the merrier”… that is a dangerous concept.

  8. I say this…I like the 400 Block. I like a lot of things, like cashews. I really like cashews.

    A Wasabi Soy Blue Diamond Almonds.

    And Jason Garvey at Dwellers, I really like Jason Garvey at Dwellers.

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