By: 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.
During 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.