Press-Republican

April 13, 2014

Several options exist for downtown

Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'
Press-Republican

— In case you haven’t noticed, a lot is happening in and around downtown Plattsburgh. A group of dedicated, hard-working people are doing their best to create a dynamic, vibrant and family-oriented downtown.

A week or so ago, at the Adirondack Young Professionals’ (ADKYP) Economic Development Forum, a proposal was made to close unnamed street(s) as a way to promote further the revitalization of downtown Plattsburgh.

A bit of advice to the idea’s proponents, begin referring to “creating a pedestrian mall” as opposed to “closing streets.” It creates a different picture in your mind’s eye — at least for me, anyway.

Having said that, is creating a pedestrian mall a good idea? Heck, I don’t know, but it may be an idea worth discussing and possibly studying.

In the North Country, our image of a pedestrian mall is the very successful Church Street in Burlington. However, you may be surprised (as was I) to learn that Church Street is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to pedestrian malls.

A little background on pedestrian malls, the Netherlands built the first pedestrian mall in 1953. The first pedestrian mall in America opened in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1959 and by 1970, at the height of their popularity, over 200 cities had pedestrian malls. Pedestrian malls were seen as a way to save downtowns from the exodus of businesses to the suburbs and suburban malls.

Today, only 15 percent remain.

Researching this issue, I’ve learned that the closing of streets has little to do with the success or failure of a pedestrian mall.

The reason pedestrian malls have been successful in towns such as Boulder, Colo., and Burlington is the lifestyle of the people in those communities mixed with amenities such as restaurants, entertainment and other retail outlets that create a desirable venue.

Talking with urban planners involved either in creating pedestrian malls or in removing them, or “repurposing” them, I learned the key indicators that need to be present for a pedestrian mall to be successful in the United States. They were adamant that it wasn’t just the closed street that determined success. The key, they told me, was in finding the appropriate mix of other factors, as well. One thing was clear; you can’t just close a street and expect to create a public space.

According to a blog that Chuck Wolfe, a Seattle attorney who is considered an urban planning expert, writes, of the 15 percent of pedestrian malls that are successful, most are:

• In communities with fewer than 100,000 residents;

• Located or anchored near a university or other major anchor;

• Situated close to a beach;

• Designed to be short in length, approximately one to four blocks long;

• Located in a major tourist destination; and

• Have desirable and appropriate buildings and how they interact with public rights of way.

It seems that those attributes exist in Plattsburgh, even if they aren’t closely connected.

But, based on their failure rate, should we be considering alternatives to the pedestrian mall? If we’re going to have the conversation, should we not include all the options?

One option to consider is the Complete Streets model. Complete Streets is one of the many topics on which I am not an expert. However, my limited understanding is that Complete Streets “are designed and operated to enable access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders.”

In light of the high failure rate of pedestrian malls, it might be wise to incorporate a Complete Streets model into the discussion. The Town of Plattsburgh’s Phil VonBargen is the local expert and leading proponent for Complete Streets, and it would be wise to include him in any discussion of this topic.

Of particular interest it that issues such as complete streets or pedestrian malls usually gather strength at a grassroots level and are elevated to a governmental level. It appears that in Plattsburgh, that may be reversed with several members of the Common Council publicly discussing the closure of street(s) in downtown. I don’t know if that will make it easier or more difficult. A lot goes into creating a pedestrian mall or into adopting a Complete Streets policy, and rarely, if ever, have merchants, citizens and politicians universally embraced either idea,

Nonetheless, it’s a discussion worth having, and including all players involved is critical.