Walk This Way: The Challenge Of Pedestrian Malls

IOWA CITY - Would a pedestrian-only street work in downtown Ann Arbor?

Many townies who enjoy strolling through the city's dynamic center think so. Many business owners who help make that downtown vibrant are convinced otherwise. No one really knows, but a few clues to the answer may lay in an unlikely place -- Iowa City.

Iowa City and Ann Arbor share more similarities than not. They are both college towns that their respective states' major namesake universities call home. They are semi-major cities in midwestern states with progressive populations that enjoy vibrant downtowns right next to their colleges.

But Iowa City has something Ann Arborites only talk about, a high-end pedestrian mall filled with businesses, trees, art and, wait for it, pedestrians. Walk through the Ped Mall, as its known to Iowans, and you'll know nothing in the Midwest, not even Ann Arbor's Nicekels Arcade, is really comparable.

"I can't imagine Iowa City without the Ped Mall," says Marc Moen, a long-time developer based in Iowa City and a resident of its downtown. "That's a big part of its identity."

Walk like an Iowan

Moen grew up in western Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa's Law School in the late 1970s. His ambitions of moving to big cities like New York fell by the wayside when he fell in love with Iowa City after college, opening a law practice and redeveloping a few buildings on the side.

About a decade ago he switched careers to full-time real estate development. Now his firm, Moen Group, owns five mixed-use buildings on the Ped Mall, ranging from stately historic 19th-century storefronts to the largest and tallest building in the downtown, the Plaza Towers. The contemporary 14-story high-rise, circa 2006, features lofts, a boutique hotel, a sushi restaurant, a bar, and a high-end supermarket that spills onto the Ped Mall. To Moen there is no better place to sink money into a building.

"It's very inviting, particularly to residential," Moen says. "Instead of [being] on a street, you're on a plaza. It's a very inviting and friendly place."

The Ped Mall dates back to 1977 when federal urban renewal funds were used to close off four blocks of downtown streets to create a pedestrian-only zone. It encompasses two blocks of East College Street and a perpendicular block of South Dubuque Street. It's adjacent to the western edge of Iowa's campus and two main vehicular arteries. An apt comparison would be closing down the Maynard and William street intersection just west of the Diag.

The Ped Mall is lined with an eclectic mix of retail businesses, restaurants, bars, lofts, offices, hotels, a Trader Joe's-style supermarket and the busiest library branch in Iowa. People flood it during events and games. This year's U-M vs Iowa football game was elbow-to-elbow for hours after the game. That's not unusual. On quiet days, dozens of people still stroll by with regularity.

What makes the Ped Mall so attractive is it's not really a vehicle-free street as much as it's a brick-paver park. It's quite obvious that a road was once there decades ago, but that's only because of the street walls that are left. All of the other aspects like pavement, sidewalks, and street signs are gone. What's there now are brick pavers, planters, mature trees, benches, public art, a playground and pianos every 50 feet anyone can play. Lots of things that attract people to every corner of the Ped Mall.

"It's a combination of the Ped Mall and what's in the Ped Mall that makes it so vibrant," Moen says. "It's one of the few in the country that is successful."

Mall city experiments

That's the pedestrian mall rub. Pedestrian malls have mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly, in North America. Buffalo, Sacramento, Eugene, Raleigh and Chicago all created downtown pedestrian malls in the latter half of the 20th century before opening them back up to cars. Toronto even closed parts of Yonge Street (it's Main Street) for a time in the 1970s.  An interesting side note, the first pedestrian mall appeared in downtown Kalamazoo in 1959, earning the city the moniker "Mall City." It has since been expanded to include a pedestrian-only zone and then partly reopened to vehicular traffic.

Though pedestrian-only streets and plazas have long been the norm in many European cities, and Australia has seen a recent boom, U.S. cities have struggled to find success. Along with Iowa City, Boulder, Charlottesville and Denver are among the few notable exceptions. In Canada, only Calgary has managed to buck the odds. Some urban thinkers suggest that the failure of pedestrian malls are tied to under-developed public transportation systems, not enough people living in downtown spaces, and a lack of concentrated mixed-use amenities. Having all three features is seen as necessary to creating the kind of venue-like environment that attracts people. And all three indicate a lifestyle mindset that favors walking over driving.

Ann Arbor would be hard-pressed to fulfill any of those criteria.

Norm Cox, president of The Greenway Collaborative, an alternative transportation advocacy group based in Nickels Arcade in downtown Ann Arbor, doesn't think a pedestrian mall in Tree Town's downtown is a good idea. More than likely it would become a detriment to the city's vibrant core. Cox believes cars, bikes, pedestrians and other alternative transit users are equally responsible for downtown's pedestrian-friendly dynamic. He points out that a big part of why there are often more pedestrians on downtown sidewalks than cars in streets at times is because the vehicles help push them there and these window shoppers quite literally want to window shop.

"What you find is you lose that critical mass of people on the sidewalk if you disperse it across the the whole street between the buildings," Cox says. "People want to be looking in the windows of those stores and near the cafes and restaurants."

An Ann Arbor Ped Mall?

Don't hold your breath waiting for Ann Arbor to start closing streets downtown. Even though the topic occasionally pops up every couple of years (the usual idea consists of closing down a few blocks of Main Street in the middle of downtown) it never gains traction.

A few years ago, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje floated temporarily closing Main Street in downtown to vehicular traffic on weekend nights. Sort of a pop-up pedestrian mall in arguably Ann Arbor's most pedestrian-friendly area. Hieftje quickly found out that many of the stakeholders downtown, i.e. business owners, were not in favor. Blocking off traffic is only attractive if there is a big event going on, such as Art Fair. The idea was dropped.

"You don't impose something on a neighborhood where everybody is dead-set against it," Hieftje says.

That doesn't mean the mayor is abandoning the pedestrian-dominant concept. He doesn't think closing downtown Ann Arbor streets is feasible, but he could see the logic in downsizing a few of them. He points out that the intersection of State and Liberty streets and the surrounding blocks are some of the most heavily walked in the city.

Why not extend the sidewalk onto the few orphan parking spots left on State Street near Ashley's? Open it up to more outdoor seating, more room for roamers. Eliminate some of the OCD motorists who do laps around those blocks waiting for that one on-street parking spot near Nickels Arcade to open up. It's not like vehicle traffic normally moves through there as fast as the pedestrians.

"Maybe we need to start thinking about these things in different terms," Hieftje says.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation And Jobs News Editor for Concentrate and the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. He is a Jane Jacobs-style urbanist who never looked at the inside of a automobile the entire two weeks of his honeymoon that stretched from Windsor to Toronto to Ottawa to Quebec City. His last feature was MI vs SF: The Art Of The Business Plan Competition

All photos by Doug Coombe except where noted


The Plaza Towers at the Iowa City Ped Mall (courtesy Moen Group)
The Iowa City Ped Mall (courtesy Moen Group)
The State Street Art Fair on Liberty
Norm Cox outside of The Greenway Collaborative offices in Nickels Arcade
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje at Larcom City Hall
Nickels Arcade
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