Monday, April 25, 2011

Green Madness.

Here we go again.

Like clockwork, every five years or so someone gets the brilliant idea of closing off the downtown streets.

Hell, I remember my best friend in high school, Wes Hare, who is now city manager of Albany, being part of a study that looked at a "downtown mall" idea back around 1970! (They concluded, if I remember rightly, that it might not be a great idea.)

Around 1985, just after I bought Pegasus Books, there was another sustained movement to close the streets. The "old reprobates" as I called them -- the shoe repair shop next to me, the barber shop across the street --- thought this was a horrible idea. I didn't know. It sounded kind of cool, except I remembered what Wes had said. Again, it didn't happen.

Eugene and Coos Bay both struggled with downtown malls.

As the years went by, not only did I conclude this would be horrible idea -- but I began to dislike even the weekend street closures, for festivals and such. It always seemed to hurt my business, and I saw NO evidence it created future customers. I just don't buy the notion anymore.

What happens, I think, is that you have a strong lobby for street closure -- the event planners, the media, a few stores who benefit, the vendors, the downtown organization whose reason for being is to create such events, and most importantly, the public itself.

Against that, you have a very weak opposition. You've got a downtown full of one third newbies, one third paying no attention, and the last third split between the few retailers who actively dislike these events and those who love these events.

At one point, the city council passed a limit -- but like all limits, there have been a number of loopholes and exceptions. Night events become all day events (Twilight Criterion); informal parades become official parades (Earth Day) and so on. Plus, since there are a limited number of events, they began to cluster around the "Core Weekends", as I call them; the busiest weekends of summer (which ironically would be packed with customers if left alone...)

I've given up, except for what H.Bruce Miller calls my "yearly rant" on this blog. The idea of closing streets sounds like a great idea -- on the surface.

So, today's Bulletin: "Downtown Bend, But Better." Another street closure idea, this time in service to the "Green."

Better for who? I can say right now, it wouldn't be better for my business. In fact, I wouldn't stick around. Period.

You know all those difficulties they have down by the river park? Just multiply that for the rest of downtown. You know that sense of busyness you get when you go downtown? That would be replaced by a few pedestrians -- who even if they equaled the actual number of shoppers would FEEL like much, much less.

It would be a pretty but static picture, when we need an interactive video game. (Cars create a sense of movement, folks. Parking, bustling. Don't underestimate it.)

Parking? Come on. The parking garage is almost never full-- in fact, if you're willing to walk one or two levels, NEVER full. It's no further to walk than most malls. But even there -- if people are balking at parking in the garage now, isn't that just a warning to all of us as to what would happen if they forced people to park outside the zone? Too busy? Isn't that like what Yogi Berra said about a restaurant? "No one goes there anymore, it's too busy...."

I want casual shoppers, people who drop by for 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. Not people who make a day trip of it.

On my travels, the best downtowns I've seen are Ashland and Bend, and neither have closed off the streets. I've seen dead downtowns which were turned into very pretty but very stale and sterile cityscapes.

This is like very expensive and dangerous plastic surgery, that could turn out very badly.

Downtown Bend is vibrant. It has very low vacancy rates. Don't mess with what works, dammit.

I don't suppose I really have much to worry about -- where's the money? Nor could they put these plans in place before I finish my career. (Greenwood closed off? Mercy me.)

I think these people need to look at some of the more recent studies of vibrant downtowns. I believe there is a consensus now that having a mix of businesses is best, having arteries is best.
Having a few older buildings isn't all bad. Having a few funky businesses just adds to the flavor.

It's like, since Juniper Ridge has been such a roaring success, they've decided that more pie in the sky plans are needed. More millions spent.

Hell, they can't even fix the potholes.


RDC said...

Down town, walking malls, in general do not work. There are some places,Lincoln avenue in South Beach, for example, where it works. but in those cases you have a high population density within walking distance A high density of attractions, mostly dining establishments (the establishments use the old street space for tables) and night clubs, on the street. Also they tend to be single streets with plenty of traffic flow on parallel streets on both sides and even on cross streets. Basically they become the attraction. Not sufficient population within walking distance for Bend, not enough density of the right kind of establishments.

Also if you look at those places where it works they are very busy in the evening, pretty much dead during the day (the Las Ramblas in Barcelona is another good example).

Duncan McGeary said...

Same with Seattle, San Fran, and, I believe, San Antonio.

Big difference in population.

H. Bruce Miller said...

At bottom, the wish to turn every downtown into a "pedestrian mall" is rooted in hatred of the automobile and the desire that it could be made to just go away.