Project Rating:
Project Snapshot: A rare 1970s-era pedestrian mall survives through thoughtful updates and links to the larger community.
Project History:

Countless cities jumped on the pedestrian mall bandwagon in the 1960s and early 70s, only to watch already weakened downtown merchants collapse for lack of foot and vehicular traffic.  Most have since reverted to conventional street access, but Charlottesville successfully bucks this trend, and retains a pedestrian-only design on East Main Street, in the heart of the historic downtown.

Special advantages make this design possible in Charlottesville. First, Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia, and the downtown is heavily traveled by students and academics alike. Second, the town is a major tourist destination for it's history -- most notably Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, perched on a scenic hilltop above the city.

The mall has also benefited from careful planning of complementary activities. An amphitheater was constructed in 1996 to anchor the east end of the mall, and a major hotel (Omni Charlottesville) is located at the west end the mall. Other civic buildings, including the Virginia Discovery Museum, are located on the mall or on adjacent streets, bringing special activities to the area. The City has also constructed a large parking structure on Water Street (one block off Main), and provides a bus trolley to move visitors around the downtown area.

Originally constructed in 1976, the pedestrian mall underwent a facelift in the 1990s that includes new street furniture, signage and an expanded plaza at the center of the pedestrian mall. The mall has evolved to become the cultural heart of downtown, with more than 130 shops and 30 restaurants supported by a healthy level of foot traffic.

 Best Ideas:

The mall is carefully organized into two 15-foot pedestrian corridors along the storefronts, on either side of the mall, and a 30-foot central plaza devoted to public art, cafe tables, art stands and groves of street trees. The new parking structure is ideally located, too. While it was wisely designed to include ground-floor retail, its principal benefit is to provide a substantial supply of affordable parking just one block from the mall.

The street tree groves deserve special mention, given the steamy climate that often prevails in Virginia's summer months. They provide welcome respite to the heat, and create a cool microclimate where they occur in the mall.

The mall is also well populated with street performers, art and craft carts and colorful characters just hanging out -- activities that cannot necessarily be planned, but are all too often discouraged in downtown settings. The Charlottesville Downtown Foundation complements this local color with a weekend concert series that brings throngs of locals to the mall amphitheater on Friday evenings.

Worst Ideas:

The connecting cross-streets that link Main Street to adjacent Water and Market streets are a pedestrian dead zone, and prevent the energy of the Main Street pedestrian mall from spreading to these parallel routes. The ground-floor retail and complementary architecture of the new public parking structure is a major step in helping Water Street revitalize, and may help to bring life to the connecting side streets, too.

The City is apparently considering re-opening some of the side streets to cross-traffic. This could be positive step in encouraging businesses to locate on these streets, while still protecting the pedestrian character of the mall, itself.

Contact Information:
City of Charlottesville
P.O. Box 911
Charlottesville, Virginia, 22902
(434) 970-3182

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