It Just Might Work: Transform South Elm into a pedestrian mall

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The Downtown Mall in Charlottesville is eight blocks long. Why not transform three blocks of South Elm into a pedestrian mall? (photo by Jordan Green)

It started out as an idle question rather than a serious proposal.

I was relaxing near a fountain on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Va. waiting for my friends after an intense hour or so of KKK protest-reporting duty. It was a breathtaking scene: a café with seating for maybe 50 people that reminded me of Café du Monde in New Orleans, more café tables shaded by parasols set into the heart of the thoroughfare, a historic theater, restaurants, bookstores and pie shops, two ice cream stores, elderly couples strolling and cyclists making a leisurely pass.

I took a photo on my phone and posted it to Facebook, asking, “Is this what South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro should look like?”

I got more than I bargained for, with 93 reactions, mostly “likes.”

Milton Kern, the South Elm Street mayor domo responded with a blunt “No,” however.

The journalist Deonna Kelli Sayed proposed launching a petition to make it happen. Jeff Beck, who owns Urban Grinders on North Elm Street, responded, “I love this!”

A number of people pointed to pedestrian malls as a failed experiment of the 1970s, with publicist/musician/man-about-town Dave McLean citing Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, which was memorably eulogized in the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone.”

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) weighed in: “Yes, it should. I think it would greatly benefit Greensboro. I’ve been to other downtowns that have a similar setup. It’s amazing how designating a few blocks to foot traffic can attract patrons and make an area more vibrant.”

One objection raised is that it would leave downtown with no north-south passage that connects with Gate City Boulevard. That’s not actually the case though. Preyer Brewing and Crafted: The Art of Street food have created a northerly anchor for Eugene Street and Marty Kotis’ planned Tracks development could potentially do the same for the south end, where the road meets Gate City Boulevard before continuing on to the Triad City Beat office. Meanwhile, most local motorists already know to avoid South Elm Street after 5 p.m. The Downtown Mall in Charlottesville is eight blocks long; what if three blocks of South Elm Street from Market Street down to McGee were transformed into a pedestrian mall? Add one block in either direction of Washington Street and February One Place, and you would have a six-square-block urban playground.

I heard arguments about population density, wealth and Charlottesville’s status as the home of University of Virginia. We have college students in Greensboro, too, and we have six times as many people in Greensboro. Median household income is only about 20 percent higher in Charlottesville. Bah!

Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny gamely responded to my proposal before leaving for vacation. “While this definitely looks very pretty and open,” he said, “it is proven that it has been a deterrent to business.”

Well, no it hasn’t. It’s hard to find a vacant storefront in Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, while a handful of buildings on the 300 block of South Elm Street are chronically vacant.

The argument comes across as, “You can’t have nice toys! Why? Because I said so.”

We’ve visited the other kids’ houses and seen their nice toys, and now we want them, too.

  • Richard Broaddus

    I lived in Ch’ville in the early 80’s. While there was some interesting activity in restaurants (Dave Matthews washing dishes!), the mall was mostly deserted at night, and not much more populated during the day. It took a long time for it to reach its present success, and a huge amount of it is due to Ch’ville’s status as a tourist destination, and to the very high-end residential areas within walking distance. Unfortunately, GSO doesn’t have much of either of these at the present time.

  • David

    A little tired of one word answers—”No”—from the old guard of downtown commercial property owners. Years of “No” got us too many vacant, decrepit storefronts. “No” keeps them that way…as in “No” I will not bring my building up to a decent standard or “No” I won’t charge realistic rents.
    Enough with the knee jerk “No”.