KALAMAZOO, MI — At a time when Kalamazoo officials consider how downtown can become more accessible to pedestrians, a radical idea from the past is receiving new recognition.
When the Kalamazoo Mall was built in 1959, the concept of an outdoor pedestrian shopping mall was a fresh idea in America. Commissioned to make the urban core more relevant while people flocked to the suburbs, Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen closed off a section of Burdick for foot traffic only.
Though the city only implemented part of Gruen’s plan, it was seen as a bold effort to spur urban vitality and reject the increasingly automobile-oriented culture encouraged by suburbanization.
The mall drew national attention to Kalamazoo, which was dubbed "Mall City," and the idea caught fire, inspiring 200 cities to open areas for pedestrian-only use.
"I’m not saying that you take things for granted but when you live downtown and go down the street it’s just a way of life," said Lynn Houghton, regional history curator for the Western Michigan University archives. "You don’t think of the significance of it; how radical it was and the impact it had on other communities."
The Kalamazoo Mall’s story will be featured on the first episode of "10 That Changed America," a PBS series exploring the nation’s built environment. The program returns for a second season focused on streets at 8 p.m. on July 10, monuments on July 17 and modern marvels on July 24.
The programs, hosted by Geoffrey Baer, will air from 8-9 p.m. on PBS and online at pbs.org and wwtw.com/10. Baer traces the evolution of America’s most important streets, including Woodward Avenue in Detroit and New York’s Broadway.
Streets don’t seem that interesting at face value, right?
It depends on how you think about it. Baer said roads and streets have had more of an impact on your human-made surroundings than anything else.
Charting that history provides insight into why public spaces exist as they are, he said.
Tyranny of the automobile
By the 1950s, the automobile had radically changed American life. The urban core of cities began to hollow out as people sought more space, and highways moved high-volume traffic quickly through a growing sprawl of suburbs.
"Historically streets were for everyone, then the automobile comes along and all of a sudden the street becomes the sole province of the automobile," Baer said. "The idea that you would walk in a street was ridiculous and life-threatening."
In Detroit, ridicule was recognized early on as the best force to control pedestrian behavior. People who "shamelessly" walked into the street were called jaywalkers — "jay" was a term for a rube, or hick from the country, Baer said.
Enter Victor Gruen.
Gruen, born Victor Gruenbaum, was a Jewish refugee who studied architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. After emigrating from Austria in 1938, he made a name for himself designing storefronts in New York City and later the first suburban malls.
Gruen sought to create walkable outdoor spaces that provided a needed opportunity to participate in community life outside the home. He was a crusader against the automobile and uncontrolled suburban sprawl, Baer said.
"He called it the tyranny of the automobile," Baer said.
His first two projects of the 1950s were shopping malls near large Midwest cities.
The Northland shopping center near Detroit was followed in 1956 by the revolutionary Southdale, outside Minneapolis.
It was the first indoor complex under one roof, with two levels connected by escalators and two-tiered parking. In the middle was a central court, a kind of town square under a skylight, with a fishpond, sculpted trees, and a cafe.
Gruen realized his malls had the potential to drain economic vitality from the downtown Main Streets it replaced but believed what worked for the suburbs could work for downtown.
He designed three downtown pedestrian malls, in Fort Worth, Texas, Kalamazoo and Fresno, California.
In 1955, Kalamazoo City Planner Charles Ford saw a presentation for Gruen’s plans for Fort Worth, though it would never be implemented.
A year later, the Southland Mall in Portage was announced. City leaders, business owners and retailers were concerned about its impact on downtown, Houghton said, especially as businesses began picking up and moving out.
Houghton said it’s not clear how Kalamazoo connected with Gruen, but in 1959 he presented the city with a 21-year plan to revitalize its downtown.
Rise and fall of the pedestrian mall
Dubbed "Kalamazoo 1980," the plan called for building a ringed highway around downtown, with multiple off-ramps leading to surface parking lots.
The sea of surface parking lots would surround a retail core inaccessible to vehicle traffic.
"His idea for the shopping mall was to create a place where you would once again have this vibrant street life, it would just happen indoors," Baer said. "His solution, which we understand was tragically flawed, is we would all drive our cars to the periphery of downtown Kalamazoo and then get out of our cars and walk into what became a pedestrian center of town."
When the commission voted to adopt the plan, its chambers in City Hall were filled to capacity, Houghton said.
"I think there were people who thought this was something that needed to happen to save the downtown," she said.
The ring road was never built. Instead, two blocks of Burdick Street from Water Street to South Street were closed to vehicle traffic for $60,000, with costs split between the city and property owners.
A third block was added from South Street to Lovell Street in 1960 and a fourth between Water and Elanor Streets in 1975.
It’s not clear if the plan was seen as controversial, but residents didn’t take it all the way. Voters rejected a 1963 ballot proposal to fund the entire project.
The Kalamazoo Mall debuted in 1959 to much fanfare and excitement. For a while, it was a big hit.
Businesses like Jacobson’s, Gillmore Brothers Department Store and JCPenny populated the mall in addition to local corner stores, restaurants and banks.
By 1960 over 50 cities nationwide were planning downtown pedestrian malls like Kalamazoo. More than 200 cities in the U.S. installed downtown pedestrian malls, a handful of which still survive today.
After one year of being open, retail sales were up 25 percent, pedestrian traffic increased 30 percent and $1.5 million in new construction was planned, according to figures provided by Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro.
But it wouldn’t last.
The mall ultimately couldn’t survive the continued effects of suburbanization.
"It just couldn’t compete with the zeitgeist of the time," Baer said. "(Suburban malls) pretty quickly out-competed the downtown."
Critics complained of the lack of convenient parking, a gripe which still exists today, the exposure to weather. After businesses closed for the evening, the space was left vacant, creating concerns about crime.
A lack of diverse uses was also cited by Baer as a reason for the mall’s failure. Segregating uses is antithetical to urbanism, he said. Urban planners today are focused on mixed-use spaces.
In 1980, Portage’s Crossroads Mall opened. JCPenny followed, moving from downtown to the suburbs. By 1992, Battle Creek had removed its pedestrian malls and most other cities were considering the same.
Kalamazoo worked on a 10-point plan to revitalize downtown. The most controversial component was introducing an access street through two blocks of the mall.
In a hotly contested election, voters approved the access street in 1997. Virginia firm EDAW was hired to open the Kalamazoo Mall to southbound vehicle traffic.
"It clearly changed America in the sense that it transformed 200 cities in this maybe kind of desperate effort save downtowns," Baer said. "We saw a dramatic reconfiguration of downtown in America that turned out to be a failed strategy that was undone later. It had a generation-long impact on cities around America."
Gruen wouldn’t live to see his first pedestrian mall unmade, he died in 1980, but was dissatisfied with what he considered to be a failed implementation of his ideas. He later moved back to Vienna, disillusioned by his work in the United States.
"I don’t know if people would consider it a failure, I just think that what we learned is retail is ever-changing," Houghton said. "When you look at the mall itself you always wonder: If they dealt with the parking initially would that have solved the issue? People like malls because they can park right where they want to go."
According to his
in the New York Times, Gruen left behind a legacy of creating the suburban landscape.
Baer said America is returning to some of his best ideas for vibrant a downtown.
"The ideas that we want our downtowns to be walkable, we don’t want to be car-dependent is absolutely what we are trying to do today," he said. "There are certainly kernels of truth in that strategy. We can pick up the best pieces of that."
Meanwhile, Kalamazoo is coming full circle.
Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 master plan
process, non-motorized safety and accessibility were shown to rank highly among the concerns of residents. Outside of the city of Kalamazoo,
and Kalamazoo County are also making strides to plan safer roads for everyone.
These complete streets policies and
represent a paradigm shift away from an auto-focused design mentality which has dominated American urban planning for generations.
"I think there will always be the constant need to reevaluate, to figure out what will be the next thing to get people into your downtown or mall," Houghton said.