The Original Downtown Mall Debate

Steve Ashby writes:

Until it shuts down in 6 days, my podcast site will be hosting a series of excerpts from a 1975 Jefferson Cable production “Overview: Downtown Renewal.” With the re-bricking of the Mall, it seems like a good time to look back at just how much controversy the whole idea caused. Despite Hook article article to the contrary, many merchants supported building a pedestrian mall.

I’ve put those excerpts together into a single video, which you can watch here:

Note that it opens with credits, but don’t skip through them—you’ll love the b-roll footage of downtown that’s playing in the background. As a Charlottesville history buff, this stuff is like catnip to me.

12/22 Update: Steve has put an even longer version of the video online in two chunks: Part 1 and Part 2. Thanks, Steve!

24 Responses to “The Original Downtown Mall Debate”


  • Fascinating!

    I’m particularly struck by a remark of the far-sighted Mr. Van Yahres; that the Mall could be but one element of any successful arrangement of Downtown.

    I suspect that often, when we citizens discuss the Mall or the arrangement of Downtown generally, we examine some particular issue (e.g. transport or the demand for groceries) without considering that a successful arrangement of Downtown could be but one element in any successful arrangement of the City and the countryside, which itself is but one element (perhaps the most important) in any successful arrangement for living in a civil manner.

  • In 2006, Hawes Spencer posted two really interesting images to The Hook’s blog, both of which Rick Barrick had passed along from the city’s archives. There’s an aerial photo of downtown from the east that is from sometime pre-1975 and an early master plan for downtown. The latter is really interesting, with lots of opportunities to compare what was planned to what the reality proved to be.

  • For even more (and broader) historical context, check out some maps of urban Charlottesville from 1907 and 1920 at:

    http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/maps/sanborn/

  • “Foxy Brown” with Pam Grier playing at the Jefferson-Classic! Good Find

  • The audio ends at 6:30/10:41 for me.

  • It’s not just you. I don’t really understand how I messed it up—somewhere in the QuickTime process, I guess. I’ll see if I can redo it this evening. Sorry about that!

  • You can see all of the excerpts on YouTube (after much effort, I managed to get them up there and in proper order). Glad there’s so much interest in local history. I had a great time as a cameraman for Jefferson Cable.

    Part 1:
    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3DfStB2PEk ]

    Part 2

    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtgCcnygIrI ]

  • Selective history buffs won’t like what I’ve said about the Downtown Mall. Before the Mall was even finished, the police confiscated my bike for 30 days when I was 11 years old. Now police routinely ride bikes on the Mall.

    For some, the bricking of the Mall was strike 3 in Charlottesville’s “Downtown Renewal.” Vinegar Hill early ’60s and Garrett Street south downtown clearance 1972 (other parts ’76, ’77), Mall vote 2-0-3 in Feb. 1974. (Charle Barbour & Mitch Van Yahres for; Francis Fife, Jill Rhinehart, George Gilliam abstain.) The vote itself indicates less than overwhelming support at the time.

    In the video clips, Barbour hints at the intense opposition by saying some votes have been easy while others were controversial. Van Yahres hints at the 2 neighboring urban renewal projects by saying the Mall is in a broader context. Fife hints at the controversy of a minority vote justifying the project when he mentions the attorney general ruling.

    Downtown businesses were charged a fee or special assessment of a half million dollars in addition to the $2.5 mil general funds. Barbour & Van Yahres wanted to spend $3.5 mil. I don’t know the cost overruns and delays. As I recall but can’t yet document, the oversized bricks were chosen to save money and were not part of the original design as peole are saying today. It’s often hard to separate fact from legend.

    The economic downturn of 2008 shows why the Mall was a bad idea. In the ’70s the Mall had upscale restaurants and boutique stores. But there were also greasy spoons, department stores and Five & Dime stores. According to Alvin Clements, banker on the original commission to design the Mall, the goal was to tranform downtown into all boutiques stores with residences on the upper floors. When you reduce the economic diversity of an area, it’s less able to weather changing economic conditions. When people stop buying luxury items, they have no option to buy more cheaply downtown. The reduced diversity of businesses is why the Mall is suffering so much in today’s recession

    It’s interesting to go back and compare what was happening then with what people say today was happening back then. The Mall didn’t save downtown. Most of the businesses and department stores left after the Mall. In the ’80s Main St. was a ghost town. It found its niche in the ’90s and came back but not to its former glory or importance.

    Sometimes, decades later, the high rollers intimately involved with a project will remember how it really was, instead of what they were saying at the time. The June 30, 2006 forum at City Hall on the 30th anniversary of the completion of the Mall is such an example.

    “The men behind the mall: we did it to save downtown”, Jul. 1, 2006. Alvin Clements articulates the economic cleansing purpose of the Mall. Van Yahres talks about his contemporaneous, attempted annexation abuses blocked by the courts. Cole Hendrix remembers, when the Mall was built, first 2 department stores left, then little by little they all left downtown.

    I saw the Young Men’s Shop owner in the video. They stayed after the Mall, then finally moved out to the shopping centers, and in the last few years moved back to the Mall. So things go in cycles.

    Did you notice “Jeremiah Johnson” was playing at the Paramount? Jeremiah was living way up in the mountains because civilization was so uninviting and unjust. Today the movie might be a symbol of the exodus of longtime residents. Of course beneficiaries of “civilization” and newcomers have a different perspective.

  • @ Blair

    You write: “Most of the businesses and department stores left after the Mall.”

    Are you claiming that they left -because- of the Mall? Or simply that they left chronologically afterward, and might or might now have done so in any case?

    For my benefit and the benefit of others who, like me, are not citizens of long standing, could you describe some of the businesses of which you are thinking? (Besides the Young Mens’ Shop.)

    You also write: “When you reduce the economic diversity of an area, it’s less able to weather changing economic conditions.” which is a notion to which I heartily subscribe and I’m sure many others do as well. Do you have any thoughts as to how we might improve the diversity of commerce on the Mall? Or Downtown generally?

  • “(Charle Barbour & Mitch Van Yahres for; Francis Fife, Jill Rhinehart, George Gilliam abstain.)The vote itself indicates less than overwhelming support at the time.”

    Virginia’s attorney general Andrew Miller ruled that Fife, Rinehart, and Gilliam all had conflicts of interest. They were prohibited not only from voting on the mall, but from publicly discussing anything to do with the mall. You can see Mayor Fife’s comment, just prior to the final vote, in my video excerpts. I’m reasonably certain that Francis Fife would have voted with Van Yahres and Barbour, although Fife, Rinehart, and Gilliam did vote to reduce the construction allocation from $3.5 million to $2.5 million.

  • Adam:

    “Are you claiming that they left -because- of the Mall? Or simply that they left chronologically afterward?”

    Because of the Mall. Cause is a “sufficient and necessary” condition. Could they leave for other reasons? sure. Is it just a random event? Maybe I should have said the Mall was a contributing factor. Declining sales was the cause. What do you think was the cause? Or are you just being argumentative and want to discourage others from expressing views that contradict accepted wisdom?

    “could you describe some of the businesses of which you are thinking?”

    Well, let’s see. Sears. Leggetts. The auto repair shop in the video. Miller & Rhoads. Dixie Lunch and News Stand. Brass Rail. Virginia Lunch. Monticello Lunch. Cozy Kitchen. Stacy’s Music. MC Thomas. Bibb’s Fish Shop. Shoe store where Hamilton’s is now. Woolworth. Two blocks from the Mall is the Historical Society. They have a booklet about the pre-mall era.

    Asking me to name them is like asking a little kid to remember the details of a drawn-out political drama. You should ask Francis Fife. He was president of Virginia National Bank on Main St., a grownup and city councilor–or is he still not talking because of the attorney general ruling. Why not ask Charles Barbour? It’s sort of like asking me to list the soldiers killed or list the battles of the Civil War because you’re skeptical there was such a war. You’re holding me to a higher standard than Ashby and Waldo.

    “Do you have any thoughts as to how we might improve the diversity of commerce on the Mall? Or Downtown generally?”

    Less zoning. Lower taxes. More permanence of laws so the business environment doesn’t keep changing frequently. Easier access. Cheaper services and products.

    Steve:

    “I’m reasonably certain that Francis Fife would have voted with Van Yahres and Barbour”

    I agree. But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that 2 out of 5 is less than a majority. A 40% vote is the reason for the attorney general opinion. The reason this is news is because so few know this fact today. If you found out something new about Thomas Jefferson that contradicted common perception, would that be news? What makes the Downtown Mall subject to a different set of rules. Why didn’t the video excerpts show this vote–the most controversial of the entire Mall debate?

    Believe me, I was studying the video clips for this vote. But you chose to include other votes and comments just before the 40% vote. But you excluded this vote. It’s easy to question other people’s motives. But what are your motives?

  • One more thing, Steve. The attorney general ruling came after the Feb. 1974 vote that approved the Mall, not before. Subsequent votes were on various aspects of the Mall, such as funding and design. Only one vote authorized the Downtown Mall.

  • @ Blair

    In reply to my question about the causes of businesses leaving, you wrote:

    Because of the Mall… Maybe I should have said the Mall was a contributing factor. Declining sales was the cause. What do you think was the cause?

    I’m not at all sure. I haven’t seen any thorough economic analysis of the impact the Mall has had. I’m sure it would be difficult to untangle all the factors in Charlottesville’s economy over several decades. That’s why I’m asking you to “connect-the-dots”. If you’re quite sure that the Mall was very bad for Downtown’s economy, it ought not be very hard for you to explain why. I’m inclined to think that Charlottesville-minus-the-Mall wouldn’t have looked that different from small cities across the country whose downtown businesses moved to strip malls to pay less rent.

    Or are you just being argumentative and want to discourage others from expressing views that contradict accepted wisdom?

    I’m asking to make an complete argument– instead of the blank claim you made at first. Of course you needn’t respond at all.

    Sears. Leggetts. … Cozy Kitchen. Stacy’s Music. MC Thomas. Bibb’s Fish Shop. Shoe store where Hamilton’s is now. Woolworth.

    I could easily find a list of businesses with addresses that were on the Mall, Blair. What I asked you for was a list of businesses that left Downtown -because of the Mall-. (If that question was unclear, I apologize.) The point I’m trying to make is that a business having moved uptown sometime after the Mall was built doesn’t prove that the Mall caused them to move uptown– businesses have been moving to cheaper-rent locations for a long time, for all kinds of reasons. If we want to claim that business X moved uptown because of the Mall, then it behooves us to present specific evidence. Of course, that would be remarkably difficult in most cases, which is why I am surprised to find you so sure of your point. It seems to me that you have misplaced the burden of argument. You write:

    It’s sort of like asking me to list the soldiers killed or list the battles of the Civil War because you’re skeptical there was such a war.

    Nonsense. I’m simply asking for evidence of a claim about our history that you are making, one that disagrees with many peoples’ perception. Which brings me to:

    You’re holding me to a higher standard than Ashby and Waldo.

    Naturally– that’s the price of your disagreement with “accepted wisdom”. That’s why I’m not (as you oddly suggest) asking Charles Barbour or Frances Fife for a list of businesses they think moved away from Downtown to escape the Mall– you are the person who is making the argument that the Mall was bad for business, not them.

    As far as your suggestions go, I’m sure we’d all like to see “Cheaper services and products” and “lower taxes”. When you suggest “Easier access”, are you referring to transit? Or parking? Or something else entirely? I agree that getting Downtown can be difficult– how would you suggest we ameliorate that? My inclination is towards improving the City transit service. As far as “less zoning”, I’m not sure I can agree with you there. Are you suggesting that there are businesses that would have opened or expanded Downtown and should have been so permitted but were not by zoning regulations? Or do you mean something else?

    I’m afraid you might be taking my questions as a personal attack. Please be assured, I intend no such thing. What’s happened is simply that you have made a bold claim about the recent history of Charlottesville (paragraphs 5 and 6 of your first post above), one that opposes the contentions of many respected citizens, and I’m asking you to substantiate your claim with specific evidence. My strong suspicion is that the economic history of Downtown is so complex that it is not in fact possible to demonstrate that the Mall was either good or bad for the City, but I’m sure I can learn something by listening.

  • Shoe store where Hamilton’s is now. Woolworth.

    That shoe store closed in the mid 90s, two decades after the Downtown Mall went in—there’s no reason to assume causality there. And Woolworth’s shut down all of their stores nationwide in 1997, replacing most of them (no matter how inappropriate the location) with Foot Locker, which their corporate parent also owned. That went badly in many locations (including in Charlottesville), and many of those have shut down. Incidentally, I read yesterday that the UK Woolworth’s (spun off of the American chain about thirty years ago) announced that they’re shutting down, too.

  • The date of the vote on the video may be wrong. I asked for input when I gave the DVD to the Historical Society. I am giving Francis, Charles, and Cole copies. I hope they can help me get everything in the correct order.

  • H & M Shoes moved to Fashion Square Mall, I believe. The Shoe Center, in the 300 block of East Main stayed Downtown until Mr. Geiger’s death. Don’t remember the year. J.T. Ayers owned Keller’s Shoe Store, which was where New Dominion Bookstore is now. He’s dead, but I believe his retirement led to the demise of Keller’s, which is where my first pair if “Buster Browns” came from.

    Many downtown businesses had branch stores at Barracks Road. Their downtown stores seemed to have suffered more from Fashion Square than Barracks Rd stores.

    Mitch Van Yahres was one of the first to refurbish the upstairs of a Mall storefront to use for apartments.

    Having decided he’d been mistaken, Mr. O’Mansky (the Young Men’s Shop) actually petitioned council to extend the Mall from 2nd Street W, to its present boundary near the top of Vinegar Hill. He seemed quite happy to be a Mall merchant in his last years.

  • “In the ’70s the Mall had upscale restaurants and boutique stores.”

    While it is true that the C&O was an upscale restaurant (1976 to present—I could only afford to drink there—great bar, and the only one in town, with a photo of William S. Burroughs above the bar), the other restaurants were not. And, of course, the C&O is on Water Street.

    Millers, good place to eat, had a quiet dining room on 2nd floor, but not upscale; I mean, even I could afford to eat there!

    Chief and Ann Gordon started Fellini’s in December 1979. Great food, wonderfully nutty owners and cliental, with atmosphere exuding for blocks, but not upscale. Again, a working stiff like me could afford to eat there several nights a week, which I did.

    Joanie Schatzman ran a pub named after her Irish grandmother on 2nd Street SW near Water Street. Now that was a fun place!

    The Eastern Standard(now Escafe)didn’t arrive until the early 1980’s.

    That left The Brass Rail (men only, please!), The Virginia Lunch, and the lone long-time survivor, The Nook.

    As for boutiques, I remember the place, in the Jefferson Theater building, that sold aromatic oils and New Age jewelry.

    C.H. Williams, Wiley’s, Tilman’s, and Miller & Rhodes, which were clothing and department stores, all survived into the 1980’s.

    Michael Williams and his father Ray opened the Williams Corner Bookstore in the former Kaufman’s Sons’ mens clothing store at 222 East Main. It became my favorite bookstore. Michael can be credited with bringing life back to the Mall in the evening. He always stayed open until 9; he had readings in the evening, many with important writers of the period, and with newcomers from UVa’s MFA program. I have photos of some of his late night events.

    The scent of eucalyptus and cinnamon is far more prevalent on the Mall today, than it was in the 1970’s.

  • I’m glad I was able to inspire/provoke more discussion on this history instead a monlithic view. Like I said, the Mall was a contributing factor, not the sole cause for the decline of downtown. “Decline of downtown” is not a fact but an opinion. My memory is not 100%. That’s why I like to go back to source documentation. You’ll see on my blog that I name the sources when I have them so anybody can go back and confirm or dispute my conclusions. I can always say I was mistaken. When’s the last time you saw in the Daily Progress, Hook or Cville Weekly other than the names of people they’re quoting as to what the history is?

    I don’t remember the initial vote on the Mall. I wasn’t even there but a lot people have told this to me over the years and WINA has reported the Feb. 1974 date in the last few years. Why is it so hard to report this factoid? It appears the bias is to report things that make Cville and its political elders look good and omit historical events that may, today, evoke a negative perception. If the reporting was balanced, I wouldn’t have to fill in the half that completes the story. I could just link over to it. I’m glad to see nobody’s disputing the reality of Strike 2 in my initial comment above. It’s taken years to get to that point. It’ll take a few more years for the full story and many sides of the Mall to come out.

    “Having decided he’d been mistaken, Mr. O’Mansky (the Young Men’s Shop) actually petitioned council to extend the Mall from 2nd Street W, to its present boundary near the top of Vinegar Hill.

    Notice that statement carries the same weight as what I’ve said, except I gave a date. What’s the date of the petition? What about the 2 blocks (W. 1st and W 2nd)? I think the reasoning was a complete mall had a better chance of succeeding than the partial mall. The partial mall (1st to 6th E) was not succeeding.

  • Y’all may know this, but the city website now has archived Council minutes from the 1950s to present. Here are a few links for your enjoyment…

    From what I’ve gleaned from old DP micro film, these council minutes, and other documents, business were not to happy about closing main street to all traffic and creating a pedestrian Mall…in the DP articles I read from the time, merchants were actually real mad about it. What I haven’t been able to figure out is how the design for the Mall evolved. I found a design published in the DP in 1973 that shows a Mall with a public transit lane that goes down the middle, following the exact path of the current fire lane. I’ve also found some evidence that business folks liked this idea. It is very much like Halprin’s very successful Nicolet Mall in Minneapolis, which includes a roadway for public transit running down the middle….somewhere along the line this idea was nixed, and closing it off completely to traffic was embraced. As you may know, these kind of pedestrian downtown mall designs that were adopted by cities in the 70s were almost all failures eventually…Charlottesville’s is one of the few that ended up surviving.

    1/16/1973: City agrees to pay Halprin $140,000 for a Mall design plan, to be split between the city and the downtown business community…
    http://weblink.charlottesville.org/DocView.aspx?id=191369

    11/19/1973: and building it will cost $2.5 million
    http://weblink.charlottesville.org/DocView.aspx?id=191401

    January 22, 1974: Clements wants to get a move on with the project, Hendrix too, survey done and Mall merchants not happy about closing main street to traffic
    http://weblink.charlottesville.org/DocView.aspx?id=191411

    January 28, 1974: attorney general decision, clearly merchants were not happy about closing main street to traffic
    http://weblink.charlottesville.org/DocView.aspx?id=191412

    February 7, 1974: the vote
    http://weblink.charlottesville.org/DocView.aspx?id=191414

  • Blair,
    I’ve looked again at the tape of the final public hearing, which Mr. Barbour presided over. Charles is sitting in the Mayor’s position and is dressed in a plaid coat and necktie. This suggests that that was an earlier meeting, but, again, after the Attorney General’s ruling, because Barbour, who was not the mayor until June of 1974, is presiding.

    In the final vote segment, Mayor Fife is seated in Barbour’s seat, when he chides the Attorney General. Barbour is in Fife’s seat, when he moves and votes to build the Mall. He is wearing a large bow tie. When Mitch Van Yahres casts his vote, Fife is back in the mayor’s seat, and Barbour, sporting the same bow tie, has returned to his. For me, this proves that Francis Fife’s statement about Miller’s conflict-of-interest ruling occurred at the same meeting as the two-man majority vote of Van Yahres and Barbour. Logic would dictate that the attorney general’s decision must have come BEFORE this meeting and the final vote. Perhaps Miller made a subsequent ruling that the vote was legal. We may be talking about two different rulings. I’ll be happy to give you a copy of the recording. I’m just as anxious as you are to get the sequence of events right.

    For the record: From 1970-1980, I was often one of the two cameramen at City Hall. I was not present during the hearings and the final vote, however. Alice Pool and Denny Bly were on the cameras, with Joe Price or Willie Anas switching in the City Hall basement.

    I hope Mr. Hendrix will comment directly on this, when he reads my e-mail, tomorrow.

  • I should’ve hit the refresh button before posting my last comment.

    Thanks, Dave. I need to change the sate I added to the Mall video to Feb. 7th for the Mitch-Charles vote. With your info, I should be able to fix the dates of the other hearings and votes. I can change any and all titles, as I still have the project laid out in Final Cut.

  • I should’ve hit the refresh button before posting my last comment.

    Thanks, Dave.

    Actually, Dave’s comment got caught in my anti-spam filter, and didn’t get posted until this morning. Sorry about that, Dave! And thanks for the links. I had absolutely no idea that Council minutes were archived so far back. For precisely the reason that we’re seeing here, that’s a brilliant thing for the city to do.

  • Hear! Hear! I’m searching them as we speak.

  • It’s interesting that three council members recused themselves not only from voting but also from participating in the discussion of the building of the Mall. Apparently that standard is not followed today: “Commissioner Michael Osteen owns a building next to the proposed complex, but did not recuse himself from the vote. Osteen said that because of the scale of the University of Virginia’s South Lawn Project, the additional density was appropriate at this location. He made a motion to approve the SUP with several conditions:…” http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/charlottesville_tomorrow_/2008/12/oakhurst_approval.html

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