Back to the Future
The History and Future of Downtown Pedestrian Malls
Santa Barbara was not unique in responding to the COVID pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions, by closing downtown streets to create outdoor spaces to dine and to congregate. While most cities have since reopened those streets, Santa Barbara seems to have decided to use the original emergency closure to implement a permanent Pedestrian Mall on its main thoroughfare, State Street.
I say “seems to have decided” because it remains unclear exactly what the city is proposing for downtown. The City Council, which appears to be in charge of this process, is divided and disorganized. The council is unable to respond to requests by city staff or residents on some clarity about the direction of the city on the future of State Street.
A committee has been formed — the State Street Advisory Committee — to “guide” the planning process. But it is clear that their work will not be finished for two or more years. And that is just the initial planning process. They have engaged an out-of-town consultant to help lead and advise the planning at an expense that will be close to $1million.
In the meantime, a majority of the City Council has responded to citizen concerns over the current state of downtown by emphatically stating that “State Street will be a “pedestrian promenade” and it will “never” reopen as before. They have clearly insisted that existing “temporary” 2×4 and plywood dining structures (and their tin shanty roofs) in our main street will remain however long it takes before any downtown plans are approved or work begins — several years at least. Many of our most historic and iconic downtown buildings will remain hidden and obscured for that long — and perhaps forever. And the majority of our City Council is fine with that.
The same council members have been equally emphatic in rejecting calls for the return to the State Street routes of Santa Barbara’s traditional and historic parades — Fiesta, Solstice, Christmas Parade. Parades aren’t that important to the city, they tell us. They say that the Fiesta Parade will no longer be able to include horses — one of the largest equestrian parades in the county. Gone. History. Literally.
[The Independent contacted Old Spanish Days, and El Segundo Vice President Brian Schwabecher stated this year’s parade will definitely have horses.]
Before the city embarks on a project that seems to include a Pedestrian Mall that is 10 blocks, or one mile, long, it might be a good idea to review decades of experience and research on this staple of “urban renewal” from the 1960s and ’70s. The articles below are a good sample of recent analysis and scholarship done as a response to the COVID closures of downtown streets. All of the authors are all, in some ways, advocates of the Pedestrian Mall, but all of them acknowledge and discuss the past failures and potential problems with this “fad.”
In a Bloomberg article, Stephan Schmidt from Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning acknowledges the failure of the vast majority of “closed streets” experiments in the U.S. By the ’80s and ’90s most were failing. He cites a few things that may help define those that have remained or been successful. All of the authors discuss these issues.
• Youth. Success seems to be related to proximity to college or university campuses.
• Foot Traffic. Usually this comes from nearby offices or tourism. This is also related to density. Pedestrian Malls tend to do worse in suburban areas (like Santa Barbara).
• Size/Length. Bigger is not better. The “length of a Pedestrian Mall is negatively correlated to lifespan.” He cites the failure of Chicago’s State St. Mall, which opened in the mid-’90s. Its one-mile length is credited with accelerating its failure.
• Design. Serious consideration should be given to the quality of the “built environment.” Excessively over-designed spaces often include features that detract from circulation or create areas that encourage vagrancy. High quality design is essential to the success.
Researcher Dorina Pojani writes that “blight,” such as vagrancy, vandalism, and vacant buildings, often deterred the success of Pedestrian Malls. She adds, cities should not expect those issues to resolve themselves within Pedestrian Malls. She is clearly an advocate for closing streets but has a very detailed discussion of the many planning issues.
Alan Ehrenhalt writing in Governing flat out says, “the record of Pedestrian Malls is, in general, dismal, and the chance of designing a new one today and making it thrive may not be much better.” This is an excellent article and should be required reading for anyone involved in the Santa Barbara State Street “Promenade” effort. He says you cannot take cars out of a downtown and expect people to flood in. His is a clear-eyed view of the history of both failures and successes.
Michael Berne, who wrote “Pedestrian Malls: the Newest Fad?” is an advocate for the Pedestrian Mall, but he fully acknowledges their failures and shortcomings. He has some interesting counter-intuitive arguments to make. And, he makes the point that closing a major street has “profound impacts on adjoining streets.” He, like the others, cites density and length as related to success. “Even the most successful ones generally do not extend beyond three to four blocks.” Berne has broad hands-on experience with urban planning and retail revitalization.
• Santa Barbara: Haley Street to Sola Street = 1.0+ miles, 9 blocks. Population 91,000.
• Santa Monica: 3rd St. Promenade = 0.4 miles, 3 blocks. Santa Monica population 96,000, L.A. City population 4 million. L.A. County 10 million.
• Boulder, Colorado: Pearl Street = 4 blocks. Population 104,000
• Barcelona: Las Ramblas = 0.8 miles. (And has flanking lanes for buses and trucks.) Population 1.6 million
Can Santa Barbara, a city of 91,000, support one of the longest pedestrian malls in the world? Most of the authors above would be skeptical. The city has previously engaged and paid for three past studies about downtown. At least two of them stated in some form, “You don’t make streets busier by closing them.” Will the city spend nearly $1million for this new study and get a different answer?
City Council, city staff, and State Street Promenade advocates all need to study the articles below. The State Street Advisory Committee members and the consultants should all read these and the many other research articles done on pedestrian malls post-COVID.
Do the work before you tell us we will never have a Fiesta Parade on State Street again. Do the work before you unilaterally re-design one mile of Downtown Santa Barbara. Do the work before you commit the city to a Utopian idea that has shown limited success over 60 years of experimentation.
And then show us how we will avoid the pitfalls and failures of the past illustrated by these researchers.
Articles or Studies Discussed Above
“Lessons from the Rise and Fall of The Pedestrian Mall” by Stephan Schmidt — Bloomberg 2021
“American Downtown Pedestrian ‘Malls’ Rise, Fall, and Rebirth” by Dorina Pojani — Researchgate 2021
“The Strange, Troubled History of Pedestrian Malls” by Alan Erhenhalt — Governing 2021
“Pedestrian Malls: The Newest Fad?” by Michael Berne — The American Downtown Revitalization Review vol. 2, 2021
Kevin Boss is a Santa Barbara business owner and downtown property owner.