Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is 32 years old and still thriving

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by Dennis Holder

After 10 years in a strip shopping center outside the city limits, Harry Marshall returns to his business roots this month when he relocates the Young Men’s Shop to Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.  Marshall relishes the move back to where he started in the clothing business, back to where walk-in customers stop to chat and buy — back to the heart of the city.

Now in its 32nd year,  the eight-block outdoor pedestrian mall has evolved into a model revitalization project — a place where people shop, work, eat, live, play.

Marshall’s store joins an eclectic mix of nearly 200 other businesses: restaurants, offices, banks and boutiques.  So popular is the shopping nexus that it ranks as the Charlottesville area’s second leading tourist attraction with an estimated 500,000 to a million visitors a year. That puts it up there with the Grounds of the University of Virginia and ahead of No. 3-ranked Monticello.

Marshall moved out of the Downtown Mall in 1997 when he thought business would be better out on Route 29.  “I’m really looking forward to getting back. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Fun may be the elusive ingredient that makes the mall a prime business location. “It’s a happenin’ place,” says Robert E. Spekman, the Tayloe Murphy professor of business at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. “It’s a great place for people watching. It’s also a great place to shop.”

Indeed, the bricked-over, blocked-off Main Street may provide the best people-watching spot this side of Times Square. On a pleasant afternoon, University of Virginia students scarf burgers at outdoor cafes while professors browse the seven independent bookstores. Lawyers in pin-stripe suits walk over from the nearby Albemarle County courthouse to grab a bite of lunch. 

Pets are welcome, so long as they are leashed. The city allocates space for sidewalk vendors, and buskers show up to perform for the crowd. During a recent visit, a young man with dreadlocks played a march on his trombone.

Tourists from the Omni Hotel, which anchors the mall’s west end, often meander through the mall, passing five banks, 54 restaurants, two drugstores, a multi-screen movie house and an ice skating park.

The marquee of the historic Paramount Theatre — restored and reopened in 2004 after 30 years of disuse — invites them to performances by artists such as Ralph Stanley or Judy Collins.  Farther down, tourists wonder at a structure that resembles a giant kite — the roof of the mall’s Pavilion.  The 3,700-seat outdoor amphitheater provides a spacious venue for outdoor concerts, some free and some not.  It was built by a local real estate developer with a $2.4 million loan from the Charlottesville Industrial Authority.

Besides people, there’s a colorful roster of clothing shops, antique stores and art galleries with names like The Mole Hole, The Needle Lady and Studio Baboo. Visitors who reach the mall’s far end can peruse messages chalked on a permanent blackboard installed by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression as a public free-for-all-forum. There’s advice:  “Smile like you mean it” and personal opinion as in “Eric has a cute butt.”

Jack Jouett rode here
Historical markers trace the promenade back to the 1730s, when it was known as Three Notch’d Road, the main highway from Colonial Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley.  Markers note that Jack Jouett rode this way to warn Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislature that the British were coming.

Duesenbergs, Hudsons and Model A’s still plied the highway in 1927, when the first proprietor founded the Young Men’s Shop, the business that Marshall owns today. In the 1930s, U.S. Highway 250 supplanted the route and Three Notch’d Road became Main Street.

By 1958, when the Barracks Road Shopping Center opened, downtown business began to plummet. In the early 1970s, shoppers had deserted Main Street. That’s when business owners came up with the idea for a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

On New Year’s Day 1975, vehicular traffic stopped on East Main Street, and construction began on the Downtown Mall. It opened in 1976 but did not enjoy immediate success.  “It took a long time, but today the mall is considered a model project,” says Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s assistant director of economic development.

What’s the secret?
“We get three or four delegations a year from other cities,”  adds Engel. Some of them come from areas where mall projects are struggling; others hope to revitalize their downtown areas. “I wish we had a playbook where we could tell them, ‘This is how you do it.’ But we don’t really know why this is a success,” says Engel. “It just grew up organically through luck, public support and a lot of hard work.”

Much of the hard work fell to businesses on the mall.  Robert Stroh, co-chairman of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville and manager of Charlottesville Parking Center Inc., says owners came up with innovative schemes.  “We have special promotions, holiday shows and festivals, anything to attract people,” he says.

While a cheerleader for the business community, Stroh acknowledges the value of city government as a partner in the mall’s operation. Lots of police officers on foot or bicycle help shoppers feel safe. Administrative support to find space for sidewalk dining and small vendors’ kiosks brings order. And, of course, landscaping, trash collection and general maintenance, all provided by the city at an annual cost of about $350,000, are essential. Surprisingly, what the city doesn’t provide is quantitative data on the jobs and tax revenue generated by its celebrated mall. “We are in the process of trying to develop the necessary computer system … to provide totals on gross sales and employment,” says Aubrey Watts, the city’s director of economic development.

The city and the business association consider the mall a success but see challenges ahead. Construction begins soon on a nine-story luxury hotel scheduled to open next spring. One of the principals behind the project, says Watts, is Halsey Minor, a wealthy Charlottesville native who recently purchased the historic Carter’s Grove plantation in Williamsburg.

Construction also begins soon on a four-year mall renovation. Charlottesville has earmarked $7.5 million to upgrade underground utilities, add substrate beneath walkways and replace most of the brickwork along the promenade. It’s also looking at ways to create more parking.

Some business owners fret that the construction will hurt their trade. Marshall isn’t worried. He expects to enjoy a huge advantage that he missed over the last 10 years.  “In the strip shopping center, we got no walk-in business. Zero,” he says. “On the Downtown Mall, there’s always going to be a lot of walk-in business. People are there. They dine. They shop. We’ll be fine.” 

Slideshow: Downtown Mall: 30 years

Charlottesville Public

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