From Wheels to Heels: The Mall City

mall-city-03-0869-240.jpg

Kalamazoo Mall, ca. 1960
Kalamazoo Valley Museum photo 94.5.36

 

Eisenhower was President. Elvis was King. It was 19 August 1959, and a new era in Kalamazoo's history was about to begin. The nation's first pedestrian shopping mall opened on the two blocks of South Burdick Street between Water and South Streets with much fanfare, a mere two and a half months after construction first began. The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was on hand to celebrate the event with 50,000 people who visited the mall on its first day, more than ten times the usual number.

Revitalizing Downtown

So why would a city construct a pedestrian mall in the heart of its business district? Like the rest of the country, Kalamazoo faced urban decay. The growth of suburban shopping centers raised fears that downtown would lose its place as the business and cultural heart of the community. The city hoped that a mall would bring back business and counter the decline in real estate values.

The Gruen Plan

The Kalamazoo 1980 plan, also known as the Gruen Plan, was presented by the architectural firm Victor Gruen & Associates in March 1958. Its revolutionary design called for a loop street system that would encircle downtown; a series of pedestrian malls, new parking lots, and renovated stores and offices would lie in the center. Faced with maintaining the status quo or taking a bold step forward, the City Commission approved the design, although funding problems prevented the full plan from being implemented. Shared by the City of Kalamazoo and the property owners fronting the two-block mall, the cost of construction was only $60,000. A third block was added from South Street to Lovell Street in 1960, and a fourth between Water and Eleanor Streets in 1975. Through the leadership of Mayor Glenn Allen Jr., Elton Ham, Garret VanHaaften, Ray Dykema, Irving Gilmore, and others, the Kalamazoo Mall became a reality.

A Street Once More

Kalamazooans enjoyed the mall for nearly forty years, but ultimately it could not counter the continued effects of suburbanization. Critics complained of the lack of convenient parking, the exposure of shoppers to bad weather, public perceptions of crime, and less shopping diversity. In the mid-1990's the proposed introduction of an access street through two blocks of the mall became the most controversial component of Project Downtown's 10-point plan for Kalamazoo's revitalization. In a hotly contested election, voters approved the access street in May 1997. Construction on the 14-foot wide street began a year later in April 1998. The city officially reopened the street on 9 October 1998 with a weekend celebration highlighted by a visit from Governor John Engler, a big band concert reflecting the one in 1959, and a fireworks display. There was even a citywide raffle to select the lucky citizen who would drive the first car down the mall since 1959.

The unprecedented decision to construct a pedestrian mall in the heart of its business district placed Kalamazoo in the national spotlight in 1959. Today, critics argue that the heyday of the pedestrian mall has passed. Of the over two hundred pedestrian malls constructed in the 1970's and 1980's, only a few remain. People are still clearly divided over this issue. Yet despite the disagreement over the Kalamazoo Mall itself, the two sides ultimately want the same thing: a healthy and vibrant downtown.

 

Sources

Books

Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream 

  • Hardwick, M. Jeffrey
  • Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • H 921 G886H

The Kalamazoo Mall 

  • Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce
  • Kalamazoo: The City, 1973.
  • H 977.418 K1434

Articles

"A look back at dates: Kalamazoo Mall" 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 August 1997, p. A2

"Street supporters, opponents make their case" 

  • Kalamazoo  Gazette, 4 May 1997, p. A1

"Ray Dykema remembers when: the making of the Mall" 

  • Encore, April 1987, p. 28

"Mall aboard!: renovation helps put downtown on a new track" 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 October 1998, p.A1

Local History Room Files

Subject File: City Planning (Kalamazoo) 

Subject File: Kalamazoo Mall