Winchester’s Pedestrian Mall had been developed during the same period that Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin was working with the City of Charlottesville in the 1970s on a similar open air Main Street concept in central Virginia. Charlottesville’s Mall design, which was heavily influence by community participation events (called “Take Part” events), included closing off a main retail thoroughfare to vehicular traffic in order to create safe spaces for people to shop, eat in outdoor cafes, and to watch public events.
Winchester’s Pedestrian Mall original design also included closing of the main city road to vehicular traffic, but currently allows vehicles to cross the mall at certain intersections. Originally, Charlottesville’s mall did not allow vehicular traffic to cross, which resulted in the space obtaining “island” status – and contributed to a downturn in visitors. In later years, Charlottesville has allowed vehicular traffic to cross the Mall, which has increased visibility, and overall safety on the mall, though has created pedestrian safety issues at these crossings, which the City has addressed in a variety of ways over the years.
Back to Winchester
Prior to the renovations of the Winchester Mall, the space showed expected wear and tear, but also was experiencing declining regular visitations from patrons. Despite the variety of stores, a museum, restaurants and bars, the Mall itself was not inviting, and lacked a distinct sense of place. At either end of the Mall, the physical demarcations between regular vehicular roadway and mall were only signaled with a paving change and the occasional sandwich board sign. Ash trees were in decline from the emerald ash borer, and other species were in bad shape. Some sections of the mall contained excellent specimen trees that needed reinforcement. A small fountain off to one side of the central space seemed out of place. It was a space that felt resultant rather than intentional.
The utility infrastructure project opened up the conversation about what the Mall meant to the community, and what it could be transformed into to truly serve their needs. How could the design team and the community manifest the importance of this space in physical form, and provide unique places within the mall to serve the community’s needs? How could ideas for future programming of the space by the City’s staff of engineers and the Downtown Manager shape the physical space? How could ideas about space inform future programming?
The first challenge was how to mark the entrances to the space. Many ideas for gateways were explored both in physical form and social use patterns. The final gateway design took cues from the existing architecture on the mall, as well as iron work elsewhere in the City. Small fountains were incorporated with seatwall enclosures to create meeting places. Fire trucks and delivery vehicles are allowed on the mall, which influenced the height of the gateways.
The City Engineer suggested that tree plantings should be placed within seat walls rather than at grade. I was shocked, and pleased. I knew that the inclusion of seatwall planters throughout the mall would make for great places to congregate and provide opportunities for seasonal plantings that would be protected from foot traffic and de-icing chemicals, but also that it would come with an expense. Ultimately, it was important to the community and has become one of the favorite attributes of the project.
The community suggested an ice rink and splash fountain – the former was eliminated from the project, but the later was included and has become a destination for families on hot summer days. Even in winter, the lights of the splash fountain are turned on, and create dramatic and colorful patterns – especially when it snows.
The final suggestion from the community was for a public restroom, which was not present in the previous design. The City decided that it should be fully automated, but a modern architectural piece seemed out of place in this historic venue. The solution was to create a shell structure that referenced a small existing building on site. Stone walls and metal standing seam roof are in harmony with the context. In the center of the structure is a pump room for the splash fountain which also provides access for maintenance to the mechanics of the automated restrooms.
All the gateways and spaces created within the Winchester Mall have improved it greatly, but just as important as the physical improvements have been the effort to fully program the spaces year round. A variety of events from January to December give visitors reasons to engage with the community in this space multiple times a year. The Apple Blossom festival, music concerts, movies, running races, holiday programs, KidzFest, and OctoBeer Fests all share the space to provide events for all ages. In fact, increased programming has seen a marked economic impact to the area. One year after the mall’s construction completion, the City’s tax revenue increased over 250,000 from the Downtown area, and meals spending increased by approximately 3 million dollars. Another indication of the success of the space is parking revenue, which increased by 3,500 cars year over year. As if that was not enough, there were 24 new businesses that opened the year after the mall was complete, and more are slated to be added in the coming years.
Collaboration for the greater good
If City leaders had just viewed this project as an infrastructure fix, they would have missed a tremendous opportunity. Through a partnership of designers, engineers, planners, community members and staff, the project has transformed the mall from a declining city asset into an important civic space and significant revenue generator. Thinking outside the box has created a region-wide destination that is a model other communities. The City realized early on that our civic spaces increase in social and economic value as we maintain and improve them. The design team responded to this realization by working with City Staff to provide context sensitive solutions that addressed current and future needs. The downtown Manager recognized new opportunities that were provided in the design, and incorporated them into the larger downtown programming plan. The result of all this collaboration is a flexible City space that is cherished by the community and visitors alike for years to come.