By Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In 1974, the

Charlottesville City Council

made a decision that led to the transformation of the city’s central business district. To generate more business downtown, Council voted to convert East Main Street into a pedestrian mall. The Charlottesville

Downtown Mall

was dedicated in 1976.

In 2010, three of the people who were on Council in 1974 gathered in CitySpace to talk about the early days of the mall as part of an exhibit sponsored by the

Charlottesville Community Design Center


Charles Barbour


Francis Fife

, and

George Gilliam

all spoke at a panel discussion held Monday.

“All of us had expressed interest in the idea of doing something dramatic with downtown,” Gilliam said. “We all knew we needed to do something in the heart of the city to save it.”

The downtown core of the city was losing customers to suburban shopping centers such as the

Barracks Road Shopping Center

. Even though the city annexed that property in 1963, many city elders had concerns about the future of the central city and its property values.

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“There was a legitimate fear that the core of the city was going to end up like… so many cities that had just given way to the suburbs,” Gilliam said.

Though he was a supporter of the idea from the beginning, Gilliam was not permitted to actually vote on the project. He said opponents of the project claimed that he, Fife and fellow Councilor

Jill Rinehart

all had conflicts of interest because they had associations with banks that had a financial stake in the future of downtown.

“It turned out that if you made more than $5,000 a year and if you worked on a business on the mall, that was one of the things that excluded you,” said Fife, who was vice president of the now-defunct People’s Bank at the time.

Only Barbour and the late

Mitchell Van Yahres

were able to vote on the issue. Barbour was the first African-American to serve as Mayor.

“This mall belongs to all of us because a black man and a white man [approved it],” Barbour said.

“We pretty well knew it was going to be politically unpopular because big changes always are hard for people to get used to,” Gilliam said. He said the $4.1 million price tag created “heated opposition” to the project, but Council and a special group called the

Central City Commission

spent a year and a half trying to make sure the mall would be supported by the community.

“We decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to have to do it in a first class way,” Gilliam said.

The firm Lawrence Halprin & Associates was hired to conduct a retreat to help Council and members of the Central City Commission develop a plan to create a new public space for downtown. Gilliam recalled that Halprin said at the time that it would take as long as a decade for the mall to become successful.

At the panel discussion, current Mayor

Dave Norris

pointed out that many communities that created pedestrian malls later abandoned them. He asked why Charlottesville decided to stick it out, even though the ten-year transition period that Halprin said it would take took a lot longer.

“After we built it, we were stuck [with it],” Barbour said. “We couldn’t take the brakes off and start all over again… [we hoped] that things would improve, and they have.”

Today, Barbour said he would like to see the return of a department store to downtown. However, Gilliam told the audience he doubted that would happen any time soon.


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