Why is the City considering taking out the Commercial Street Mall?

 In Featured News, General News, News

There are many legitimate questions and concerns when it comes to the Commercial Street Mall. This release is an attempt to address those concerns. There is no solution that will please everybody, and nobody is dismissing countering viewpoints – of course those are more than welcome. The idea of removing the pedestrian mall is complicated and even emotional. This is an attempt to bring information to the public, helping to foster the transparency that the public deserves.

Here are some of the questions we will attempt to address – or at least shed light on the thought processes that are behind these discussions:

  1. Why is there a feeling that the mall has not been successful?
  2. Is removing the mall going to solve all retail problems in Downtown Atchison?
  3. Why now?
  4. What about the taxpayer money that was invested in the Mall just a little over a decade ago?
  5. Why can’t we use that money on streets and sidewalks in neighborhoods where it’s needed most?
  6. Why are we spending so many of our efforts on Downtown?

Why has the mall not been successful?

The success of the mall is at least debatable. City staff has talked to most of the business owners on the mall and many potential entrepreneurs / real estate investors who have considered opening businesses or undertaking projects on the mall. The general feeling is that the mall is not accomplishing one of the main objectives it was designed to do: drive pedestrian traffic to downtown businesses. In fact, the feeling is that the lack of vehicle traffic is a hindrance. The reality of today’s society is that absent a large shopping experience (like The Legends, Zona Rosa, East Hills Mall), most folks desire convenient and visible access to the front door of a business. Business owners also want convenient and visible access for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. A hindrance – even if it’s only a very minor hindrance – like a pedestrian mall is a strike against locating a business there.

The mall was built in the early 1960’s during the federal “urban renewal” era and there were many malls built even into the late 1970’s. Most of those malls have since been removed. Studies have shown that  a few key characteristics have made a handful of downtown pedestrian malls successful in this country. In any case, there needs to be a main draw for pedestrians adjacent to the mall itself. Either a major university, beach or other tourist attraction of some sort that is the main reason for driving foot traffic in the first place. Cities that have embraced Main Street and Complete Streets models have experienced turn-arounds in their downtowns with more investment, higher occupancy rates, and more pedestrian traffic. In and of itself, malls do not drive foot traffic. Here is a link to a fairly exhaustive study on pedestrian malls nationally: https://www.fresno.gov/publicworks/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2016/12/american-pedestrian-mall-experiment.pdf

The storefront development pattern with multi modal transportation access out front has been repeated with consistent success across human civilizations for thousands of years. The individual storefronts are easily modified for various types of end users over time. The pedestrian mall was an experimental departure from that classic development pattern and this effort aims to restore the traditional storefront development pattern to increase the opportunity for economic activity in downtown Atchison.

City staff has also done its own local analysis of the downtown real estate situation. From 2014-2019, addresses in the 500 block of Commercial St. have lost about 7% of their collective property valuation. In the 700 block, during that same timeframe, valuations have increased 39%. All you have to do is walk down the 500-600 blocks and compare the number of empty storefronts to the 700-800 blocks and it’s easy to see a tremendous difference. This analysis isn’t statistically bulletproof, but it is exceedingly strong evidence. Businesses and entrepreneurs are investing in the 300 and 700 blocks of Commercial more so than in the 500 and 600 blocks of Commercial.


Is removing the mall going to solve all retail problems in Downtown Atchison?

Of course not. Removing the mall isn’t a solve-all. There is no silver bullet. But if the idea is that the mall is hurting and not helping local downtown businesses, isn’t it our responsibility as a community to look at its removal? If we want Downtown businesses to be successful, we should be providing a built environment that maximizes the opportunity for small businesses and investors to succeed. Regardless of how retail evolves in the future, the City is focused on lowering barriers to entry for businesses of all kinds, especially downtown.


Why now?

Knowing what we do about the unsuccessful nature of pedestrian malls in downtown settings without a major natural pedestrian draw nearby, the city has looked at the possibility of removing the mall for a few years. The biggest problem has always been the price tag. Commissioners and staff alike thought the $2 million price was pretty steep in a community where resources are slim to begin with. When KDOT announce a few weeks ago that there would be a new statewide grant program designed to enhance transportation with an economic development benefit, it was as if the prayers of some were being answered.

Obviously, the state decision-makers agree that this is a worthwhile investment – which is why we were one of only 22 grants awarded among 92 statewide applicants. With the state footing 75% of the bill – money that was going to be spent in a Kansas community whether we applied or not – staff felt it was our responsibility to see if we would qualify.


What about the taxpayer money that was invested in the Mall just a little over a decade ago?

The mall renovations from about 12 years ago were an investment by city leaders to try and infuse life into Downtown Atchison. As with any investment, there wasn’t a guaranteed return. Also, as with any investment, just because the return isn’t what you hoped, that doesn’t preclude you from trying to make different investments in the future. You simply must learn from past experiences and do your best moving forward. If we believe that allowing vehicle traffic on the 500 and 600 blocks of Commercial Street can eliminate an important barrier to business success and future investment, we would be negligent to not make this attempt.


Why can’t we use that money on streets and sidewalks in neighborhoods where it’s needed most?

Most of City staff, and all of City leadership, lives in Atchison. We understand the state of roads and sidewalks (when even present) in neighborhoods in this community. There is a real need and this investment in the mall does not minimize that need. This grant is specifically for the mall project – applying for the same money for neighborhood streets and/or sidewalks would not have been a winning formula. We have and will continue to seek grants for those types of projects. We also have our 2020 Streets Project already in the beginning stages, which will be a $1.25 million investment in streets in many neighborhoods throughout Atchison. It’s not enough to fix all that ails us, and that money will go quickly, but it is the best we can do at the moment.


Why are we spending so many of our efforts on Downtown?

The focus on improving Downtown and then spreading our efforts out through neighborhoods comes from two specific ideologies:

  1. Neighborhood improvements help people in those neighborhoods, but don’t impact the rest of the city’s residents. Downtown is the economic hub of the community and nearly all city residents can benefit from improvements there. When dealing with limited resources, we have to try to weigh impact versus cost. Focusing Downtown helps give a greater impact for each dollar spent.
  2. Since Downtown is the economic hub, investments there have the potential to lead to further city growth through increased activity, increased entrepreneurial investment and quality of life benefits that attract employers and residents. A city is only as strong as its economic hub and quality of life amenities will allow. A stronger Downtown leads to stronger neighborhoods.