Public Square

by Tom Reed
WMV Web News Cleveland
Story filed October 28, 2002

Cleveland’s Public Square needs to be spruced up. So it’s a welcome sign to hold public forums like the one October 19th at the Old Stone Church.

But some of us would say “not so fast” to the idea of closing the square to traffic and turning it into a park. The experience of my home town, Springfield, Missouri, might be instructive.

Springfield (population 150,000) is considerably smaller than Cleveland. But there are similarities. As in Cleveland, the square is the hub of the downtown district, and its major business streets bisect it into four quadrants.

When I was growing up, Springfield’s public square boasted a department store, a ten-story office building, four variety stores, several clothing stores and other retailers, a bank, and two movie theaters. It was the heart of a thriving downtown district. But the seeds of change were already being sown. Businesses were springing up on the outskirts, following the population growth southward. Strip malls were followed by office complexes and eventually a large enclosed mall.

The city fathers responded by turning the square and sections of the streets leading into it into a traffic-free pedestrian mall. The square, renamed Park Central, was beautified with trees, fountains, and benches. The only thing missing was people. They were all out shopping at the suburban malls.

Many years later, the city reversed its course and reopened the square to traffic. But by this time there was little reason to go downtown. Most of the retailers and office jobs had moved out. Recently, there have been signs of a downtown revival, including the opening of some trendy restaurants in the area. But for all practical purposes, the new shopping centers have become the de facto downtown.

The pedestrian mall idea was not the only, or even the major, reason for the decline of Springfield’s downtown. It would have happened anyway. But there’s little doubt that curtailing traffic hastened its demise. A much more prominent example is Chicago’s ill-fated experiment to turn State Street into a transit mall. It took only a few years for city planners to realize their mistake and reopen the street to traffic. There are many things that might be done to revitalize Cleveland’s downtown, and to make Public Square more inviting. Making it more difficult for people to drive there is not one of them.

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Copyright 2002 Tom Reed