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VOL. 123 | NO. 144 | Thursday, July 24, 2008

Trolley Lambasted During Main Street Mall Meeting

By Bill Dries

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ALONG THE LINE: The Main Street Trolley’s unpredictable schedule was the dominant topic at a public hearing on whether to allow automobile traffic on the Main Street Mall. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The idea of allowing car traffic on the Main Street Mall Downtown was panned at the first public hearing held by the Center City Commission this week.

But most in the crowd of 50 who attended were far more emotional as they trashed the operation of the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s Main Street Trolley that runs along the mall.

The trolley dominated the comments from Downtown business owners and residents. The CCC will use the comments at that hearing and others to make a recommendation to the city about returning cars to Main Street between Exchange Avenue and Peabody Place.

“You wait forever for a trolley,” said Suhair Lauck, owner of The Little Tea Shop and a 26-year veteran of the Downtown business community.

First things first

On her way to the public hearing, Lauck thought she had found a rare bit of good timing when she started to walk and saw a trolley going her way. But the trolley driver told her to catch the next one. She walked to the Memphis Cook Convention Center from her business on Monroe Avenue without seeing the next one going her way.

Lauck and other business owners said before allowing cars back on the mall, city officials should work on the 16-year-old trolley system.

“The trolleys are cute. We love them,” said architect Rusty Taylor whose firm, Evans Taylor Foster Childress Architects, worked on the original conversion of Main Street to what was then called the Mid America Mall in 1976. The trolleys wouldn’t come for another 16 years. “They come by our office and shake our building every day. But the fact of the matter is they’re not a good form of transportation. The tourists love them and the riverfront loop’s great. Maybe you can figure out a way to keep that.”

He said the trolleys should be rubber- wheeled, non-track vehicles that run on electricity or alternative energy sources.

“It’s ridiculous that we’d be going backwards,” he said, citing high fuel prices and the prominence environmental concerns have in the nation’s politics.

Gary Harbor, a Downtown resident, walks with his wife to basketball games at FedExForum from their condominium at The Claridge House at Main and Adams Avenue.

“About 6:30 every night of a game we’ll be out in front of The Claridge House. We’ll walk to Beale Street and look behind us and not see a trolley – every time,” Harbor said. “I love the trolley, but it’s just not there.”

Finding retail

John Dudas, who was head of the Center City Commission in the late 1970s, suggested the city consider a trial period of possibly two to six months allowing automobile traffic to test how it would work.

Taylor questioned what that would accomplish.

“How about whether you get retail development?” he asked Dudas. “That is the test.”

Patrick Reilly, who with his wife owns The Majestic Grille near the south end of the mall at Peabody Place, pointed to businesses along South Main that aren’t prospering even though it is open to traffic.

“If cars were the silver bullet, South Main would be packed,” he said. He also said opening his section of Main to cars might spread the persistent problem of cruising to the mall.

Reilly’s restaurant is one of several that feature tables and chairs for customers outside on the mall. He said the problem of retail on the mall isn’t as simple as allowing cars.

“If it needs to be done, it needs to be implemented in a larger context,” he said. “We keep referring to this as a Main Street Mall. It’s not a pedestrian mall. It’s a street on which you cannot drive. It’s a street with holes in the ground, derelict buildings, absentee landlords, panhandlers. … If we simply allow traffic and do nothing else, it will continue to have these problems except you’ll be able to drive down and see them.”

Realtor Adam Slovis backed a trial traffic period for the mall.

“Based on my meetings with tenants and prospective tenants, it is a major issue that the visibility and the exposure to their storefronts is nonexistent to traffic,” he said. “They don’t necessarily want to be able to park on Main Street. They understand that. But (they want) to have the visibility of traffic coming by.”

Dying breed

The Main Street Mall is one of 30 or fewer pedestrian malls that have survived from a crop of 200 of the projects that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s across the country, according to Center City Commission President Jeff Sanford. Memphis leaders were like most leaders of cities with once-vibrant Downtowns who watched as retail trade declined and moved to the suburbs.

Most of the surviving malls are getting a second look. Sanford said the Main Street Mall should be part of that examination.

“There’s about $3 billion worth of current development projects in Downtown. But only a small percentage of that $3 billion of development is occurring along Main Street,” he said.

Along Main Street between the Civic Center Plaza and Peabody Place, Sanford estimates there is a 35 to 40 percent ground-floor retail vacancy rate.

As for lifting the car ban, Sanford said some of his friends favor it and some don’t.

“And I’m with my friends,” he said.

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