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A driving force for change

Published Oct. 1, 2005

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

When the city banned cars and trucks on N Franklin Street more than 20 years ago, the open-air pedestrian mall was meant to become a symbol of downtown's vitality.

It has, and that's a problem. Franklin Street bustles with activity at lunch, but it languishes at other times, especially after dark.

In one sense, Franklin Street is no different from similar experiments in cities across the country. The creation of downtown pedestrian malls has done little to slow the departure of big stores to suburban shopping malls.

In other ways, Franklin Street's troubles are as unique to Tampa as boliche and cafe con leche. For one thing, much of the focus of downtown development has shifted south, toward the waterfront.

As if that were not enough, until recently anyone plucky enough to sit at the mall's molded fiberglass tables for lunch found himself harangued by street preacher Derek Chamblee.

So nearly a quarter-century after he took the first steps to create Franklin Street mall, Mayor Dick Greco is back in City Hall again. This time, however, he is thinking out loud about reopening Franklin Street to cars.

"Things have changed," Greco said simply last week. Now he wants the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission to consider the idea of reopening Franklin Street to two-way traffic, at least part of the time.

It is an idea gaining credibility among city planners nationwide.

Twenty years ago, Bill Boothe said, many of his planning colleagues "thought that the way to save downtowns was to convert main streets to pedestrian malls."

"Unfortunately, as time has gone on, we have seen that, not only here, but in many, many places, that has not been the case," said Boothe, head of the planning commission's urban design section. "There is something about having automobile traffic on streets that works, and there is something about having streets without automobile traffic that doesn't work."

Boothe said the planning commission probably will begin looking into Greco's request over the next two or three months along with members of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, city traffic officials and property owners along Franklin Street.

One option would be to keep Franklin Street closed to traffic during the day but open it to cars at night to create some activity on the street. Greco said any changes, however, must reserve space for vendors, pedestrians and parking.

Whatever the solution, downtown insiders and casual visitors agree that something needs to be done.

At mid-morning one day last week, Deborah Rossman began flagging down passers-by on Franklin Street in the hopes of finding someplace to buy a baby gift.

"I see a walking mall with no traffic at all and definitely there are empty spaces," said Rossman, a visiting crew member for the traveling production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. "Tampa needs something."

After shows last week, Rossman and other crew members ended up driving to the restaurant row of S Howard Avenue for dinner. Ybor City was a possibility too, but what they would like _ a nice downtown brew pub _ is nowhere in sight.

The decline of Franklin Street Mall is more than anecdotal. In 1989, stores occupied 54.6 percent of the mall's storefronts. Six years later, that figure had fallen to 34 percent.

In the two years since then, Franklin Street has shown signs of "coming back a little bit," said Tampa Downtown Partnership president Jim Cloar.

After a couple of vacancies, the 500 block of Franklin Street is on its way to being fully leased, Cloar said. He also understood that the recent closing of the Banker's Note clothing store was more a matter of corporate policy than geographic necessity. In fact, Cloar said Banker's Note kept its Franklin Street store open longer than other stores and sent clothes from other stores to that location as a way of clearing out its inventory.

If Tampa does eliminate or change its pedestrian mall, it will join a growing list of cities doing so. As many as half of the 200 or so cities with pedestrian malls have reconsidered the idea, and some have taken the costly steps necessary to make the change.

Kalamazoo, Mich., which created the nation's first pedestrian mall, has had second thoughts, as have communities such as Eugene, Ore., Madison, Wis., Sacramento, Calif., Chicago and Buffalo, N.Y.

In the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., officials created their 2{-block pedestrian mall the same year as Tampa but reopened half of it to traffic in 1988.

At one time, the State Street mall was Oak Park's main shopping district, but that was before big retailers such as Marshall Fields and Montgomery Ward's closed or moved away.

"We saw a noticeable decline in sales and foot traffic, and we were going through a period where we were losing stores" as suburban shopping malls rose in prominence, said Paula Barrington, executive director of the non-profit Downtown Oak Park. "We lost pretty much the majority of our anchor stores. . . . So the consensus was that we need to put the street back in to allow for more traffic for existing retailers."

The one block that remains does well because it has convenient parking at one end and a good mix of shops and because downtown Oak Park has taken some steps that had little to do with the mall.

"Just because we put the street back in that didn't solve all of our problems at once," Barrington said. A downtown theater added screens, a few new restaurants opened, and development officials tore down some long-vacant buildings, made parking more accessible and reserved one of the newly empty lots for new stores.

Not coincidentally, that is similar to what Greco has in mind for downtown Tampa. Last week, he announced that the construction of a new federal courthouse on N Florida Avenue will allow the city to pursue a variety of developments on the northern edge of downtown.

The proposed Kress block redevelopment would create more than 147,000 square feet of shopping, plus offices and up to 70 loft apartments, on the 800 block of N Franklin Street.

If they also get built, two nearby hotel projects and a new city parking garage would create the critical mass of activity along Franklin Street. In all, Greco said the courthouse could make possible $66.7-million in development, much of it fueled by $25.7-million in federal loans.

"The good thing here is that you're able to get a resurgence of this area all at one time," he said. "As this (new development) begins to happen, I think everything else becomes easier."