When two blocks of Fourth Street in Downtown Albuquerque were closed to traffic in the early 1980s, the plan was to create a shady oasis that would bring Downtown workers out for a noontime stroll and attract new retail activity to the barren blocks that bridged Central and the Civic Plaza.
So out went the pavement and the cars between Central and Tijeras. In went a brick sidewalk and trees and benches and planters. The pedestrian mall, a $639,000 project, was opened to great fanfare in 1984. It got good reviews, and it was described in a newspaper story as “a cog in the turnaround in Downtown.”
Thirty years later, the Fourth Street pedestrian mall is being torn up and those two blocks are being opened up to vehicular traffic again. The 66 trees, which had grown thick-trunked and shady, have been cut down, the brick is being ripped up and the planters demolished.
This time the Fourth Street redesign costs $1.35 million and envisions two lanes of traffic, parking spaces and wide sidewalks where cafes can sprout up, where new trees can grow and where Downtown workers by day and tourists and locals by night can meander from Civic Plaza to the merchants on Central Avenue.
The redesign is being touted as – wait for it – an important cog in the turnaround of Downtown.
A cynic can look at these two blocks of Fourth Street as a poster child for wasteful government dithering and a refusal to acknowledge that Downtown has bigger problems than a mall or a not-a-mall can fix.
But like most things in life, it’s more nuanced than that. Times change, cities evolve and what served a purpose in one era can be seen as a barrier to progress in the next.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal was afoot in cities all over the country, and civic leaders here started discussions about how to inject more life into Albuquerque’s Downtown. Those discussions resulted in the construction of Civic Plaza and the Convention Center Downtown and – even though it didn’t come to fruition until the 1980s – the closing of Fourth Street to traffic.
David Dekker was fresh out of architecture school when he got the assignment to design the pedestrian mall. He’s 58 today, a principal at Studio Southwest Architects, and surprisingly lama-like in his reaction to his work being bulldozed.
“Impermanence,” Dekker ventures. “Man can build and man can tear down.”
The mall worked well for the first half of its life, Dekker said. “It was a pretty popular place with office workers, a place where you could get into nature without leaving the city.”
But in current times, it had its problems. It was dark at night and, with bar traffic concentrated only on its Central end, it attracted illegal activity, specifically gangs, according to Michael J. Riordan, the director of the city’s Department of Municipal Development.
The mall never was able to attract retail businesses, and as the city’s homeless population grew without a proportional growth in shelter beds and services, the raised planters that offered government workers a place to enjoy their brown-bag lunch in the ’80s became attractive places for homeless people to nap during the day and sleep at night.
“It had become an area that was comfortable for them, with the planters and sleeping on them, and I think it was uncomfortable for a lot of other people when it became a camp-out situation,” Riordan said.
Despite its problems, the mall remained a shady respite in a sun-baked Downtown. Last year, the locust trees that lined the mall were dyed bright blue as part of “The Blue Tree Project,” an international land art piece designed to bring attention to deforestation. In November, the bright blue tree trunks in contrast with their bright yellow leaves, the Fourth Street mall was one of the most enchanting places in all of Albuquerque.
Riordan said discussions with Downtown merchants, advocates for the homeless, police and an expert in how people navigate neighborhoods on foot resulted in the current plan. An early idea of keeping the pedestrian mall closed to traffic but improving it was scrapped, he said, because of the nature of many of the buildings that front onto those blocks.
A true pedestrian mall needs a critical mass of retail activity that will attract and retain people without auto traffic moving through, Riordan said, and spaces like Century Link, AT&T, the Telephone Museum, the Hyatt and a city parking garage that front onto Fourth Street aren’t particularly amenable to street-level retail development. Having traffic through the area should help keep it active, he said, while retail businesses fill in the other storefronts.
By the end of this year, the two blocks will be replanted with 31 new trees – 18 ash trees and 13 elms – that, with time, will replace that shady canopy. It will also have lots of lighting so after dark it doesn’t become an enter-at-your-own risk zone.
It will have long swaths of sidewalk 16 feet wide, which Riordan envisions will attract sidewalk cafes that will bring people to the stretch and create the people-friendly crossroads that’s been the vision for decades now.
I’ll refrain from making any sweeping predictions about the success or failure of the new design; it would be too tempting for some journalist decades from now to pull out this piece as evidence of some wide-eyed vision that never quite came into focus.
You know, impermanence. Man can build and man can tear down.