Richmond, Indiana

A Changing Vision

Richmond, Indiana: A Changing Vision

Saturday, April 6, 1968, the day before Easter Sunday, three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King was a day that changed the history of Richmond, Ind., and the central business district forever. That sunny afternoon, which began with bustling shoppers finishing up their Easter purchases, was to end in tragedy. A massive gas explosion at 2:00 p.m. claimed the lives of 41 citizens--men, women, and children-- and caused $15 million in damages. Fourteen square blocks of the downtown were ravaged, with one block totally destroyed. Escalating fires, debris, and black smoke could be seen for miles.

Many in our community have referred to that day as our darkest hour yet our finest. The local newspaper, the Palladium-Item, embodied the spirit of the community in its editorial, published on the Monday after the explosion: "Nothing molds a community into a single spirit of compassionate helpfulness … more quickly than a disaster of the kind that struck Richmond Saturday afternoon….

When one considers the way in which literally hundreds of persons pitched into help, in more ways than ever can be acknowledged, or probably ever known, a feeling of pride in one's community is stirred....

All pitched in to lend a hand. That applies to heroic rescues at the scene, blood donations at the hospital and help of innumerable other kinds, material as well as spiritual.

Volunteers by the scores are still aiding in the formidable task of clearing the debris, and the heartbreaking search for bodies of additional victims.

Without this assistance, official agencies said the task would have been virtually insurmountable. In the aftermath of the tragedy, much remains to be done.... This is a tragic moment for a stunned community. But it is, despite our sadness, a proud moment too, because of the tremendous spirit which spontaneously broke forth."

Triumph over Tragedy

Clearly, downtown Richmond changed forever that tragic afternoon. Downtown Richmond was now a constant reminder of vast destruction, business closings, and human loss. Consequently, many business owners became leery of downtown and elected to relocate on the newly developed East Side of the city, near the newly built strip center and the enclosed mall at the new Interstate 70 interchange. Downtown's first competition had emerged.

The community leaders knew something had to be done and were committed to rebuilding the center city. Two years before the explosion, the City Redevelopment Commission had been exploring the idea of putting in a pedestrian mall downtown. Researching this newfound concept, based on a pedestrian mall in Kalamazoo, Mich., was Ken Paust, a second-generation downtown business owner. Initially, the idea received a lukewarm reception by community leaders but under the circumstances, many came to believe a pedestrian mall could save the downtown from further decline. They believed that if the downtown were physically attractive, it would grow economically.

Paust led the pedestrian mall committee, with the assistance of Phil Uhl, a local architect. Uhl designed a five-block mall that included fountains, lavish landscaping, brick sidewalks, an amphitheater and sound system, benches, and freestanding metal canopies. Fondly referred to as mushrooms, the canopies served two purposes: they prevented people from seeing the deteriorating historic buildings when they looked up, and they provided shade and shelter. Known as the Promenade, Richmond's pedestrian mall was unique and beautifully landscaped; it attracted positive attention and instilled hope for the central business district. It even won the "President's Award" in 1974 for urban landscaping.

For the first three years of its existence, the Promenade was the city's crown jewel--a success story of triumph over tragedy. Visitors from other communities came to Richmond to experience the uniqueness of its mall. After five years, however, decline became noticeable. Maintenance, provided by the city, was trimmed back due to budget reductions. The Promenade was no longer being maintained at the level needed.

A Need for Renewal

Still local citizens were split on what to do. Some believed it had been wrong to close Main Street to traffic, while others felt it had saved the downtown. In the end, all agreed that something needed to be done about the Promenade; the downtown was declining economically and physically. This decline continued for another eight years until a broad-based group of concerned citizens and business owners formed Main Street Richmond- Wayne County in 1987.

That year, the Main Street Richmond-Wayne County organization began to implement the Main Street Four-Point Approach to renew the center city. In 1990 the organization hosted a resource team from the National Main Street Center. They recommended the following:

  • Make the pedestrian mall the focus of the entire downtown district or take it out.
  • If you choose to keep the mall, redesign it for the 1990s and then find a way to use it!--and not just for promotion.
  • The promenade should be active 12 hours a day.
  • The area needs reinvestment and overall management.

The resource team went on to warn that if Richmond was not going to reinvest in the Promenade and manage it for the entire district it had the potential to empty the downtown in two to five years time. Main Street Richmond-Wayne County recognized the urgency and validity of the resource team's recommendations. Community leaders, however, did not feel the same urgency, due to an unstable economic environment.

As a result, the predictions of the resource team became a reality. Over the next five years, the downtown was hit hard by the loss of Knollenberg's Department Store, an architectural landmark that had served the Richmond community for more than 135 years and the downtown vacancy rate soared to an all-time high of 28 percent. Decline and apathy about the downtown set in, complicated by double-digit unemployment in the community, decreasing population, and the downsizing and relocation of many companies.

In 1995, the mayor, Roger Cornett approached Main Street Richmond Wayne County (MSRWC) and expressed his strong support of reinvestment in the central business district. Richmond was already on the upswing economically, and Cornett understood, the role and importance a vibrant, viable downtown could play in the continuing economic development of the community. MSRWC went back to the mayor with an idea--would he allow Main Street to hire a consultant before the city poured additional dollars into the pedestrian mall, when it was clearly not working. The mayor agreed not only to fund the project but allowed MSRWC to hire and facilitate the study. It was a first.

Main Street's board of directors, led by President Joe Chamness, were united in the process they wanted to follow: it must be inclusive; it must be economically driven, it must include action steps and, finally, it needed to present both the option of removing the pedestrian mall or updating it. With the assistance of representatives from the city, economic development department, chamber of commerce, banks and businesses, MSRWC selected Michael Schuster Associates (MSA) of Cincinnati. The MSA team, led by architect Craig Gossman, consisted of urban planners, leasing experts, architects, historic preservationists, and retail leasing market experts.

The MSA team understood the need for community involvement and for the project to be economically driven. Gossman discussed a comprehensive approach that dealt with issues of strategic leasing, business recruitment, business clustering, architectural and graphic identity, in-fill and rehab development opportunities, design development, wayfinding and signs, traffic flow, parking, mixed-use development, upper-story renovation, linkages to neighborhoods and other districts, overall management of the downtown area, marketing, and broad-based community involvement.

Said Gossman, "The ultimate goal of the vision process was to focus energy [on] ... producing a plan that truly belonged to the community. To achieve this, the MSA team developed a multi-disciplinary planning process that employed in-depth community input. It was a multi-disciplinary planning process because experience had taught us that community redevelopment cannot succeed without the integration of economics, marketing, design, and organization. Community input is founded in the firm belief that, wherever possible, citizens must have a voice in changes that affect their lives."

Creating a New Vision

With this in mind, the MSA team acted both as planning experts and facilitators. The process involved collection of existing information, visual and economic analysis, interviews of various constituencies in the Richmond community, an open town meeting, and, ultimately, physical and economic developmental planning. In addition to market research data, MSA gathered information by meeting with the following groups: city and county government; the financial community; the health care community; Indiana University East and Earlham College; merchants, property owners, and local industrialists; the cultural arts community; local developers, realtors, and investors; the clergy associations; neighborhood groups; and the general public.

In April 1996, after two months of interviews, data gathering, and analysis, the entire community was invited to participate in a town meeting held at the Leland Hotel. More than 350 citizens attended that night, a clear signal of community concern and interest in the future of downtown Richmond. The public listened as the MSA team described the economic and physical condition of the downtown and gave an update on the planning process. Afterwards, the meeting was turned over to the participants who formed small groups, each with a facilitator, and discussed the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities facing the downtown and the community as a whole. At the end of the discussion, citizens were asked to vote on six priority goals, which were than tabulated and categorized into the Main Street Four-Point Approach. Then, for the next two and a half days, the MSA team engaged in an on-site design charette to study the information collected and translate it into a physical design. Citizens were invited to stop in and discuss or ask questions about the process.

A crowd of more than 400 citizens gathered to hear Gossman present the final recommendations and the action plan. The presentation recommended:

  • Removal of the pedestrian mall or the reorganization of two blocks;
  • Development of linkages to connect the downtown;
  • Development of a strategic leasing plan;
  • Creation of a Business Industry Expo Center;
  • Upper-story renovation to accommodate mixed-use occupancy of downtown buildings;
  • Creation of a private-public partnership alliance.

The presentation also included a new vision statement for the downtown: "Through its holistic environment of retail, entertainment, business, government, housing, industry, and urbanism, Richmond is a community providing opportunities for the entrepreneur and investor to flourish. Downtown is a symbol of community ... pride and ownership. Historic buildings with renewed ownership and occupancy remind us of our progressive roots, while new, complimentary structures house businesses geared for the future. Community public/partnering allows a variety of citizenry and groups to gain involvement and ownership in downtown Richmond, regardless of race, education, income, or responsibility."

This presentation preceded the announcement of a newly elected mayor, Dennis Andrews. Although committed to the findings of the strategic action plan, the new administration felt compelled to reaffirm the community's support of its recommendations by holding a series of interactive town meetings. "To acquire a one hundred percent community consensus in anything," Gossman noted, "is near impossible but a city that is going to change is going to be required to take bold action."

The Rebirth of "Uptown" Richmond

What followed were bold steps taken by Mayor Andrews and his administration in partnership with MSRWC, steps that would ultimately result in the removal of the pedestrian mall. Improvements replacing the mall included:

  • Brick sidewalks and stamped concrete pedestrian walkways designed to look and feel like brick walkways;
  • Flower beds and shrubbery;
  • Decorative light fixtures that tripled the light output to improve security;
  • Street furniture that included benches, trash receptacles, and decorative telephone booths;
  • Mid-block pedestrian street crossings;
  • Kiosks with locator maps in each of the five-block areas;
  • Traffic-calming street design that allows diagonal and parallel parking in each block;
  • Directional wayfinding signs in corridor entrances to direct traffic to parking areas and to Main Street;
  • New parking plan for uptown employees, which includes use of an underutilized garage for a monthly fee of $5.00;
  • Parking garage enhancements to meet the ADA;
  • Conversion of one-way streets into two-way streets; and
  • Additional landscaped parking areas that were enhanced to serve as venues for festivals and special events.

On July 28, 1998, the district was once again rededicated by citizens and celebrated with fireworks. Indiana's First Lady, Judy O'Bannon, was the featured speaker. "You can't just mark this with a ceremony," she advised. "You must leave your grandkids a foundation to build on and a path to follow."

The citizens who had felt that removal of the pedestrian mall would spell the final chapter of Richmond's central business district, now known as Uptown, began to reconsider as the changes became apparent. With $3 million of public reinvestment, the project leveraged another $7 million for a total of $10 million. To date, there have been 22 new businesses, 4 business expansions, 71 new downtown jobs, 17 facade rehabs, and 4 downtown second-story rehabs. The vacancy rate, which 18 months ago had soared to 28 percent, has dropped to less than 3 percent today.

Among the many lessons Richmond has learned from this experience is the need to develop a vision and a process. Communities that choose to throw money at a problem through physical improvements without carefully articulating a community vision through a strategic planning process are merely placing a band-aid on a gaping wound. Richmond has learned that lesson well and is developing a progressive path for its future, which has never looked brighter. Never underestimate the power of people who choose to work together for the betterment of their community.

Renee Oldham is executive director of the Richmond-Wayne County Main Street Program in Richmond, Ind.

Pedestrian Mall Update

Richmond's story is not unique. In fact, it's quite common: over the last decade, nearly all of the communities that put in expensive pedestrian malls have taken them out or modified them to cover only one block. To find out more about the current status of pedestrian malls, including case studies of communities that have funded these expensive public improvements, only to shell funds out again to remove them, go to our web site at Look for the "Main Street News further information" link on the bottom left of the front page. Click on it to access the additional information.