City leaders have had a tough time over the years figuring out just what to do with Fourth Street. In hindsight, the best answer might have been simply nothing, but today we’re left with a legacy of failed urban interventions that have each made their mark on Louisville’s traditional entertainment and shopping corridor.
Fourth Street today is slowly reawakening from a long sleep, but half a century ago, the community saw its once vibrant street threatened by suburban sprawl and the rise of the shopping mall. At the time, urban theorists supposed making the city more like the suburbs would draw people Downtown.
Once lines with many theaters and department stores, Fourth Street was where teenagers gathered to cruise on Friday evenings and where mothers would drop kids off at the theater and head down to shop. With the opening of Mall St. Matthews and Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road in the 1960s, the shopping and theaters on Fourth Street slowly dwindled.
In 1960, the city’s first experimental pedestrian mall was installed on Guthrie Street. The Guthrie Green Still exists today, but the larger mall it inspired next door is long gone. The Encyclopedia of Louisville noted the plan was the brainchild of the Louisville Central Area (LCA), itself once a part of the Louisville Chamber of Commerce’s Downtown Committee.
The three-block River City Mall opened in 1973 between Liberty And Broadway and was extended north to Market Street in 1977 with the opening of the Convention Center. It was designed by Johnson, Johnson, & Roy landscape architects and Ryan Associated Architects. The Encyclopedia of Louisville suggested the River City Mall helped to keep Louisville’s central business district viable even though it failed to rejuvenate Downtown.
While stores continued to close on Fourth Street, the Galleria, a suburban-style shopping mall was inserted into the mall between Liberty Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in 1983. An extensive Velocity / Metromix article says the Galleria cost a whopping $144 million (adjusted to $308 million in modern dollars) and was meant to provide a suburban experience in the core of Downtown.
While civic leaders were busy suburbanizing Downtown, surrounding blocks were seriously damaged as block upon block was demolished for parking. What defined the suburbs if not the parking lot?
Ideas for the Galleria date to the late 1960s when the city commissioned Victor Gruen Associates to put together a plan in 1968. Gruen is credited as the father of the shopping mall and opened the first open air shopping mall in Detroit in 1954 followed by the first enclosed mall in 1956. Due to the widespread adoption of his ideas, The New Yorker declared that “Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century.”
Gruen’s plan faltered in the early 1970s but community leaders picked it up again in 1975, eventually leading to the Galleria and office tower complex designed by Skidmore, Owings, Merrill. In the process, two significant historic structures, the Atherton Building and the Will Sales building were destroyed despite protest from city residents.
The River City Mall underwent a multi-million dollar renovation funded by TARC in the late 1980s that allowed trolley-buses to traverse the stretch. The transitway was designed by Barton Aschman Associates. It was finally abandoned in 1996 and Fourth Street was opened up to traffic except for one block containing the Galleria.
At some point, it occurred to community leaders that suburbanizing Downtown wasn’t working and the (mostly vacant) Galleria was closed as well. In 2004, 4th Street Live! opened in the footprint of the old mall and the last remaining block of the River City Mall was again opened to traffic.
Looking at these old photos of the River City Mall, it strikes me just how lively a dying Downtown Louisville really was. It’s also interesting how pleasant the photos make the mall look. I think the failure of the River City Mall stems from a misunderstanding of how a pedestrian mall is meant to be used. Pedestrian malls do not revitalize failing cities, they are amenities of well-functioning cities.
In order for a pedestrian mall to work well, a critical mass of density much be achieved with residents able to use the mall space by walking or taking transit there. Pedestrian malls are ineffective when expected to function in a suburban paradigm and will always fail. Simply put, pedestrian malls are pedestrian spaces whereas suburban malls are spaces for cars. That’s why a pedestrian mall might work in Europe or New York City, but will fail in Louisville. You may find this article from Next American City on pedestrian malls interesting as well.
What are your memories of the River City Mall, before and after? Do you recognize any businesses or long-gone buildings in the area? Tell your stories of the tumultuous evolution of Fourth Street in the comments.
More from Broken Sidewalk:
- Grandeur of Fourth And Chestnut Past
- Louisville Clock Approaching The Finish Line
- Downtown Qdoba Under Construction
- Inside Fourth Street’s Caperton Block
- Big Blank Wall on Chestnut Street