Before there was a Main Street Pedestrian Mall in downtown Riverside there was, well, an actual Main Street, with actual cars — and curbside parking.
Seen here in photos approximately 50 years apart is a view of Main Street looking north toward Mission Inn Avenue (formerly Seventh Street) from near University Avenue (formerly Eighth Street). On the far right is the historic Mission Inn and on the far left, with its pyramid-shaped, red-tiled roof (as seen in lower photo), is the Loring Building, which was built in 1890. Obviously, the scene has changed dramatically, but how and why? (To fully appreciate the change, check out the Flash overlay.)
Following the 1956 opening of the nearby Riverside Plaza, downtown shopping began a slow but steady decline. In response, city leaders soon started working at remaking the city’s civic center. Plans included a landscaped pedestrian mall with spruced-up storefronts. Eventually, it was envisioned the mall would be anchored by what officials hoped would be a new city hall, a convention center / hotel and a performing arts center. (Only city hall and the convention center / hotel would come to fruition.)
In late 1965, the city settled upon an initial plan and work began in May of 1966 at tearing out Main Street between Sixth and Tenth streets. On November 23, 1966, the mall was officially dedicated and open for business. However, with its opening coinciding with America’s growing appetite for suburban shopping centers, the pedestrian mall got off to a rocky start.
One major retailer (Sears) had already relocated to a new larger store on Arlington Avenue while two others (Montgomery Ward, JC Penney) would eventually follow suit in leaving downtown. The flight of retail only got worse with the 1970 opening of Riverside’s Tyler Mall (now Galleria at Tyler), which was double the size of the earlier Riverside Plaza and — more importantly at the time — it was enclosed.
Although the loss of the major retailers was significant, the pedestrian mall’s plight began stabilizing in the mid-1970s with the opening of the new city hall and convention center (anchoring opposite ends of the mall) as well as the 11-story Security Pacific National Bank building, which replaced aging storefronts near the mall’s center. But America’s love affair with large enclosed shopping centers — and free easy parking — continued to erode the downtown retail market.
By the early 1980s, storefronts along the pedestrian mall consisted mostly of small local shops and empty spaces. The slow decline of the Mission Inn, which had transformed from an opulent hotel into rental/student apartments, certainly did not help. For a while, it appeared the mall’s future was in doubt. One major development during this period was the 6-story Mission Square building, which in 1984 replaced another block of aging storefronts between Ninth and University.
In 1988, however, things began looking up as a refurbished Mission Inn hotel was set to reopen. Renovated over 3 years to the tune of $30 million (which would eventually approach $50 million), the newly christened Omni Mission Inn*** was seen by civic officials as an important catalyst for reviving the floundering pedestrian mall. Yet just weeks before its official grand opening, the Inn’s owner — Carley Capital Group — went bankrupt, forcing a takeover of the Inn by Chemical Bank of New York. The bankruptcy dealt a serious blow to both the mall and downtown in general. Moreover, it would be another 4 years before the Mission Inn fully reopened.
Another significant event was the 1992 merger of Security Pacific National Bank into Bank of America, which saw the mall lose one of its primary anchors. Subsequent plans for re-using the bank’s 11-story building included an option of reopening parts of the pedestrian mall to limited traffic. Fortunately, a second event later that year — the purchase and reopening of the Mission Inn by local businessman Duane Roberts — helped keep the pedestrian mall intact and free of cars.
Today, the downtown pedestrian mall stretches over several blocks from Tenth to Sixth streets and remains one of Southern California’s only true pedestrian plazas. Although it has taken 40 years to arrive at where it is today — and indeed, a few rough spots remain — thankfully, most residents simply could not imagine it reverting back to just another traffic-clogged street. In fact, the pedestrian mall is about to undergo a face-lift — its first major rehab since being built in 1966.
Since the December 1992 reopening of the Mission Inn, the pedestrian mall has steadily picked up steam. The former Security Pacific Bank building has become a collection of offices mostly for the state of California while small independent shops throughout the mall coexist alongside a mixture of banks, eateries, service-related businesses and cultural arts establishments.
Recently, the mall has seen an influx of higher-end establishments such as Renuance Aesthetic Care and eateries Trilussa, Omakase and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The most surprising empty spot remains the long-shuttered Imperial Hardware building, which in a strange twist has actually added a bit of flavor to the mall on account of its colorful art and mid-century facade, both seemingly frozen in time.
The one item still missing is a national retailer or major bookstore, which is likely to change within the next few years as the city’s plans for 500-plus condos and lofts begin taking shape (see: m’ sole and Fox Plaza). Our hope is that any potential influx of national chains, which could greatly increase out-of-area foot traffic, does so not at the expense of too many of the unique local shops — a few of which have survived a number of lean years.
Indeed, the recent surge in activity, the upcoming face-lift, the soon-to-be Culver Center for the Arts and the planned residential/office development nearby promises to solidify the mall as downtown’s cultural and civic plaza. Without a doubt, the pedestrian mall is a unique gem that Riverside is fortunate to have.
Photo Gallery: Main Street Pedestrian Mall
P.S. — For those curious, the back of the 1950s postcard, which incidentally misidentifies the intersection as Seventh at Orange (as opposed to Main at Seventh) reads as follows:
RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA – Seventh Street near Orange. This is a city typical of California at its best. Its tree-lined streets, Mission architecture, groves of fragrant orange trees and its atmosphere of hospitality never fail to impress the visitor.
Update — Though it has had some lean times, luckily Riverside’s pedestrian mall did not suffer the fate of this one in St. Louis, which opened in 1977: Urban Review St. Louis: 14th Street Pedestrian Mall, Thirty Years Ago Today
Sources: City of Riverside, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside Public Library, “Colony for California” (Tom Patterson), “Riverside in Postcards” (Steve Lech), “Riverside – 1870-1940” (Steve Lech), Riverside Chambers of Commerce, New York Times, WikiPedia