Among transportation planners, it is almost universally acknowledged that two-way streets are healthier for downtown vitality than one-way streets. Storefronts on two-way streets tend to command higher lease rates, indicating that demand among prospective tenants is greater than a similar storefront that fronts a one-way street. It’s not because one-way streets get less traffic; in fact, directional flow has no relation to the traffic volume a road can expect to carry. But two-way streets’ impact on the visibility of the streetscape is so great that many mayors and Public Works Departments have been converting former one-way streets back to two-way in their downtowns. A certain Indiana ex-mayor (now cabinet member) elevated his profile by doing precisely this, helping attract businesses to long-vacant downtown storefronts. The reasoning isn’t profound: two-way streets allow motorists to approach a road from either direction, thereby doubling the opportunity that they might make a turn and then drive past a business for which they opt to make an impulse buy.
I have not found a more effective empirical example of the difference between two-way and one-way streets than a location that doesn’t remotely resemble a downtown: the Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Located about midway along I-95 between metro Washington, DC and metro Richmond, Virginia, the Fredericksburg area has earned a certain notoriety for its grinding traffic, due to its ill-fated location. The challenges of getting around haven’t to my awareness dampened the local economy all that much; it generally appears to be a healthy micro region, Spotsylvania County having quadrupled in population since 1980. And, as malls go, the Spotsylvania Towne Centre looks livelier than most middle-tier malls these days. That said, the developer opted in the late 2000s to add a lifestyle center portion to supplement an otherwise conventional enclosed mall. And this outdoor-oriented addition to the mall harnessed some eccentric urban design decisions.
The land that comprises the lifestyle center wing of Spotsylvania Towne Centre was vacant before this extension, but the Y-shaped road configuration seems to result more from expediency than strategy. The developers probably made do with what was available to them. Though not unheard of, an intersection configured to the letter Y (with a roundabout where the three segments converge) results in a number of wedge- or triangular-shaped floor plates, as the guide map shows. More telling, and more relevant for the purposes of this article, is the inconsistent width in the road segments, manifest even in the map itself. Note how the roadway providing access to Arhaus Furniture and Books-a-Million, as well as the northern ramification (leading to Saxon and Versona) is wider than the road segment leading to Sephora.
There’s an obvious reason for this. The wider road segment (with the Saxon and Versona) is two way. Parking on both sides of the street. And the narrower road segment?
A one-way street in a suburban environment filled with enormous parking lots, where land is generally cheap and abundant.
And what’s the result?
The one-way segment only allows vehicles in this eminently auto-centric environment to approach the storefronts from a single direction. And, not surprisingly, the one-way road segment in this Y-shaped configuration has considerably higher vacancy levels than the the other segments. The guide map featured earlier should demonstrate this, but let’s run by the tenants in the one-way street segment. It has three nationally recognized chains: Sephora, White House Black Market (on a two-way corner so it doesn’t really count), and Soma. And the other tenants include a pioneering, aspiring fast-casual chain called Malawi’s Pizza (currently only one other location that I can see, in Provo Utah), and then this one:
It’s an escape room called Rush Hour. I hardly want to impugn escape rooms; I think they’re a concept that allows tremendous creativity, and it’s all the better that most escape rooms appear to be small biz. They’ve endured longer than I ever expected; what seemed like a passing fad still seems to achieve marketability, over ten years after they first broke onto the scene. Instead of frittering away, the production values and challenges have increased. They’re a tremendous vessel for entrepreneurial initiative. Each escape room offers at least one (possibly multiple) scenarios as part of the activity, and they’re highly adaptable to a variety of settings—the premise is what matters most.
But that’s also the point: an escape room can flourish on the main floor of a historic commercial building or the underutilized space above; it could thrive in a warehouse or office park; it can flourish in a hip urban neighborhood or a small town. A And, as evidenced by the Spotsylvania Towne Centre, it can work in deepest suburbia like a lifestyle centre, which is essentially an aestheticized strip mall. Escape rooms aren’t choosy with real estate; they don’t likely even need those storefront windows, except as a resource for emergency evacuation. Far more important than prestigious or high profile real estate is that it’s adequately sized. For this reason I wager that Rush Hour Escape Room in Spotsylvania Towne Centre secured its lease for a very low rate. Let’s face it: it’s on a one-way street, and a lot of the neighboring storefronts are empty. If a two-way street is available in the immediate vicinity, and a tenant thinks it needs that visibility, the tenant will pay extra for it. If the national chains like Sephora or White House Black Market eventually leave, chances are the newcomers will be less established operations, like Malawi’s Pizza and Rush Hour.
I recognize that this is a superficial means of demonstrating a basic comparison. How couldn’t it be? I offer a single case study, using an atypical design (that Y shape) for which a facsimile is either extremely rare or non-existent, and I simply offer photos showing that the block with a two-way street seems more active than the one-way street. I might have caught the Spotsylvania Towne Centre during a “bad patch”, and I could return in six months to find the one-way street is doing just fine. Equally important, however, is that I didn’t draw the blanket conclusion after meandering around the streets of this lifestyle center; instead, I had already learned that truism long ago, and I simply noticed that this specific development reinforces the negative assumptions people make about one-way streets and retail. To be fair, the lifestyle center seemed to be the weakest link to the Spotsylvania Towne Center. On the Presidents Day afternoon when I visited, the interior of the mall—the old fashioned part—seemed busy and active.
Never one to second-guess myself, I suppose it’s only fair to explore one-way streets in an entirely different physical arrangement. So what better opportunity than to drive just a few miles down the road into Fredericksburg city limits, and check out the health of the downtown?
Founded in 1728, a good twenty years before the larger, more famous George Washington-designed City of Alexandria (fifty miles to the north), Fredericksburg and its colonial downtown reveal all the architectural trappings one might expect for a city already fairly mature during the revolutionary era. Although never large—it suffered setbacks after the Civil War and didn’t surpass 10,000 until the 1940 Census—those escaping high home prices of metro Washington DC have pushed the city up to nearly 30,000 people. The traffic along I-95 linking Fredericksburg to Northern Virginia is some of the most horrendous I’ve experienced, rendering the driving commute almost impossible, but an Amtrak line can get commuters from Fredericksburg to Alexandria in about 50 minutes.
It should come as no surprise that central Fredericksburg, with a 40-block historic district, features quite a few homes built to 18th century standards. And the same goes for the roads.
Truth be told, it’s not that narrow of a road. But the downtown is fairly linear: the majority of the commercial district stretches along seven blocks of Caroline Street, featuring two- and three-story buildings and largely active storefronts at the ground level.
And, as the photos demonstrate, Caroline Street is one way. Traffic must go northbound, away from the train station. The only other road in downtown Fredericksburg with a number of active storefronts is William Street. Though it was too dark for me to capture it effectively, William Street is also one-way…eastbound, intersecting Caroline Street near the Rappahannock RIver. The map below captures most of historic Fredericksburg, with my green and purple arrows coloring in the directional flow of Caroline and William Streets, respectively.
Virtually all streets in historic Fredericksburg are one way. Most puzzling of all: the planning and public works departments (the most likely instigators of these one-way streets) have chosen to christen William Street as the primary entry corridor, linking the highways and I-95 (and Spotsylvania Towne Centre), all to the west, with Fredericksburg’s downtown. But, once the motorists get off the highways and take William Street to get downtown—they find themselves at the northern end of Caroline Street, the signature street of historic Fredericksburg, with the majority of shops and restaurants to the south. But Caroline is one-way north. So these motorists have to maneuver on an adjacent southbound street—most likely Princess Anne (one-way south) or Sophia (a mix of one-way south and two-way), then loop around to the edge of the main corridor on Caroline. This isn’t a huge problem for people familiar with the area, but it likely repels people who might make an impulse trip through Fredericksburg to check out the scene.
To be fair, it’s still a pretty respectable scene. Both Caroline and William Street offer plenty of specialty stores, boutiques, restaurants, and bars. The presence of a mid-sized college, University of Mary Washington, no doubt helps propel downtown activity. And, for those who like local flavor, Fredericksburg’s retail has got plenty. I’m not sure I saw any major national chain. Lots of the equivalents to Malawi’s Pizza or Rush Hour Escape Room. But the final couple blocks of Caroline Street are a bit dowdy.
I hardly want to knock a main street that rates a clear 7 out of 10. It has plenty of personality, and, if Caroline Street ever got too upscale, the eateries would probably take a more corporate bend. As alive as Caroline Street appears, it also looks like it has to work very, very hard to stay that way, and at least a block or two on the northern end (close to William Street) are much lower rent: scavenge shops, piercing studios, a storefront church. It’s all fine and good; Caroline and William streets have plenty going on, with a few shops peppered across some of the other nearby street corners. Maybe even enough to generate some mild tourist buzz. But it’s not going to be competing with King Street Alexandria any time soon—or, to the best of my knowledge, some of the commercial corridors in Richmond to the south (West Cary, West Main).
What’s the conclusion? Downtown Fredericksburg at least challenges the notion that a one-way street is an economic development kiss of death. It puts the one-way street segment at Spotsylvania Towne Centre to shame. At the same time, there’s nothing to suggest that Caroline and William Streets benefit from being one-way. Perhaps the traffic would be too unspeakably awful if vehicles getting into Fredericksburg from the highway only had one lane of travel on a two-way William Street. But maybe slow-moving traffic also impels people to become more aware of the small businesses they crawl past in their carbon belching cars. All those newly christened two-way streets don’t seem to have hurt downtown South Bend Indiana. Just ask the current Secretary of Transportation.