Let's Go to the Open-Air Mall in Charlottesville

Sunday, July 27, 2008

WHERE: Charlottesville.

WHY: Rock and stroll, drink to Dave Matthews, and ice, ice skate.

HOW FAR: A half-mile from start to finish, and about 115 miles from Washington.

There's nothing pedestrian about Charlottesville's Historic Downtown Mall, despite its ban on cars and favoritism toward feet. The stroll-friendly strip of Main Street offers visitors all of life's necessities: food, coffee, cocktails, culture, shopping, Kenny Rogers.

Charlottesville city planners showed foresight in 1976 when they placed bricks along an eight-block section in the heart of town, creating a European-style, open-air mall free of autos. Now, about 375,000 bricks cover a gently sloping path bordered by buildings from Main Street's commercial heyday in the early 1900s. The retailers deserve credit, too, as most of the 100-plus shops and 50-odd restaurants are independently run. (Amazingly, no Starbucks.)

The mall is busiest on weekends and evenings, especially Friday nights, when a mixed crowd of locals, out-of-towners and University of Virginia students kick back in the urban Eden of oak trees, flower boxes and fountains. Among the outdoor cafes, park benches and storefronts, shaggy sidewalk vendors sell art, jewelry and clothing, and buskers serenade passersby. (Remember, this is where Dave Matthews got his start, so listen carefully.)

The space might look familiar to Washingtonians: It was designed by Lawrence Halprin, creator of the peaceful Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. But that is not to say the mall is quiet. Strains of music often fill the air as bands let loose at the 4,000-seat Charlottesville Pavilion, which hosts national performers and the Fridays After Five free summer concert series.

Nor is the mall an oven during the peak of summer. "It's a nice place to cool off," says City Manager Gary O'Connell, referring to the Charlottesville Ice Park on the opposite end. "Though with all the trees, the mall's a nice, cool place, even in the hot August summer."

-- Ben Chapman

© 2008 The Washington Post Company