WSW: A 1950s Plan to Transform Kalamazoo

Jun 8, 2015

The city's model of the Gruen plan, now in the Kalamazoo Valley Museum's collection
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

The City of Kalamazoo understood in the 1950s that suburbanization could hollow out the downtown. So it embraced plans to remake the area as a kind of giant, open-air shopping mall.

Internationally-known architect Victor Gruen created the blueprint. The design called for a series of pedestrian malls downtown, including one on Michigan Avenue. The walking areas would have been surrounded by a ring road and vast parking lots.

Historian Tom Dietz says the proposal was ambitious, and its scale impressive.

“You would not have recognized downtown and what we have today in this revitalized downtown would have been entirely different,” he says.

WMUK spoke with Dietz, who is an emeritus curator of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, about what happened to the Gruen plan. Clearly most of it wasn’t realized, though a few elements did get built – notably Crosstown Parkway and the Kalamazoo Mall.

The plan would have promoted walking – at least, once people got out of their cars near the ring road. Dietz says that a variety of public transport options would have carried them from the parking lots into the shopping area.

“It was sort of like creating the mall – the shopping mall experience – in downtown,” he says.

In the 1950s the downtown was still the county’s commercial and retail hub, Dietz says. City leaders were looking out for it.

“They’re trying to anticipate and they’re trying to say, ‘how do we keep this downtown? We don’t want to lose it. There’s a lot of things pulling against that – a lot of centrifugal forces pulling away from downtown. ‘What can we do?’ And that’s what Gruen was about. He institutes malls in other parts of the country.”

Eventually, the city dropped most of the plan. Dietz says that factors in its failure included objections from businesses, the cost of construction and concern from community leaders that the ring road would effectively cut off some neighborhoods, leading to de facto segregation.

“And so you begin to get some opposition as well on the grounds that, ‘Hey, you’re making it difficult for the North Side, the East Side neighborhoods,’ that had at least significant African American populations,” Dietz says.

He says the Gruen plan did have some positive aspects, such as the public gathering space it would have fostered in downtown. But Dietz says he suspects that it would not have achieved its goal of preserving downtown’s commercial importance.

“I also kind of tend to think that at the time, it just went against the spirit of the times. And you could have completed it and people still would have said, ‘I want to go to a suburban mall,’” he says.