The Gruen Plan for Oberlin, Ohio
Oral History: Marianne Cochran
Interviewed by Courtney McGee

Ms. Cochran is designated by M, while the interviewer is designated by C.

C: How long have you lived in Oberlin?

M: Pretty much all my life. I left for college and a few years afterwards. So probably lived here fifty years.

C: What businesses are you involved with currently?

M: The most recent was the Ben Franklin store.

C: Could you be more specific about your involvement?

M: I managed the Ben Franklin for about 40 years.

C: ThatÕs you job description currently?

M: We sold the business this summerÉso now IÕm retired.

C: You family had a lot of experience with retail here in OberlinÉ

M: My father actually came to Oberlin in 1935, and he was that actually started the Ben Franklin. Then my brother had a clothing store, called Powers and Gauley (?)

C: The main focus of my project is the Victor Gruen Plan. Do you know much about that, or does that name ring a bell?

M: Yeah, I recollect it. At the time when that plan was put in effect, I was in school. So, what I remember about it was what I heard at the dinner table.

C: So, what did you hear around the dinner table?

M: I think what that wasÉthat was about the time that malls were becoming places where people wanted to shop. That was, I think, downtown OberlinÕs quote ÔanswerÕ to the mall. They thought that if they could close the street and make it more mall-like they would continue to attract customers. Before the malls started, Oberlin was a primary destination for a lot of people. Of course, when the malls came along, they become the primary destination for shopping. I imagine that a lot of towns tried different ways to recapture that dominance. This was an attempt to do that.

C: How do you feel about shopping malls today, and their affect on Oberlin as a shopping district?

M: As a merchant, I think that we finally realized, after trying as lot of different things, that we were never to be a primary shopping destination again. We had a secondary position. There was a niche, particularly with the variety storeÉif you didnÕt have time to go to the mall, you stayed in Oberlin to shop. ThatÕs not everybody. Over there years, there have been a lot of citizens of Oberlin who have been very loyal customers. They have done their primary shopping here. But, on the whole, most people will go to the mall. For instance, if youÕre trying to find a dress in Oberlin, youÕll probably only findÉmaybeÉa couple dozen in your size. If you go to the mall, itÕs endless. You can look at 100 or 200Éyou always feel that thereÕs something you havenÕt seen, even after you make your purchase. Some people like that, other people donÕt like the crowds, the congestion, the lack of service. TheyÕd just as soon go somewhere else where someone will say, for instance, ÒHi Carol. We just got this dress in, and we think youÕd really like it.Ó

C: So what can the downtown retailers provide instead of variety?

M: The thing that the retailers have pushed for quite a long time is customer service. A lot of people like it if you call them by name. Sometimes thereÕs general chitchatÉlike ÒI hear Mary is giving a recital this weekend.Ó In general, in a small town, you can treat the people as people and not just as numbers.

C: (Shows the third plate of the Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957/1975 map) What do you think about this setup?

M: Since hindsight has a lot to do with this, we all know that it turned out not to be a good thing. IÕm not sure how long this plan went into effect.

C: IÕm not sureÉ

M: Well, IÕm not sure either. But, there was an awful lot of criticism. It was inconvenient, people didnÕt like the one way idea, and the citizens just plain didnÕt like it. It was a drastic change, and now that we look back, it wouldnÕt have made a difference anyway. The trend had already started. I can understand why they tried it. There was great concernÉwhat were we going to do with the small downtowns?

I think now, for instance, whenever a discussion among the merchants of West College is brought up, when someone would like to have a festival or something on West College and close it, the merchants are reluctant because it cuts off traffic to their stores, and people canÕt come down easily and shop.

C: Is that one of the disadvantages of the current/traditional retail set-up? That the two-street layout makes it difficult to hold events like festivals?

M: I donÕt think so. Someone might say, ÒWeÕd like to have a bake sale. LetÕs close West College.Ó The merchants would say no, people want to park in front of the stores and do their shopping. They donÕt want to be routed around and then figure out how to get to the stores.

People kind of kiddingly mention the Gruen plan now, realizing that it would have been a disaster.

IÕm not sure if youÕre aware, but there was another plan that never got off the ground. I think it came after this one. This one was to go ahead and try to make downtown into a mall. I even think there were one or two contacts made with ALCOA, of course, because of the Chares Martin Hall connection. The idea was to tear down the buildings on West College Street, and build and aluminum building. It was to be a tribute to Charles Martin Hall in a way. We would be a shopping center. We would have the buildings in the back, and the parking lot in the front. And ALCOA was approached, but I donÕt think they got many return phone calls. You can see what was happening at the time if you put yourself in the merchantÕs time slot. Back in the 50s they were seeing that business was not going to ever be what it was before unless they did something drastically to look like a shopping mall. We laugh at those things now, but I think they were serious attempts to keep downtown the way they thought of shopping in the early 50s. A lot of things were tried.

C: You hinted earlier that, even with the plan, this would be a secondary shopping area.

M: ItÕs easy to see, looking back 45 years, that things were changing rapidly and would never be the same again.

C: Would there be anything that could?

M: I donÕt think so, the reason being the sheer square footage of the retail space in a mall compared to the retail space in Oberlin. PeopleÕs lifestyles changed. People got cars. My father said that in the early 40s, the stores would be open on Saturday night and this was the entertainment. All residents came in, and the streets were crowded. More people got cars and became more mobile. Then, pretty soon that didnÕt happen anymore, so merchants figured Saturday night was the wrong night, so weÕll try Friday night. This was probably evolving since the 30Õs, but I think shopping centers were the real wake up call. I think that the variety of merchandise changed. Pretty soon you noticed there were no childrenÕs shops anymore, no shoe stores, and as the competition moved in, the stores couldnÕt support themselves, and that is still happening today.

C: How well, in general, do you think Oberlin survived that change from an Oberlin perspective as well as considering the situation of other down towns?

M: Well, Oberlin did very well. ItÕs not because they were smarter merchants, its because Oberlin College is here. IÕve known merchant in other small towns that were excellent merchants, but there was no reason anymore why people should shop down town. Although Wellington is better with their main street program but if you ask anyone on the street whether they would prefer to shop in Wellington or Oberlin, they would more likely come here. Because the College is here we have a pretty nice variety of merchandise. In Wellington you wonÕt see as much. If the weather turns cold and people donÕt have any mittens, people will not drive out to the mall to buy mittens. ItÕs convenient. You can eat, pick up greeting cards, or find whatever you need. ThatÕs whatÕs really keeping Oberlin alive.

C: What are your feelings about this plan in terms of its affect on the character of down town?

M: I think that it was doing a lot of the things the malls were doing (and still do). I think that the Gruen plan disrupted the citizensÕ normal route and I think thatÕs probably the reason why it didnÕt succeed. As I recall, this was set up on a temporary basis where they brought planners in an attempt to see if it would work. The criticism from the citizens made them realize that it was not going to work. The logistics of it make it seem unlikely for the routes to get re-routed. ThatÕs a very difficult thing to do.WeÕve even had trouble trying to run parades down Main Street. Rerouting a highway ties into a lot of things. The fire department, for example, is located on 58. If it was rerouted it would probably effect their response time to fires, which would alter the insurance rates of the businesses. Many, many things would have needed to be considered.

It was a very imaginative idea. I have to commend the merchants for trying it. We have to be one of very few towns that tried something so entrepreneurial and imaginative.

C: Well, especially considering the size of Oberlin. The towns IÕve noticed that have tried to enact plans such as this were suburban, with large cities nearby, or urban. They could capitalize on the large populations there.

M: You really cannot say that they sat back and let this phenomenon happen. They really tried to keep Oberlin the way it was back in the late 30s.

C: The most noticeable thing about the Gruen Plan is the addition of a lot more parking. Do you think parking is really that much of a problem?

M: Aside from the fact that the college is here, the other thing that kept Oberlin viable was off-street parking. Granted, there is probably not enough. Yet, our situation is a lot better compared to so many other towns.

You know, a lot of things were kicked around at that time, one of which was parking meters. But when you consider a mall, where the parking is free, why would you want to put a meter up? A group of merchants got together and purchased the property behind West College, and the area next to the Apollo, and set up a private parking corporation. They wanted to maintain free parking for the customers. The merchants pay to maintain it, so that the free parking is there.

A good example of a town that has no parking is Amherst, Ohio. They only have parking on the street. There are not many towns in this region that have the amount of free parking that we do.

As the merchants of the 50s and 60s looked for ways to combat the shopping malls, the most effective thing was the addition of more free off street parking.

C: My final question is, as Oberlin stands today, are there any changes or additions that need to be made?

M: We all think of stores that would be nice to have. You notice that in the summer, or on a weekend afternoon, that Oberlin has become kind of tourist destination for people from the surrounding area. The way we could tell at BenÕs was the comments like ÒI havenÕt seen an old variety store since I was a kid.Ó Ultimately, there will only be a few small towns that will be able to keep that small town atmosphere. Oberlin has a pretty good shot at that. We have a nice selection here. We have enough that people will drive here. Not only will they enjoy the small town atmosphere, but the college has a lot to offer, too.

I kind of compare it to, years ago when you had the old-fashioned general store. ThereÕs one left in Westin, Connecticut. If you can be one of the last survivors, youÕre going to be a tourist destination. If people go through Vermont, theyÕre likely to go to Westin. So, if you can hang on long enough, you do can do alright.

Interesting shops help, too. Bead Paradise is a great example. And Ben Franklin now, with MindFairÉthatÕs a very unique and unusual combination of goods. These are places you donÕt see in a shopping mall.

C: ItÕs interestingÉthe stores youÕve chosen to highlight. You talked earlier about how the sale of impulse items keeps Oberlin viable. But here, itÕs about providing an atmosphere, or goods, that you wonÕt find in a mall. Is it about a striking a balance between those two things?

M: I think that, certainly, a small downtown has both. You need stores that generate traffic, like GibsonÕs and BenÕs. If you can get enough constant traffic, this creates a nice base for the unusual store. As a merchant, I always felt that the more stores that could bring traffic to town, the better it was for everyone.

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