When the city approved the Group Plan of 1903, it was believed that the Mall would become the city's functional and symbolic center. The long stretch of park would beautify a former slum area, while the series of grand, neoclassical government buildings that surrounded it would impress the city's population and instill a sense of civic pride and duty. These goals fit the aims of the "City Beautiful" reform movement, whose proponents worried about the effects that tenements and slum districts had on the European immigrants streaming into American cities. Daniel Burnham, who played a leading role in designing Cleveland's Group Plan, was a major figure in City Beautiful and is today best remembered for constructing the White City at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In Cleveland, however, as Walter Leedy wrote, "Instead of a 'White City' the Mall turned out to be a 'White Sepulcher.'"
The Mall's development into a true city center was squashed in the 1920s by the Van Sweringens' decision to build their Union Terminal train station on Public Square. The 1903 Group Plan envisioned the city's main train station being built at the north end of the Mall. When this didn't happen, it became clear that Public Square would remain the city's center. It was Cleveland's transportation hub and had the added benefit of being nearer to the booming commercial district taking shape along Euclid Avenue. The Mall, meanwhile, became somewhat of an afterthought, used occasionally for concerts and other events but mainly serving as a cut-through for downtown workers.
Today, the Mall stands poised for a change, as the building of a Medical Mart (on its western edge) and a new convention center (beneath its surface) promises to bring more people to the historic park. Will these crowds be tempted to linger on the Mall or will they, too, quickly move on to other parts of the city? A new Group Plan Commission formed in 2010 to look at this and other issues in the hopes that the Mall will become, at the very least, a vibrant downtown gathering place, if not exactly the civic center that Burnham and others envisioned it becoming more than 100 years ago.