Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Arbor Place Mall: Douglasville, GA

Douglasville was the second to last suburb of Atlanta to finally get its own mall with Stonecrest wrapping up the era of new enclosed malls in Atlanta. It seems they waited for years if not decades as the early suburban pioneers dropped cash at Cobb Center and Greenbriar in the 60's followed by Cumberland in the 70's and Shannon in the 80's. By the 1990's, it was their turn. They were not disappointed when in 1999 they were given a large, attractive mall containing three anchors with two leaning somewhat more upscale. The mall also contained a movie theater, food court, a large bookstore and a plethora of new development surrounding the suburb that was for years severely neglected in retail.

As Chattanooga-based CBL's only Atlanta entry, Arbor Place Mall is distinct from other Atlanta malls and also a bit more overlooked. When the mall opened, its anchors were limited to Dillard's, Parisian and Sears. Dillard's at that point was still new to the market with only one other store at North Point Mall and one opening at the same time at Mall of Georgia. A fourth anchor was constructed for Atlanta-based Upton's, but the chain went out of business in the previous year resulting in a completely new, completely empty anchor on the mall. The mall also had something rather unique in that a two-level junior anchor was built with the top level as Old Navy and the bottom level as Bed Bath & Beyond. Only the second has an outside entrance. A Border's Bookstore also was built into the bottom level next to the Food Court in addition to the 18 screen Regal Cinemas featuring then-cutting edge stadium seating. In all, it was a really great mall but still somewhat incomplete.

Random shots of the mall from the upstairs and downstairs. Note on the first shot that the side of the escalator is faced with mirrors...something typically found in much older malls.

As time passed, people in Douglasville were a bit miffed at having an odd assortment of department stores when every other mall in Atlanta had both Rich's and Macy's with most containing a JCPenney as well. Not much was done to alleviate that early on. The empty anchor that was supposed to be Upton's became home improvement chain Dekor in late 2000. Dekor was a small chain started by former Home Depot executives that was obviously intended as competition to now-defunct Home Depot Expo. Apparently few were impressed and the chain bit the dust in August 2001.

The first is the shot of the hallway inside the entrance of the first pic, facing the door. This single-level entry has stores on only one side with the other side forming the side of Dillard's. The other two shots are looking at the west court. The first shot is from the top floor with the Macy's wing behind me facing Belk, which was Parisian until 2007.

The mall started making steps to match its peers across the city. First, then-Federated Department Stores announced that Rich's would open at the mall on May 18, 2002. Later, on October 2, 2003, JCPenney took over the void left behind by Upton's and Dekor. Rich's arrived in fall 2004 filling the last available anchor pad, bringing the department stores up to five and completing Douglasville's mall. The Rich's was especially interesting as the store actually opened as the short-lived combination Rich's-Macy's. The store was fully signed as such, one of only two, and converted to plain Macy's with the rest of the Rich's chain in 2005. The last major change at the mall occurred when Parisian was acquired by and dissolved into Belk in Fall 2007.

The east/main court is really something special. The attention to detail and unique design is a real standout. I have never seen anything quite like that chandelier-like fixture, and the ceiling treatment is like Hansel and Gretel on opium. While it is hallucination-worthy, that doesn't mean I think it's ugly.

The construction of Arbor Place was a direct reaction to absolutely phenomenal growth that was taking place across Atlanta in the late 90's and early 00's. It was a time when Atlanta was its most developer friendly, people were moving there in droves and Douglas County was receiving substantial spillover growth from Paulding County, which ranked in the top five in the country through the early part of the decade. It was a time when deserted swaths of wilderness were transitioned to enormous subdivisions and dirt trails became busy roads with red lights literally overnight. Anti-growth movements were building steam as existing residents were alarmed at the complete paving over and transformation of everything they had known in such a short time span. Considering this, a new mall at that time was seen as an inevitable reality in areas with that kind of growth. At the time, the owners fully believed that the new mall would serve the needs of both counties as well as outlying growth in Haralson, Carroll and Coweta far better than any of the other malls could, and its development came at a price not only to competition, but also in its supercharging the sprawl in the county.

The Hansel and Gretel theme actually continues into the Food Court, which is the most fantastic looking food court I have ever seen aside from, perhaps, Mall of Georgia. I don't understand what is going on here, though, with this theme. What were they going for? The randomness in the design of the mall overall is very puzzling.

No doubt that children and adults alike must be quite thrilled with going into an elevator that looks like a gingerbread house. It looks far less menacing than the usual cold metal doors going into a moving box that sometimes gets stuck.

Here is greater detail of the food court along with a look at the lower level, which opens up in the middle of the food court area. The store on the lower level on the left is Borders Books.

Now I'm looking up from the lower level at the backside of the gingerbread house elevator. Borders Books this time is to my right.

Arbor Place was an embattled mall early in construction. Newly built neighborhoods around the mall fought its construction, and the mall had challenges of its own as an entire creek had to be piped under the mall in order to provide adequate land for the center. The mall also would have a very direct and acute affect on Shannon Mall in addition to Cumberland Mall, both of which were most directly serving the shopping needs of Douglas County. Today, the mall faces a different battle as the white semi-rural county succumbs to demographic change as rapidly as the suburbs arrived only ten years prior. Local residents worry about an increase in crime as the elements in the roughest parts of Atlanta have been shifting westward ever closer to the mall with the center moderately accessible to those parts via I-20. Already, potential customers from Paulding tend to favor other malls such as Town Center or the upscale Avenues at West Cobb. Paulding was expected to be one of the mall's strongest markets, and the fact that there is some bias against the mall is not inconceivable.

Let's have a look at all the department store anchor mall entrances. I had a closer-up shot of Dillard's, but the picture turned out blurry so I substituted for a further-off shot. Later in this post, you will see rare pictures of the Macy's in its extremely short tenure as Rich's-Macy's. This was the only other Rich's that opened co-signed with Macy's on the outside signs. Also, note the Johnny Rocket's in the Sears photo.

In all, the concerns for the future of the mall depend on many factors, but in my visit I saw absolutely no signs of a troubled mall. The mall was full and busy on a weekday afternoon, and the mall offered every single store that Town Center (at Cobb) does plus Dillard's. In fact, I saw fewer vacancies at the mall than most other malls in the area. What I did notice, however, was the emergence of urban demographics: the kind that radically altered Greenbriar Mall in the 1970's and 80's and has led to discussion of curfews, which likewise led to discussion of and potential boycotting of the mall by the NAACP over that issue. Those same curfews have been discussed for Southlake and were actually implemented at Stonecrest. Both malls with a substantial African-American clientele, but Douglas is more unique in that it was previously a largely white, largely rural county until the 1990's.

Here are the junior anchors: the first is the Old Navy/Bed Bath & Beyond. This was never anything else. This opened that way! Old Navy does not have an outside entrance, but Bed Bath & Beyond does. The Regal Cinema in the second photo adjoins only the second floor with no anchor underneath.

My views of the mall are that it is a really great and under-appreciated mall, and a lot of that has to do with that one simple fact that causes so much trouble for malls in so much of the country, which is what I just discussed in the last two paragraphs. To me, it is really an all-in-one mall with a theater, big box stores, great choice of anchors and all the better mid-tier tenants not found in the small town malls. While I tend to find most 90's architecture cheap and gaudy, I thought the touches they had were really interesting such as the gingerbread house elevator and faux-Bavarian ceiling in the food court area. While the overall theme of the mall doesn't really make any sense to me, what it has is still fun to look at. The addition of a real bookstore, a really nice food court and distinct junior anchors makes a trip to the mall not seem so tiring. It is also nice to see a movie theater actually operating in a modern mall. While I do hate that the mall lacks the classic planters and fountains, I think that what works helps to disguise that. The mall has lots of attractive touches, and the decor is still pretty tasteful throughout. I also like the more narrow walkways and footprint, which makes the mall feel less overwhelming and more welcoming. I just think that it came there a bit late, and it still feels pretty far removed from Atlanta as a whole.

The mall map shows overall a pretty basic mall in layout...very similar to Southlake in many ways, but with a lot more to offer and a much better looking mall. It's also not surprising that Shannon has found difficulty competing with a place like this.

My honest opinion of the mall is that it should have been there far sooner. The area has long had a market for the mall, and Shannon quite frankly should have never been built. Shannon was always in a poor location, too far from significant centers of population, too close to the airport and too close to declining areas. An early Douglas County mall would have been perfect. It would have drawn from then much nicer Austell, Mableton and Lithia Springs. Carrollton and Dalls/Hiram. South Fulton would also have embraced the mall and it would have a very large area to draw on to the west. Fayette County likely also would have embraced the mall if it was accessible via SR 92, and Shannon had not been built.

While Old Navy shows up on the sign on the outside, notice that the supposed entrance is fake. There is no door, and that lit up "entry" apparently doesn't go to anything except possibly the inside of Bed, Bath & Beyond. The second photo shows the entrance to Bed, Bath & Beyond, which is right next to the entrance in the first photo.

Belk here inherited a store that had a bit more class than their store, but considering the proximity to the more rural areas in West Georgia, I am betting this store still does quiet well. I have a photo below of Parisian here, but it doesn't really capture this much detail.

The Sears really pays ode to its 1960's era stores with this tall chimney-like spire next to the entrance. All that's needed now it to replace the sign with their 1950's script logo in either red or blue. I seriously wonder why Sears won't go back to that.

For a store only 10 years old, the JCPenney has seen a lot of change and loneliness as its original anchor Upton's died before it got a chance to move in. The store's short run as Dekor meant the store was mostly vacant from 1999-2003.

Nothing exciting with the Dillard's here. It is just another peach-colored, loud stucco atrocity. I absolutely loathe that gaudy stucco archway. Dillard's has really improved their store design since 2005 with classy looking stores at Atlantic Station and Ashley Park.

An earlier Douglas County mall, if built, should have been constructed from 1978 and 1984 anchored originally by Davison's, Sears and Richway at a relatively small 400,000 to 500,000 square feet with mostly one level and a small two level section. The mall would have been a bit further east as well, located either on Fairburn Road (SR 92) where most of the Douglasville businesses were located at the time or on Thornton Road (SR 6) in Lithia Springs, which was the first real area of sprawl. If in Douglasville, this would have been a small city mall, while the Thornton Road mall would have functioned more as a typical suburban mall with up to 800,000 square feet. The mall would have inevitably have expanded over time and probably gained a Rich's, JCPenney and Parisian, adding up to 1,000,000 square feet. This mall also most likely would have been named something like Sweetwater Mall or New Manchester Mall and would have been built in a location to take advantage of the now-canceled but then-planned I-420. With that, Shannon would not be the eyesore it is today and this theoretical Sweetwater Mall would have been celebrating 25-30 years of wild success before any discussion of demographic change ever happened. In fact, the reason this probably did not happen is that Thornton Road did not connect into Atlanta until the early 1990's. It is really for the best it didn't, too, because the Thornton Road area is falling into decline from its peak in the 80's and the Fairburn Road retail strip is very dated now.

I bet some of you might be saying, "Screw the boring 90's mall. They all look the same, I just came here to look at your freaking Rich's photos". Well, you have not been disappointed here. Here is Rich's-Macy's: yes a brand new Rich's-Macy's, which was the latest one to open in Georgia when it tacked on in 2004. What's amazing is how they genuinely made it look like it was permanent down to the door plaques. They really did not want us to know the truth about what was happening to Rich's.

Dreams of what could have been aside, this photo essay shows a mall in its prime. This is an example of a recently built successful mall in the city and one of the three newest in the city. While Douglasville has never been one of my favorite sides of the city, it is an interesting area with potential and pretty scenic for the Atlanta area. In fact, the area has many outdoor recreation opportunities nearby at Sweetwater Creek and has a distinctly and surprisingly mountainous topography compared to most of the area. Also, not far away is Six Flags over Georgia, and Douglas County is more convenient to Atlanta proper than any other suburban locales. I hope that others in the adjacent areas will realize that this mall looks to be a decent mall comparable to the other popular suburban malls in the city before they take off to overrated Town Center or the latest outdoor mall complex featuring far fewer stores.

Closing out this post is a look at a dusky shot of Parisian, which opened with the mall. You have to admit that teal sign was a pretty sign, and it matches the metal awning underneath. Belk in the Parisian locations reminds me of a small town country guy who started up a successful business trying to fit into the elite social circles, and it shows with the fact that the teal awning does not match that colorless Belk sign. At least they are not pretending to be something they're not like Macy's.


  1. A very odd collection of design elements. When it opened it was promoted on billboards in places one wouldn't expect like Kirkwood & Decatur.

    The collapse of the housing market and the growing problems in commercial real estate pretty much guarantee that this mall will have no future competition, which may help it survive. OTOH, race helps fuel the rumaor mill and if there any "incidents" at the mall, it will make it easier for people to abandon it.

  2. In the late 80's plans were to build a mall further west at the GA Hwy 5 exit, as the Chapel Hill exit was only a 1/2 exit until about 94. Despite being west of Douglasville, the Hwy 5 has some typical late 70's-mid 80's strip sprawl, including the local Kmart.

    Paulding County's highway system makes access to Cobb easier than to Douglasville, despite Hwy 92 providing direct north-south access to the rapidly growing county. JCPenney opened a free-standing store in Hiram(Paulding) in early August, leaving fewer reason to venture south to Arbor Place.

    Douglas County has long had a backwater image despite being relatively close-in. The early suburban growth was blue collar in nature, fueled by Cobb spillover after I-20 opened, attracting Lockheed employees, and was similar in character to the development that happened in Smyrna and Mableton in previous decades.

  3. Your posts have gotten me to pay more attention to architecture in malls. I've been in this mall a couple of times but never really paid any attention to the elements you describe. Up until recently, my only concern when going in a mall and evaluating it was "What stores does it have and how is the selection in those stores compared to other malls?"

  4. Merchant-wise, this is a rather unappealing regional mall. It's just two levels of blandness. No Banana Republic or Coach? If I lived in Atlanta and had tons of disposable income, I would be on the other side of the metro.

  5. There are HUGE gang problems on the weekends, even during the week now. No local goes on the weekends because that's when the gangs walk the mall. They also go to the movies on weekend nights. There was a gang fight at the mall in January 2008. This is why the mall enacted a teen escort policy on weekends. No one under the age of 18 may be in the mall without an escort (namely their parents), but they can be in anchor stores or the movie theater, after 6pm on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (the mall closes at 7pm on Sunday). There are criminals who frequent the parking lot in order to steal items from cars...or the cars themselves. People frequently shoplift from the department stores. In November of 2007 there was a shooting during the day. People in the community vowed never to go there again. Which is why, during the week, it's pretty much dead. On the weekends people from eastern Alabama and western Georgia visit the mall and traffic around the mall and the town is a nightmare. The roads surrounding the mall (Chapel Hill, Highway 5) have NOT been widened--Highway 5, once you exit the city limits, goes back to a two lane road and Chapel Hill needs to be widened more as well...but the county doesn't plan on widening them anytime soon.

  6. There were plans to build a mall at Thornton Road in the mid-1970s, just inside Cobb County...I want to say it was to be called Richlake or Westlake (something-"Lake"), with a wavy logo. I believe that Rich's was to actually be the developer and not just an anchor, kind of like Sears/Homart. There were the remnants of a "coming soon" sign (with just the letters "ake" showing) facing I-20 until about 10 years ago. Norfolk Southern bought the land about 15-20 years ago to build a railyard.

  7. This is my second most visited mall now behind Southlake. I really like this place and my wife and I like to go there to spend a day and maybe even catch a movie. I was sad to see the Disney Store go as my son is a huge Toy Story/Finding Nemo/etc nut. Cool mall.

  8. Urban blight continues to drive this mall in the same direction as Greenbriar Mall and Shannon Mall, higher crime rates , doesn't feel like a safe place anymore... Shopping more towards Towncenter now, only visiting arbor place for really quick in and out shopping.

  9. Can someone please explain why the ghetto element is streaming out I-20 on both sides of the metro? What is drawing the low-income renters to these areas? I would think that the city services that exist closer in toward Atlanta would be more desirable.

    I know we should all be able to live harmoniously together, but no one wants to live next to people that rent their houses and have no vested interest in keeping a tidy yard or keeping their kids from walking and playing in the middle of the street.

  10. Douglas County was cursed with a poor political climate which produced poor leadership in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the era when positive development was still possible. I remember in 1971 seeing a map on which Douglas County was he only county out of 159 in Georgia that chose not to participats in an area planning and development district. We had county commissioners who denied the inevitability of suburan growth and put in one inch water mains to the rural homes of political supporters. Development was driven by good old boys who reaped quick profits by building cheap tract houses that would quickly become suburban slums. Decisions made in those years led to its becoming a suburban ghetto today. Ignorance and short sightedess have permanent consequences.

  11. now, now, we shouldn't racial profile even though these "elements" always bring higher crime rates, gang issues, and run-down uninhabited abandoned areas.