Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Southlake Mall: Morrow, GA

Southlake Mall is a very successful mall, and far from dead, but it has still scored the reputation of being somewhat "urban", and as a result, limited on its better offerings. In that, it is overall your run-of-the-mill mid-market mall catering moreso to a non-white crowd. Considering that, for those living in the southside of Atlanta, truly upscale options just do not exist. That is why so many shoppers in Henry County, Fayette County and Spalding County simply drive right past it to head to the more posh northside malls such as Lenox, Perimeter and Phipps. Since this is the case, either the incomes on the southside just do not support it or those upscale tenants have simply snubbed the mall.

Standing in front of Sears looking back into the mall. This latticework ceiling treatment is found throughout the entire mall.

The Atlanta malls would likely be less successful if the southside actually had a mall that everybody liked, and that was not lost on developers. A proposed mall in McDonough (Henry County) has been planned since 2004, but for some reason the development stalled. Nothing could be better news for Southlake, which is surrounded by spotty blight from closed businesses affected by the usual reaction to an area that is majority minority. That fact alone is the primary reason that Southlake has not only not doubled in size over the years, but also the fact that it lacks the more upscale store offerings in favor of a larger array of urban stores.

View of the elevator from the upper and lower level. Much like everything else in this mall, it is not laid out in the usual way. This elevator is in a random location closer to Macy's (Rich's).

Southlake Mall first opened in 1976. When it opened, it was a super-regional mall, but it opened primarily to serve fast growing Clayton County, which had evolved as a mostly white county in the more industrial side of the Atlanta. The opening of the mall likely was related to not just growth, but also issues of white flight as shoppers looked for options from transitional Greenbriar and decaying Lakewood Mall. Such a story is similar to how Gwinnett Place came into being. When it opened, its anchors were Rich's, Davison's, Sears and JCPenney giving them a mall equivalent to Cumberland in size and offerings on the southside. The mall contains a total of 120 stores, and Piccadilly Cafeteria was also in the mall. All of the anchors were two levels as well as the mall itself. Today, it is still the only two-level mall on the southside.

View from the upper and lower level of Davison's court (roughly center court). There really is no obvious center court as in other malls this size. It has had no anchor connection since Macy's vacated the Davison's location in 2003.

Views of the sealed-off Davison's (Macy's) mall entrance from lower and upper level.

For the next two decades, Southlake was the king of the south, but Clayton County has become quite troubled with white flight issues during the 1990's. In ten years time from 1990 to 2000, Clayton County went from a substantial majority white to substantial majority black as the white population shifted to Henry, Fayette and Coweta counties. During that time, many of the businesses around the mall started closing up. When Macy's consolidated in 2003 and moved into the Rich's, the old Davison's was also vacated. For a long time, no store came to fill the void, and the store was sold early on. Nevertheless, as white shoppers began to largely avoid the mall, the mall did not become any less successful. This was because the non-white neighborhood around it had money of their own, and it was more than enough to support it.

A short one-story wing is found on the upper level connecting the mall to the parking lot across from JCPenney. This mall map was in that corridor describing the offset layout of the mall better than I could.

Today, Southlake has evolved quite well and has pretty much survived nearly free of any nearby competition. The mall was last renovated in 1995, adding a food court and updating much of the decor. Piccadilly left the mall and is today located on Mt. Zion Blvd a block from the mall. The mall has very few vacancies, an excellent food court and the former Davison's/Macy's is now in the process of being renovated and/or demolished for a new conference center. I was also pleased at how polite and friendly the employees of the mall were, which is treatment I am not used to in the northside malls.

A couple views of the JCPenney court. The JCPenney court has elevated walkways crossing over the court similar to what Cumberland had in the 1980's.

While Southlake is not the most unique mall I have ever visited, it is refreshing in this economy to see a local mall still doing so well considering two factors. One of these is that is outside of the upscale periphery, and second is that it is in an area that is dealing with some of the blight that is creeping southward that ravaged nearby Forest Park. I do, however, wish that the circumstances were different so that the mall was more popular regionally since the options down there are so few.

A carousel is found at the main mall entrance, which today is the food court area. The second photo shows the food court ending at a Babbage's, which is actually a Game Stop without the nameplate changed. Too bad Macy's didn't take the same approach with Rich's and Davison's. The food court was added in 1995.

Exterior view of main (food court) entrance.

Two sets of mall signs: one at the Jonesboro Road (SR 54) entrance and a tall sign for traffic on I-75.

Considering this, the future of this mall pretty much depends on the future of Clayton County, and lets hope that future keeps the mall at least as viable as it is today. With that, Clayton County must keep Morrow from being the next Forest Park. Forest Park strangely never had a mall of its own, but it bears the scars of chain retail long abandoning much of it. These challenges are especially important considering the mall is over 30 years old in an atmosphere that has been trained to believe that enclosed malls are all dying. The truth is, if malls like this die then it is a reflection on the economy as a whole or too much competition, not a reflection of this well-managed bustling mall.

Mall entrances of Sears and Macy's (former Rich's). Too bad all Sears mall entrances look exactly the same these days. Photos of the Macy's as Rich's are shown at the end.

Exterior view of Davison's then and now. The Macy's labelscar was very visible in 2004. Today, the store has been completely repainted in earthtones as part of a repositioning of the former anchor.

Exterior views of Sears, Macy's and JCPenney. Note the obvious old logo labelscar on Sears and Rich's labelscar on Macy's. Compare to the earlier Rich's photos below.

Exterior shots of Rich's day and night. Photos taken late December 2004 and February 2005.

Rich's mall entrance day and night. This folded glass design was also used on stores at Lenox, Cobb Center, Cumberland and Century Plaza. This is the last one remaining of that style.

UPDATE 1/24/11: The future is not so bright for Southlake Mall anymore now that JCPenney is announcing they are closing the mall's location.  This leaves only two anchors with Macy's (former Rich's) and Sears with the former Macy's (originally Davison's) still never filled after it closed in 2003.  This all comes on the heels of the closing of Shannon Mall including the Macy's store there.  This is also a reflection of how much the foreclosure crisis and terrible economy in the Atlanta area is beginning to affect the malls here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Northgate Mall: Tullahoma, TN

The strangest mini-mall I have ever run across is Northgate Mall in Tullahoma, TN. As the only mall in the southern portion of Middle Tennessee, the mall first opened for business in May 1976. Original tenants to the mall included TG&Y Family Center, Readmore Book-n-Card, Treasury Drugs (a division of JC Penney), Kroger, Ann Herbert Dress Shop, Bonanza Restaurant, Sound Shop, and Horner-Rausch Optical. The Castner-Knott department store opened at the mall in early 1977 [1]. Even though it has the appearance of mall originally converted from a strip mall, it was indeed an actual enclosed mall to start with, but it seems strange a mall would be developed in such a fashion.

Looking back from the Dillard's/Castner-Knott entrance through the mall. The mall doesn't go too much further beyond what you see.

Northgate Mall until 2009 was anchored by Dillard's, JCPenney, Goody's and Big Lots. The mall only has 15 stores aside from those anchors including tenants such as Bath & Body Works, Claires, a jewelry store, an Army Recruiting Center and a Ponderosa Steakhouse, which had already closed for good when I visited. Dillard's closed in March and Goody's closed at the beginning of the year. The Dillard's at Northgate Mall was originally a Castner-Knott, which Dillard's bought out in 1998. Big Lots originally opened as a Kroger, which left in the late 1980's or early 1990's for a then Wal-Mart anchored shopping center just down the street. The mall even has its own website, which gives a pretty good idea of where it stands today.

Here is the most active part of the mall. While there are a couple other stores/tenants, this area has the most. Not pictured on the left is the Foot Locker.

The middle entrance corridor is not faring so well. The Ponderosa (not pictured on the left) closed up awhile back. In the background is a jewelry store and a nice skylight area I failed to get a picture of.

When I assumed that the mall started as a strip, I was noting how the mall space is essentially a corner of what would have been front-facing strip mall stores that were enclosed into a mall. In fact, the mall entrances only open on one side, which is the side facing N Jackson St (US 41A). US 41A is the main route through the city. Similar to Three Star Mall, Northgate also has a couple anchors with no mall access including Big Lots (in an old Kroger) and JCPenney. No stores have rear entrances (except a JCPenney customer pick-up), and only the Dillard's had a side entrance. Part of this design is the very narrow strip of land it is built on. On the entire length of the rear is NW Atlantic St, a street that is paralleled by railroad tracks and prevents any expansion or general public entrances on the backside.

This end was hurt by the closure of Goody's at the beginning of the year. The Goody's was all that stood in the way of JCPenney having direct access to the mall.

The sole remaining tenant on the south entrance corridor is the military recruiting office. I imagine it is extremely popular with the local youth trying to escape this town.

Overall, Northgate is truly a community mall, and it is fairly obvious that the owners take its success very seriously. The mall on the inside has been completely renovated very recently, and the main mall entrance has been entirely upgraded. The new main (middle) entrance is actually quite elegant, but the other two entrances have not been changed. I was actually pleased to find that the mall had retained a few A class tenants despite it being far from a traditional shopping mall. While this mall is not nearly as appealing as Three Star Mall, it still is a decent shopping center in desperate need of modification for continued success.

The sign remains on the Ponderosa Steakhouse. It is not certain when it closed.

Inside Ponderosa, it looks like they just closed for the evening one day then never opened back up again.

Dillard's and Goody's leaving have left the enclosed mall portion in a very vulnerable state, and if the management fails to handle this crisis properly the mall will die quickly, either forcing a costly redevelopment or leaving a blight on the city. Obviously, the property presents challenges to any proper expansion, but the city is not large enough to support a mall much bigger in the first place. While it might seem best to just convert it into a strip mall, I do not feel this is necessary.

Looking back at the Castner-Knott/Dillard's entrance. The entrance to the right opened to the Juniors section, and the mall is currently leasing that separate from any future department store use.

Looking out of the north entrance from Dillard's/Castner-Knott.

The best course of action for the mall owners is to find a department store more suitable for the market. Dillard's is far too upscale for a small town, and the fact it lasted over 10 years in that location is remarkable. Perhaps Castner-Knott was also as upscale, but I'm sure as an outpost store it probably did not carry the higher end lines of the Nashville stores. Dillard's is not as expert about adjusting to their market, but previous owners Mercantile Stores were and today Belk is. Belk would actually be an excellent fit at this location as they gear their stores just for the market. Kohl's and Sears might also do well at this store. The store has the same basic design as most Kohl's, and Sears there would make a perfect discount/department store hybrid since it is one level and large.

Outside the north entrance, pictured above.

The main mall entrance is quite elaborate, and it definitely proves that the owners actually care about the success of the mall. The former Ponderosa is just inside on the left.

Goody's, on the other hand should NOT be replaced. This is actually an opportunity for the mall's owners to expand the mall by cutting through the empty store and cutting a new mall entrance for JCPenney. By doing this, they would also allow more spaces for small or mid-sized stores, which would make the mall more of a draw. In addition, they would connect another major anchor to the mall, which would draw more traffic into the mall. A large tenant that needed both inside and outside entrances, such as a restaurant, bookstore or drugstore could use part of the space up to the Goody's outside entrance and also have a mall entrance. A Books-A-Million actually would be ideal at this location. A better restaurant is also desperately needed to fill the void left by Ponderosa such as an Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday or a popular regional chain. The mall should study more successful small malls to make this work, because it would not take a large number of stores to fill the voids.

The sign on the highway, however is a bit dull. Note the Western Sizzlin in the background.

The Big Lots, on the other hand, is not an asset for the mall and it makes the mall look more dead. While I'm sure it does good business, it is quite unsightly in the old Kroger space and it hems in the JCPenney so that it has no side entrance unlike the old Dillard's. With that, either JCPenney could expand into the store, renovating the front or the store should be torn down. Big Lots could move nearby in one of likely several vacant stores in other shopping centers. I believe that if they lured in a Belk or Kohl's, cut access for Penney's, attracted a bookstore in part of the old Goody's and made the Penney's stand out more, the mall would be more successful than before. In contrast, if they do nothing and leave two vacant anchors, the center will likely fold within 2-3 years.

The rest of the mall is truly just a strip mall. The JCPenney here as noted before is not connected to the mall, and Big Lots in a long-closed Kroger just sits on the end like an exception. Kroger really seems to have liked community malls in the 70's.

Now for the exterior front entrances of former Dillard's/Castner-Knott. Dillard's wasn't right for the town, but I'm sure a Belk or Sears would do fine here.

Dillard's also had a side entrance, but no rear entrance. JCPenney could use one of these here, too, but it is not possible without modification.

In all, Northgate Mall is no Cool Springs Galleria, but it is a nice little mall. In addition to the suggestions above, I also think this mall should be renamed Tullahoma Mall, Tullahoma Station Mall or Jackson Station Mall in lieu of vague Northgate Mall. The name is confusing since there is also a Northgate Mall in Chattanooga less than 100 miles away. It would be easier to market a mall with a distinct name than one with a name like many other malls nationwide. While it will never compete with big city malls, it caters to a fairly large market covering four cities including Shelbyville, Winchester and Manchester in addition to Tullahoma. In all, I thought this unique mall just needs some love and I hope others can see the potential before it's too late. Of course, even if it dies it has done quite well as a successful mall for over 30 years.

My own redevelopment idea as described above. This drawing also throws in a potential expansion idea.

[1] Coming of Malls Altered City’s Shopping Habits.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Greenbriar Mall (Update from July 16, 2006 post)

It was the first major shopping mall on the southside of Atlanta and the second enclosed mall in Georgia. When Greenbriar Mall opened on September 23, 1965, it brought first-class shopping to the largely overlooked southside. Flanking the then under-construction Lakewood Freeway (SR 166) and I-285, the mall opened with anchors Rich's, JCPenney and Piccadilly Cafeteria. JCPenney moved there from its smaller, undersized location located at open-air Lakewood Mall on the other end of the new freeway. The Rich's there was the fifth suburban location and offered three floors of merchandise, further drawing traffic from the downtown store. Greenbriar Mall also became a landmark, because it was the site of the very first Chick Fil-A, which opened there two years later in 1967. Chick-Fil-A itself was founded in nearby Riverdale as a local diner, so this was the nearest location for their new store concept, which grew dramatically since and has remained a staple of malls today. A Chick-Fil-A continues to operate in the mall today, though not in the original location.

Arial shot of the mall from a 1965 postcard. Image is from Malls of America.

Greenbriar Mall was typical of most early shopping malls: two multi-level anchors, one story and an underground section of the mall used for offices and a bowling alley. The presence of a bowling alley in this mall was not known, however. Also like the original malls of the era, the mall contains stores only accessable from the outside as well as in-line tenants. Since the mall opened, it had an interior renovation in 1987 and an exterior renovation in 1997. Also, Greenbriar Mall was distinctly positioned to be a major mall at the intersection of two Atlanta belt routes. The problem is that one of those, I-420, was never completed and the designation canceled. This would have made a by-pass for I-20 extending from Douglasville to I-20 east of Atlanta including the completed Lakewood Freeway. If that would have actually helped the mall, though, is unknown since the project was canceled in 1983.

View of northeast entrance corridor.

Looking along the main mall concourse. The first and third photos show detail of the open-air mall-like overhang and the last of the skylights. The original makeup of this corridor was likely much boxier. The last photo shows the escalator/stairs to the small basement level in the background.

Looking at the northwest entrance corridor. Piccadilly Cafeteria is on the left, and it still looks somewhat gothic on the inside. Outside this entrance is an outdoor sidewalk that leads to the former Circuit City building and entrance.

While the mall maintained stable tenants for the first 20 years, the mall began to see many stores come and go. However, these were met with a strong local interest and investment to keep the mall viable. JCPenney closed there location on September 28, 1985 after 20 years of operation. The local community met the closing with protests that included then-mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young, but to no avail. However, the mall has kept this location filled since aside from a couple brief periods of vacancy. In 1987, Upton's took over the former JCPenney along with the opening of a new Circuit City outside the mall next to JCPenney. Later, in mid-1992, Cub Foods opened a location on a mall outlot facing Lakewood Freeway. Unfortunately, later in 1992 both Upton's and the McCrory's in the mall closed for good, but the mall continued to move forward.

Coming down the escalator to the small lower level basement area. Escalators and steps back up are visible in the background. This area is today used for mall offices and conferences.

Looking back at the down escalator and stairs from the main mall level.

Blurry shot with detail of the downstairs level. The mall management office is the lighted room on the left.

Looking at the up escalator and stairs back to the main mall concourse from the main mall level. A barrier is placed on three sides.

In 1995, the former JCPenney site was resurrected again, bringing Burlington Coat Factory in as an anchor. While not what the mall had hoped, it has been a lasting anchor in the mall. The Burlington Coat Factory opened on September 1st of that year and remains today. In November 1996, former basketball star Magic Johnson opened his Magic Johnson Theaters on the southwest outlot of the mall. Magic Johnson had a personal interest in the area, and its opening created a lot of press at the time. Also, at some point during that time an IHOP was added on the southwest corner of the mall connected to south side of the Burlington Coat Factory. Still, that did not mean the mall did not have new challenges to deal with. Cub Foods closed in 2001 along with all of the other Georgia locations and remains vacant today. In addition, Circuit City closed at the mall when it relocated to nearby Camp Creek Marketplace in early 2006.

Current mall directory. The basement level is shown above the main mall map.

When Camp Creek Marketplace opened, it was the first major retail development in the southside since Greenbriar itself opened. In an area shunned for retail because of a predominantly African-American population, this was a very big deal. The problem was that it also was competing with the mall for business, which has led to redevelopment talks. In 2006, a redevelopment plan was announced after Hendon Properties bought 50 percent interest in the mall in conjunction with the existing owners. The discussion is to redevelop the mall most likely with a lifestyle addition similar to other Atlanta malls as well as attempting to upscale the mall. What also helps the mall is the strong commitment that Rich's, now Macy's has to the mall. In 2001, Rich's owners Federated Department Stores signed a 10 year lease with the mall. Recent renovations to the store inside and out prove the company's commitment to Greenbriar Mall.

Burlington Coat Factory mall entrance and BCF court. This was Penney's from 1965-1985 and Upton's from 1987-1992. Note the Upton's design elements. Also note the Maxway in the court. Maxway is owned by the same company as Rose's, but is located in urban neighborhoods. In the last photo, the northwest entrance court (behind me) leads straight to the southwest entrance court (ahead).

Much fear has surrounded the future of Greenbriar Mall for over two decades, however. By the mid-1980's, the neighborhood around the mall had transitioned from a predominantly white to predominantly African-American community. Stores and businesses in the area began to close all around the mall, and the fear in the time was that the mall was in danger of failure. In that era, the mall attained a strong image as ghetto, and the closure of JCPenney at the mall caused panic. The funny thing is that the new community around the mall really cared about what was going on and was determined to keep that from happening. Since that time the mall has continued to maintain high occupancy, and the neighborhood around the mall has seen substantial improvement in the past decade. A new Kroger was built near the mall and empty shopping centers found new tenants.

Rich's/Macy's court. This photo was taken at a better angle and further back than the previous Rich's photos I took in 2005. See below for actual Rich's photos. The second photo is looking back into the court. The fountain had water in it, but for some reason was not operational. BCF court had a fountain, too, that was covered.

However, that is not to say the mall does not have its problems. The community is looking to erase these problems, but notorious events that tend to be difficult for any mall. However, these can be overcome such as the food court shooting incident at Perimeter Mall in 1989. Perimeter Mall is alive and very well today, and to say there is no urban element at the mall is blind, but it is the third most upscale mall in Atlanta. Nevertheless, Greenbriar is still ranked highly as one of the most dangerous malls in the nation, likely due to incidents such as the Freaknik looting of the Rich's in 1995 and the recent murder of two teens by a gunman at the mall in 2008. Is this a deserved bad reputation or just a media misperception? It is a bit hard to cast a completely positive image to the city as a whole when the mall has hardly any white customers and shoppers of higher income, regardless of race, have reservations about shopping there.

Outside view of the JCPenney/Upton's/Burlington Coat Factory. The ribbed design is original, but the greenhouse design is all Upton's. The second photo shows an IHOP making up the southwest corner in front of the JCPenney. Apparently JCPenney never had an entrance on this side.

Greenbriar today is on the inside actually a very attractive mall in a convenient location. Its interior decor and history make it appealing above many other malls in the city, but it remains a mall that caters exclusively to an urban demographic. Don't expect to find American Eagle, Old Navy or H&M in the mall, but do expect to find the mall is doing much better than people will tell you. The mall is full of stores and gets plenty of customers, but those in the area with more money are driving past it to better shopping. Southlake, another predominately African-American mall, has a lot of the trendy national clothing stores. All of those left Greenbriar before 1990.

The Lakewood Freeway side has many shops open only to the outside of the mall.

Southeast mall entrance with outside shops on the left and Rich's/Macy's on the right. A Rich's labelscar is still visible next to the Macy's sign.

Maybe I do not understand the market well enough, but I have to wonder if this mall can support better stores than urban fashions and knock-offs considering that there is a much larger middle class population in the area than in the past. Would a store like Belk or a return of JCPenney make it at the mall? For the time being, the mall is doing quite well considering its challenges over the past 24 years. When Macy's lease runs out in 2011 will its fortunes stay bright? As its age approaches half a century, it is hoped the mall never gets a post on or ends up in the retail graveyard like comparable classic River Roads Mall in St Louis did. Of course, all of that depends on if the neighborhood is really on its way back and further investment in the mall is successful in making it competitive against Southlake and a potential comeback of Shannon.

Exterior view of Rich's/Macy's from lower level south entrance. Most of the glass display windows are covered up and extra entrances sealed off. It is wondered if this was done in response to the 1995 incident.

Rich's photos from 2004 and 2005: