Wednesday, March 31, 2010

West Lake Mall: Bessemer, AL

Birmingham has lost many malls over the past decade, but none have been as forgotten as West Lake Mall.  West Lake Mall these days is like many malls across the nation that were once viable, but were lost to the city's collective memory by its location in a more blue collar area that began a steady decline into poverty and crime.  Malls like this one also shared a common aspect in that they were successful regionally in their time, but were not major players in the entire market area.  Over time, they found themselves eclipsed by burgeoning retail areas elsewhere as well as bigger and better malls.  As a result, they also were some of the first dying malls.  This is why West Lake Mall is rarely mentioned today when discussing Birmingham malls, and little information exists about its history.



West Lake starting out promising when it opened in 1969.  It was a 300,000 square foot mall, and it had tthree major anchors: Sears and Loveman's of Alabama and a Grant's discount store.   Local chains such as Sokol's and Aland's would also have locations in the mall.  Sears was on the southeast side of the mall, Loveman's in the middle on the southwest and Grant's to the northwest at the other end.  In all, it was a basic T-shaped single-level mall built on a filled lake known as West Lake where the mall got its name.  Overall, the mall still was modestly successful, but only for its first 15-20 years.  The biggest change in that time was when Loveman's went out of business in 1980 and was replaced by Pizitz.  Stores like Sokol's and Aland's look to have faded out in that period as well.  When Grant's closed in 1976, it was replaced by Consumer Warehouse Foods.  Consumer Warehouse Foods was a division of Bruno's that was phased out by the mid-1980's replaced with regular Bruno's, Foodmax and Food World . 



This photo is of the main entrance corridor, which is a long open-air wing into the mall in front of what used to be Sears mall entrance.  The fist photo is the West Lake Mall sign on US 11 still showing Food World.  The other side has a big, very homemade "Flea Market" banner.


Looking along the main entrance corridor.  the store on the left is the back of the Food World, which is otherwise the old Sears building, which closed in the 1980's.  An empty store on the right was most likely where the Grants was originally.


The main entrance looks like a cheap late 80's renovation, and it is definitely showing the stains of time.  A boxwood adorns the center of the walkway along with a tree oblivious to the mall's overall condition.  It still has character, though.  I like the grand entry element.

Signs that the mall was troubled were obvious by the mid-1980's when, according to Bhamwiki, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company attempted to remake the mall as a factory outlet mall despite the fact the mall was still viable in that time.  Somewhere between then and 1990 , the mall also looks to have had a major renovation.  When Pizitz was bought out by McRae's, it appears that McRae's never joined the mall opting to close the store instead.  Sears would also close by 1989, opting to locate in the Flintridge Shopping Center in Fairfield in lieu of the troubled mall.  Despite the mall's decline, it continued to maintain at least two anchors at a time into the 2000's.


A second entrance was closer to the Loveman's/Goody's, but both entrances faced the northeast.  This one lacked the grand entryway in lieu of just a simple doorway.  Typical of renovations of that period, the design looked completely out of character with the rest of the mall.


A look at the doorways, which clearly are original along the second entrance.


Inside, I see what looks like screens or parts of booths for the Flea Market.  In the distance I see light suggesting there are some skylights in the court ahead.  I wish I could have seen how the old Sokol's/Goody's worked into the mall.  Perhaps it has reopened, and I was unlucky enough to see it...or lucky considering this area was not the safest.

The Bruno family was the most committed to the mall's success.  In 1994, Bruno's closed its store in the old Grant's, opening up a flagship store in the Sears that would ultimately become Food World five years later.  The Sears location had much greater visibility than the old Grant's  On top of that, Goody's would take over the former Loveman's/Pizitz location bringing two anchors to the mall.  World Gym was also in the mall at one point, though it is not clear exactly where: most likely in the store with the outside entrance at the main entrance corridor.  The only problem with the grocery store conversion of the old Sears was the fact that the supermarket sealed off an entrance into the mall, sealing the mall's fate as well.  It literally hid the mall from view when that happened.



Here, we have a peak inside the main court in front Sears.  Although its hard to tell, it looks like the mall was mostly dark and plain aside from these courts.  This really does not look that much updated from the 1960's except for the color schemes.  The Sears mall entrance would have been just to the left of the first photo.

West Lake had so much working against it, so it was literally amazing how it kept reinventing itself in the past two decades.  It was located far from the preferred urban center, and it was most likely built to take advantage of growth that never occurred on the southwest side of the city as well as outlying areas such as Tuscaloosa.  The problem was, Tuscaloosa got their own mall the same year and Western Hills Mall opened only a few miles up the road in Fairfield a year later.  20 years later even those malls would be eclipsed, further drying the potential pool of shoppers.  On top of that, a new mall portion was built onto Five Points West shopping center in the early 70's including a Pizitz department store making Fairfield more of a shopping destination early in the game.


A look at the former Grant's, which later operated as Consumer Warehouse Foods (a division of Bruno's).  It looks like a big part of the canopy is missing.


Looking along the back of the store.  It looks like another small entrance was in the back, but it has long since been sealed off.


Inside the old Grant's/Consumer Warehouse Foods.  Here, I can clearly see booths that either have just been set up or are in the process of being removed...I don't know which.

While Fairfield itself is in decline today, it was the expansion of retail in Fairfield that heavily contributed to the eventual failure of West Lake Mall.  Early on, the market was overbuilt and Loveman's overlapped with Western Hills Mall: a plausible factor in why Loveman's liquidated in 1980.  Nevertheless, when Pizitz bought the Loveman's at the mall, apparently they instead decided to eventually close their Five Points West store in lieu of West Lake, which offered a more traditional mall experience.  Of course, consolidations from the 80's to recently made it difficult for even successful malls to maintain anchors, so West Lake Mall was a prime target for store closings.


Loveman's/Pizitz was the southwest anchor of the mall, and apparently was also the smallest in the chain.  It last operated as a location of Goody's, but it is not known when Goody's closed at the mall.

By the late 2000's, the future of West Lake Mall was looking increasingly bleak.  Goody's was gone, nothing had been in the old Grant's for awhile and Food World closed in 2009.  At this point, the mall was effectively dead and sealed off.  Nevertheless, no matter how bad it looked for the mall, the 300,000 square feet center always seems to have a new plan set for it.  Right on the heels of the Food World closing, a local car dealer's plans to resurrect the mall as a flea market were announced.  He had bought the mall two years before just for that purpose.  When I visited, the mall was sealed off but I did see some progress toward setting up space in the old Loveman's, but it looked more like they were moving out instead of in.  A sign on the door said the flea market closed in November 2009, so I have to wonder if this plan is for real or if the 40 year old mall is finished.


A recent Google Earth aerial shot of the mall, which I labeled with the original anchors as they were when the mall opened in 1969.


Now a look at the sign with "Westlake Flea Market".  Since this really IS a mini-mall, when is Sammy Stephens coming here to promote this mall's last stand?

What I saw of the mall was far from pleasant.  It was a scary, seedy place surrounded by worsening urban decay.  The US 11 corridor to the north of the mall was the most blighted I had seen anywhere in the city.  Despite a new theme park being built nearby, this also did not seem to reverse the fortunes of the mall.  The scene has changed dramatically since it was built, so while it is possible that the mall may succeed is a flea market it is for certain that it will never again be the retail destination it once was.  I do wish the owners the best of luck, though, because this mall is one of the oldest in the region and is small enough to easily be converted to a multitude of uses.  At least a flea market keeps it an actual mall.

PLUS: A whole lot more photos in this Flickr set!  I was so happy to find these since I couldn't get in!

21 comments:

  1. Thanks for researching this one. I had no idea there was still an interior part of this mall and figured it had been turned into a strip mall. Back in the late 80s, I was driving around and ended up at this place and saw the Sears, still open, with very few cars on a Saturday night, and thought, "There is something wrong here. This is a dead mall." That was probably 1988.

    US 11 in Bessemer is a depressing drive, since there are so many signs of previous retail and fast food simply abandoned.

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  2. Thank you so much for the shout out!

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  3. BTW, for readers: no promises on the map or descriptions. I did not have good information on this mall, and I may have things mixed up. The key is to know exactly where the Grants, Sokol's and Loveman's were in the mall. If this information is wrong I will have to make some changes to the post.

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  4. J.T. The corrections are on the flickr picture you commented on. They are accurate. Loveman's was where Sokol's is. Goody's was there too. Where your Loveman's is was Grant's and 2 flea markets. World's Gym was in an unlisted event space on your map.

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  5. Hey J.T.! I found an Aerial from the 80s that was made before Food World renovated Sears. If you'd like to feature it somewhere I'd be happy to scan it or something

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  6. thank you for explaining about the history of westlake mall. A sad overlooked mall indeed coming from a bham native.

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  7. Phoenix...sorry on the slow response. That would be awesome actually! Thanks. Also, since you are a local what do you know about Todds Mall?

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  8. The one with Walgreens? I had no idea that was indoors!

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  9. From what I can tell, Todds Mall was knocked down in 2001 and had Sears as its only anchor. The amount of stores in the mall was very small...apparently only about 15-30. That is where Vestavia Hills Shopping Center is today.

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  10. ^J.T.: Todds Mall was apparently renamed Vestavia Mall at some point. According to this site, it was anchored by Parisian (which opened in 1963) and Sears: http://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/stories/2003/03/10/focus7.html

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  11. Another factor that contributed to the final closure of Westlake is the new open air Outlet mall not too far away at Visionland/Alabama Adventure.... add to that... the I 459 corridor around McAdory and Southwest Bessemer has gone into hyperdrive development with the new open air shopping venue that includes stores like Target.

    I think the corporate that now owns Brunos closed most of their Birmingham area locations including a Foodworld in nearby McAdory on the I459 corridor that was opened brand new in the early 2000's; which is ironic since Brunos was started in Birmingham. Another supermarket at McAdory has taken over... either Publix or Winn Dixie... but im not sure which... if either.

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  12. Brian H. says...
    Just a quick correction...I worked at the Bruno's when it opened up and the mall entrance was still opened up at the time. They even had two registers back there. Mostly for mall walkers in the morning and the folks who worked in the mall. I believed they closed it up when it became FoodMax, then Food World.

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  13. For much of the 80's and 90's, a local furniture dealer named Ronnie Marchant was prominent in the mall. I remember driving around the mall one night in the 80's and I believe Ronnie Marchant furniture was in the old Loveman's location. He used to run numerous TV commercials at the time.

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  14. It said on the Flickr photos that the flea market plan is over (the plan was done as of November '09). BUT the mall is being used as an event center and you can rent it out for parties and weddings and stuff.

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  15. You have the locations right. The Warehouse grocery store was in the back. The Goody's, which closed and moved down the street a few miles to a strip mall -- before that chain closed up and reorganized -- was in the Loveman's spot. Goody's left in 2000.

    The outlets mentioned above are also owned by Mr. Underwood. The Bruno's mentioned also above, which closed several stores in the region, shut down a brand new store in McCalla just a few years after it opened. The place hadn't aged well at all. Publix going in across the street was the obvious final nail.

    Westlake, which felt dead even in the early 1980s, is across the super highway from a thrift store which used to be Kmart which used to be ... one of the Woolworth Woolco variants across the way.

    Now, the road that fronts the mall, the Bessemer Superhighway, that's an interesting tale. Just read about how it was almost the first freeway in the country, inspired by the Autobahn, etc. But Depression, then the sprawl and then the interstate corridors weakened the area, simultaneously there was heavy industry exhaustion. That's a tough spot.

    But the highway story is interesting:

    http://blog.al.com/archiblog/2007/11/bessemer_highway_super_duper_a.html

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    1. I how to correct you on your description of the location of Westlake mall. the shopping center across the street from Westlake mall use to be ZAYRE Shopping center, Bessemer Twin Theater, and Shoney's. Woolco is/was just up the hill on the right, which is now, Save-ALot and Fred's.

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    2. Imost correct you on your location of Westland mall to the shopping center across the street. Woolco is/was up the Bessemer super highway on the right from Westlake mall. Zayre shopping center is across the street from Westlake mall.

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  16. The Foundry thrift store was previously K-Mart and before that it started out life as a Zayre.

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  17. I grew up in nearby McCalla (born 1980) and I have many fond memories of coming to Bessemer to do our grocery shopping as a youngster. We banked at the old AmSouth bank (presumably the small building on the northeastern outskirts of the parking lot) and frequented the old Consumer Foods Warehouse until I was probably 7 or 8 years old. Across the superhighway was a Zayre which went out of business in '88 or '89, if memory serves, and by that time the Sears had moved into Fairfield as well. Wal-Mart had moved in to the old Woolco building less than a mile south of the mall in probably 1983 or 1984, where it remained until the Supercenter opened down near Academy Drive in the mid '90s. K-Mart occupied the old Zayre building for several years - probably until the late '90s, before it closed and I believe the building sat empty for several years before the Foundry thrift store opened a few years ago.

    Not to digress into Bessemer history...

    IMHO, the Bruno's/Food World store was truly the only reason to go into that huge, mostly vacant complex in the last 15 years (unless maybe you were going to Handy TV.) Once K-Mart closed and the Wal-Mart moved down closer to Bessemer Academy, the grocery-seeking McCalla-ites found fewer compelling reasons to venture that far into Bessemer short of Bruno's/Food World, which decimated that part of town even more. The Food Giant closed, the standalone Food World closed, and eventually the Bruno's/Food World at the old mall closed up. Furthermore, many fast food restaurants and other businesses vacated during that timeframe as well, and now you have at least a dozen "pawn your title, keep your car" places within a half-mile right around the mall - in the old Jefferson Federal bank, the Lee's Famous Chicken, the Burger King, the Popeye's, the Skooter's/Hot and Now, to name a few. Sadly, that whole part of town is drying up in a hurry, and unless you need something specifically found in one of the few places still in business, there's little reason to go there or even stop off while passing through. The business center of Bessemer has been dying on the vine for the last 20 years, and West Lake Mall is really just one more disappointing casualty.

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  18. Why don't someone rebuild in Bessemer and make a change.You can bring a change. Anyone! What about a New Mayor.

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    1. It was pretty depressed when I went through, and a depressed area is very difficult to turn around. Gentrification is controversial and doesn't always work, but if the area gentrified it would definitely change the prospects for it. However, Birmingham has so many problems, not just Bessemer, so it is an issue with the entire metropolitan area. At this point, it seems tearing down the mall and restoring West Lake (what the mall is named for) would be the best option. Most likely the mall will just be torn down to be replaced with an empty lot. I'm guessing the mayor isn't too interested in ideas to improve the area.

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