Brookwood Village is decidedly smaller than many malls built in the 70's, and it features one of the strangest layouts for a mall in one of the most scenic settings. Situated in a narrow valley between two long, steep hills, the mall itself is wedged between one of those hills and Shades Creek. Building the mall itself was a challenge, because unlike most malls, the available parking area was hardly existent. Not only that, but the fact it was built along a creek bed led to the site being situated on poor soils that called for the entire mall being built on piles driven deep in the ground to support its own weight. To accommodate for the parking situation, a two level partially underground parking deck was constructed under the mall to offset the limited parking on the outside. This resulted in the majority of the mall itself being elevated over the parking deck with only a small basement level shopping area in the middle to tie the parking deck to the mall itself. The mall was built by local family as well, the Shepherd family.
Looking at mall with the Belk entrance behind me toward Macy's. The first photo is from the opposite court in front of Macy's.
A basic view along the mall looking toward Macy's. From here, the mall looks like a simple one-level mall, but this is not the case.
When the mall opened in 1973, it featured Birmingham's very first installment of Atlanta-based Rich's on the east end and Birmingham-based Pizitz on the other. It was intended to be a more upscale mall, and this image was enhanced by the presence of upscale junior anchor Gus Mayer on the lower level, which is still there today. Since the mall obviously featured only regional department stores when it opened, the shakeup in the mall anchor-wise left it completely different today from when it opened. While Rich's simply went to Macy's in 2005, the Pizitz location went through a big cycle of anchors much like other locations in the city. First, McRae's took the spot in 1986 after buying out the Pizitz chain. The store would last the longest as McRae's, and it was probably pretty interesting to look at since Rich's and McRae's used the exact same font in their logo. After Belk bought McRae's in 2006, instead of converting to Belk right away, it was converted to Parisian as a divesting of some stores in the buyout. Apparently, Belk did not want the more upscale locations initially. A year later, the store did become Belk anyway, which to all appearances is appropriately an A-class store. It arrived in late 2007, and the A-class designation is closer to Parisian in merchandise quality and offerings.
A look at center court atrium. The first photo shows tables for food court seating leading up to a large window overlooking the main entrance and lifestyle wing in front of Shades Creek. The second photo looks back toward the food court in the back side of the atrium. The main mall crosses over in the middle in the upper level bridge here. The lower level is also clearly visible here from the atrium as well. Note the escalators down to the subterranean parking deck level from the lower level.
Aside from the anchors, what is also interesting is the Books-A-Million in the mall. Most Books-A-Million (sometimes called BAM!) locations today are generally one level stores that provide decent book stores to mid-sized markets overlooked by Barnes and Noble and not yet tapped by struggling Borders. This one is different, though. It has a distinctly upscale look inside, and it is the only two-level Books-A-Million I have ever seen. Since Books-A-Million is based right in the area, this is likely the flagship store. According to Evans Criswell, this store was originally a Book & Co. store, a division of Books-A-Million. In all, I was definitely impressed, and inside it reminded me of the late 70's with its rich black coloring enhanced by bluish lighting. The rest of the mall, however, is overall mid-market these days despite its appearances and the presence of a few upscale stores such as Z Gallerie. It is undoubtedly a bit strained by so much competition since it was built, especially the wildly popular The Summit in nearby Mountain Brook, which was the very first lifestyle center in America. The redevelopment of Todds Mall that created Vestavia Hills Shopping Center nearby has also attempted to steal some its thunder, though recently the center has been struggling. Nevertheless, the mall did not look in any danger from so much competition around, so the owners have successfully kept overzealous competition at bay.
Macy's mall entrance definitely has the look of a 70's Rich's mall entrance including the sign suspended over glass like this. Of all of the modern Macy's mall entrances, I think I like this one the most by far. It is classy and sophisticated. Note the escalators to the parking deck in the first photo.
From the base of the escalators to the parking deck level is this parking deck entrance to Macy's.
A look at the escalators down from the main mall (top) down to the two levels of parking decks below it. The top level parking deck is divided by the mall's lower level.
Walking across the upper level parking deck, I came to this parking deck level entrance to Books-A-Million, which is a two level store. Its upper level connects directly into the mall as an inline tenant.
One of the oddest things about the mall is the entrances to the two main anchors. In front of the anchors is a set of escalators, which connect to the parking deck. Access to each anchor directly from the mall was only possible from the second level, so the escalators were put in place from the parking deck to provide access to the mall from the lower level parking deck entrance. More escalators go further down to the subterranean parking level. From the parking deck level, getting to the mall otherwise is tricky. When I walked across the deck from Macy's, I did not arrive at the mall but to the lower level entrance of Books-A-Million. Books-A-Million on the lower level did not have any direct access to the mall, but I was able to go in and go up the escalator into the main mall from inside the store. In fact, when I explored the lower level shopping area, I found only a few shops down there other than Gus Mayer, though none appeared to be vacant. This lower level shopping area is in the middle of the mall. I found it amazing that any shop could survive in such a weird environment, but the mall owners worked out a way that could happen.
The current Belk mall entrance, which has previously served, respectively as Parisian, McRae's, JCPenney and originally Pizitz.
Upscale junior anchor Gus Mayer, which is found on the lower level on a wing off to the side of the atrium.
In the mall's last renovation, the mall added its own lifestyle center wing and was substantially renovated. Completed in late 2001, the mall renovations costed $50 million coming after the purchase by Colonial Properties in 1997, who renamed the mall Colonial Brookwood Village. While this was not much overall, it did add a few upscale restaurants and it placed them on the front of the mall. This was a tight squeeze indeed as it took some of the front parking area between the mall and Shades Creek. Shades Creek, as it is, divides the mall from Shades Creek Pkwy (AL 149) by a series of bridges over the creek. This new strip of restaurants, though, helped create a way to funnel traffic not only in front of the mall but into the lower level front entrance into the mall. It also helped create more diverse offerings in addition to the 65-store mall. This lower level is also built into a huge court that extends above the second level, so it is clearly visible from the food court on the second level. The food court itself is integral in the mall, and it features a more interesting mix of restaurants than are found in many food courts including McAlister's Deli and local favorite Golden Rule Bar-B-Que.
A couple more views along the lower level mall space. Both photos face the main mall entrance.
Design wise, the current owners have done a significant amount of work to make the mall attractive. Its design is contemporary and elegant, though like most malls today is completely voided of any fountains or significant plant features. In reality, it would be a fairly simple mall if not for the complex parking structure built under most of the mall. With that, as well as the presence of some unusual anchor tenants and decidedly upscale design, the mall turned out to be far more interesting than I imagined. Most of all, though, I find its setting to be absolutely intriguing. In no other instance have I ever noted a major shopping mall to be built in a narrow creek valley like that. Having a mountainous backdrop like that is unusual enough as well. Today, the mall has also seen an increase in importance as both major shopping malls in Irondale have since faded into history. With so much major competition in such a small geographic area, there would be winners and losers, and Brookwood was one of the winners despite being in one of the most geographically constrained settings for a mall ever.
Exterior shot of Parisian from 2007, which is today Belk. Since Rich's was already gone, I made no effort to photograph the Macy's that took its place. Returning to the mall at night made exterior photography too difficult, so only interior photos were made on this trip.
MORE: An older post I made shows photos of the Rich's taken by Birmingham native Russell Wells from the outside in 2004. Also, here is a site plan of the mall from the mall's website.