Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brookwood Village Mall: Homewood, AL

The average big city American shopping mall, prior to the Lifestyle Center craze, was a pretty exhausting center from the outside.  If featured a huge four to six anchor center surrounded by an enormous parking lot that was typically torturous to walk across in boiling or freezing weather due to the crowds and walking distance.  Inside, the mall was so vast that you could literally walk yourself to death to go from store to store after that.  This was the natural setup for a mega mall with plenty of available land, but in the case of Brookwood Village in a suburban city of Birmingham, this was far from the case.


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.

17 comments:

  1. This is a nice mall, and the past few times I've been in it since the renovation, it's looked nice and on a Saturday afternoon, had a good number of people in it. Before the renovation, it wasn't as busy and has some vacancies, but had an "upscale" look to it. Being sandwiched onto AL 149, easily accessible between US 31 and US 280 helps.

    The 2-story book store put there in the renovation wasn't Books-A-Million originally, but "Books & Co.", which opened March 8, 2002 and was over 23000 sq. feet. It was owned by Books-A-Million and opened by that company, so at some point they decided to change the name (2006?).

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  2. JCPenney was never at Brookwood. I lived in Birmingham all my life. The Pizitz location opened at the mall, when Pizitz sold to McRae's it changed to McRaes. When Saks Inc bought both McRae's/Proffitts and Parisian, the store was converted to Parisian and then finally to Belk, when Belk purchased Parisian. JCPenney was never part of this mall.

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  3. That information I got from the Bham Wiki site. I will fix that immediately.

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  4. Also. You do understand that the mall once had 2 full floors; correct?

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  5. No I didn't actually...please enlighten me :)

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  6. No, the mall never had two "full floors". There was always the upper level that stretched from Rich's to Pizitz. The lower level only had mall storefronts in the middle, and was then separated from both the Rich's and Pizitz with parking deck space in between.

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  7. Personally, Brookwood Village is the nicest multi-level mall in Birmingham, ahead of even the mighty fortress-like Riverchase Galleria. Too bad the proximity of The Summit lifestyle center keeps it from attracting higher caliber retailers.

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  8. I fear I caught the last of Brookwood's good years. The way it sounds, continued expansion of The Summit will eventually take this one down as well. I really did not think it was well-located, but it was apparently built in the right place at the right time.

    Unfortunately, Belk has an overlap with The Summit, and Macy's may one day build there as well. With Gus Mayer leaving and several other chain stores closing, the writing is on the wall that this mall may be in bad shape within a relatively short time. It seemed awfully void of shoppers on my last visit compared to the swarms climbing up The Summit.

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  9. I know I'm late but I remember the mall when it was 2 full levels stretching end to end. The original flooring to the mall remains in the parking deck. BhamWiki.com has photos of the mall with 2 full functional levels also.

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    1. No two full levels. Do some research. (that does not include wiki) Each end of the first level opened onto the parking garages and required steps down. The first leve was not on a level with anything else in the building. The steps to those entrances are still in parking but now lead to various store entrances.

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  10. Several memories from olden times:

    At Christmas, Brookwood Mall used to put up a fantastic castle atop the fountain in the food court for Santa. This castle was eventually sold to Western Hills Mall, if I recall correctly.

    Everybody loved the very chunky railings on the upper level (just like the handrail outside of Books-a-Million).

    The upper level used to overlook massive trees growing from the lower level. I miss those.

    The lower level was only in the center, with parking to each side between the center and Rich's and Pizitz on both ends. The top floor extended over the parking. You could exit Rich's or Pizitz, cross bricked walkways in the parking area, and enter the center lower level.

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  11. When I worked at Rich's, the lower level furniture department exited into the parking lot. You had to walk through the parking lot to get to the few lower level mall store that were there. Some of the first stores and restaurants there were the Magic Pan, Ferrel's Ice Cream Parlor, Environs, Chess King, The Yogurt Culture (from Atlanta), Spencers Gifts, a record store...I think it was named Camelot, but I'm not 100% sure, and a Lillie Rubin. This is also where I tasted my first Chick-fil-A sandwich as a friend of mine I worked with at Rich's told me how good they were! There was also a Steak and Ale Restaurant outside of Pizitz where a friend of mine used to work. Brookwood Village was a great place to work!

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  12. while there was always 2 levels at the mall... the lower level did not go all the way to richs/macys or pititz/parisian/belk. there was always parking in between. I worked in this mall for years and years.... the lower level shopping included, county seat, the holly tree, just for feet, copper kettle, farrells, new environs, bookland, a video game store, and even a hickory farms, there was also an amsouth bank...as well as chick fil a.

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  13. As a lifetime Birmingham resident, what I find the most charming about this mall is the name, and its origin. "Brookwood" mall is a combination of the two different municipalities that own the opposite ends. One end is situated on land that is owned by Mountain Brook, and the other end is on land that is owned by Homewood; hence, the name Brookwood. Even today, the taxes paid to municipalities go to two different cities. How often does that happen with one structure? Thank you for this article, even though I found it many, many months after it was written. Since your review, Homewood has integrated its "Greenway Project"; a walking/running path that stretches from Greensprings Avenue, all the way down into the mall area. Eventually, it will connect to the walking path in Mountain Brook. A perfect image of community symbiosis.

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  14. This really looks like a beautiful small mall. Hope it stays elegant like this. Looks like there might be more land to expand on this mall eventually.

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  15. In the 1970's we lived in Albertville and used to shop in Birmingham at Century Plaza (now closed). On several occasions we drove Montevallo Road to Brookwood Village which took some effort. I was always intrigued by the parking arrangement since I had never seen a mall like this. I always thought it was rather small, upscale and deserted in the 1970's. At least when we went, there was hardly anyone there. I returned in 1987 when they were doing a renovation, but there were still very few people. Just went there in December 2012 and it was jammed. The parking garages still amaze me, they are so clean! Most garages are dirty and dingy, but Brookwood has a dropped ceiling that is clean, excellent lighting and a clean floor. Glad to see it is still alive and well. I just wish Century Plaza could come back to life.

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