Sunday, April 18, 2010

Century Plaza Revisited: Irondale, AL

I previously mentioned on my Brookwood Village post about the "two malls in Irondale" that failed.  One of those, of course, is Eastwood Mall, which I was too late to ever see.  The other, though, I covered in 2007.  That was Century Plaza...a fading mall just across the street from Eastwood Mall that initially seemed poised to take a boost from the closure and demolition of Eastwood.

When Eastwood was failing, the mall only featured one major department store anchor, which was Parisian.  Service Merchandise had long since left the mall, and Books-A-Million held on as the one other junior anchor there.  Eastwood at that point was hopelessly doomed, but at that point Century Plaza was troubled but still modestly successful.  With Rich's, McRae's, JCPenney and Sears it seemed to be doing okay.  I really doubt that anybody really saw it coming, but at the time Russell Wells tipped me off that the mall was not doing well as Rich's suddenly departed the mall in a small round of closings in 2004 that also included the store at the former Cobb Center Mall in Smyrna, GA and a store in Ohio.  Rich's was the most interesting part of the mall featuring a built-in anchor tenant that extended back behind stores on the upper floor to an odd side entrance on the upper level of the McRae's/Belk wing.  Unfortunately, that was long closed and sealed off when I arrived.

Rich's one outside entrance looks dated and forelorn over the parking lot with its filthy tinted glass windows shielding the glass entrance fronting a dark store.  The first photo shows a mall sign with the letters removed showing the Century Plaza name.  Clearly, nothing on the outside has ever been updated since the day it opened.  No signs, barricades or any other information indicates that a massive shopping mall was closed for good.

The blame game on the failure of the mall has been everything from the economy to racism to excess competition, but even if those were factors, the real factor was that a lifestyle center killed it.  In 2006, a new lifestyle center opened in Trussville known as the Pinnacle at Tutwiler Farm.  What a cute name!  Too bad it killed a huge mall!  Perhaps it wasn't planned that way, but here's how it happened.  First, the center lured away JCPenney.  Also included in the center was Parisian in a new prototype store.  While Parisian was not at Century Plaza, it was at Eastwood, and it was the death knell for that mall.  Belk, however, did open in the old McRae's.  The problem was, though, is that when Belk bought out Parisian they couldn't leave fast enough.  With Rich's already gone and two other major anchors hotfooting it for the latest retail craze, this left a mall with quite a few chain stores taken by surprise and a lonely Sears flanking the west end of the mall.  In reality, the mall did not look all that dead.  At least 50% of the stores were still operational.

One of the biggest problems that Century Plaza faced was that it was so completely, hopelessly dated on the outside.  Its brutalist trappings were nothing short of severe with its bright red brick, dark glass and plain, simple lines.  When I first saw it I thought it was the ugliest mall I had ever seen, but on the inside I was pleasantly surprised.  This store opened as Loveman's, but also housed Pizitz (1980-1986), McRae's (1986-2006) and Belk (2006-2007).

An overview of the JCPenney with a mall entrance on the left.  If that was a third level, it looked to be very small.  The entrance to JCPenney was on the right.

A backside entrance to JCPenney.  This aspect of being so plain, dark and somewhat cheap looking riled up frustrated boomers to quickly apply the bulldozer therapy to the less successful of 70's retail creations, though the stucco clad replacements actually ended up looking far trashier.  This would have happened here, but the timing of the mall's closing could not have been worse.  Who knows what will end up happening to the mall.

A close-up of a secondary outside entrance to JCPenney, which obviously was where store services were.

I do have to say, though, that the jump of the anchors I am sure had some basis in race.  Race relations are historically more strained in Birmingham than Atlanta, and the city's high crime and poverty haven't helped mend those fences.  When I was in the mall last, it was much like in Western Hills Mall where I was likely the only white "shopper" in the mall.  The neighborhood there, too, was aging and less prosperous than more outlying areas, so a once prime mall in the 70's suddenly was not so prime despite an otherwise excellent location with high visibility.  For two more years after my visit, the mall was fading quickly and garnering national attention for the modern "dead malls" phenomenon.  When Sears finally announced that they, too, were closing, the mall quickly announced that they would do the same.  Its owners, General Growth Properties, were likely caught off guard themselves, and the company's recent bankruptcy was likely influenced by the sudden failure of Birmingham's first mega mall.

A cavernous entrance labeled simply "Entrance 2" looms next to the vacant restaurant.  Rich's began just to the right forming the entire wall on the right extending into the mall.

Another entrance on the other side of Rich's.  The sidewalks still lack the inevitable weeds that will soon take over the cracks no longer disturbed by pedestrians that once sought the shopping mecca found within.  This could have been avoided if the unnecessary lifestyle center had not been built.

Sadly, as Sears closed so did the rest of mall on May 31, 2009.  Today, Century Plaza is a hulking shell of bright red brick with no cars and no shoppers.  Despite its 80's interior renovation, it is obvious today how truly dated the mall was.  Its mall entrances look no different than the day it opened, and outside it is completely uninviting architecturally in any way.  While the mall was always beautiful inside, it was clearly a dated center that was low on the list of priorities of everyone involved.  In less than 10 years it went from a decently thriving mall to an abandoned hulk much in the same fashion as Regency Mall in Augusta, GA did almost a decade before.  Today, it seems there are no plans for the mall much in the way there has been nothing concrete for Regency since the day it closed.  However, unlike Regency, its absence of life is very visible, so it presents a major challenge for the Birmingham area as a whole.  It is always sad to see such a substantial place as this completely die, but the timing could not have been worse.  Only time will tell what becomes of a cornerstone of Birmingham retail history.


  1. When everything in this mall has closed except for Sears, the Sears wing, especially on the lower level, had quite a few stores, including an "fye" that had quite a few customers when I visited. It seemed the farther I got from Sears, the more empty the mall was and the more vacancies. The first time I went in this mall was during the renovation. Plain white barrier walls were in place making the center of the mall invisible. All you could do is walk the mall and see the storefronts and use the escalators. At that time, I was only 19 or 20 and I was only interested in certain stores, so this didn't make a negative impression on me at the time. The mall was horribly ugly at that time, though.

    One unique feature of this mall that I remember was a McDonald's that was not part of a food court, but was situated as in inline store.

    That strange setup in the center of the mall for stores was unique as well. I'm not sure if it was around before the renovation or was added at that time.


  3. I remember going here in the early 1980's for Christmas shopping when it packed to the gills.On those nights, it was hard to find a parking place. I remember not only the McDonald's at one end of the mall, but also a Shoney's on the second floor and a York Steak House in one of the front entrance corridors. The original interior was the very cool 1970's Oak Parquet and Wood look. Never thought I would see this place go under.

  4. I spent time in Eastwood Mall once in 2000 or 2001 and went in Century Plaza briefly once in 2004, and distinctly remember having the same general opinion about both malls: it's just a matter of time before these dumps close up for good. There were a high percentage of stores in both places that, shall we say, catered to a more inner-city clientele. I recall double-checking that my wallet was in my pocket about a hundred times and basically couldn't wait to get my tail out of there. Economic depression probably begets more economic depression, and both malls were pretty depressed, and depressing to walk around in. Frankly, I'm surprised they hung on as long as they did. That part of town is no place to find yourself after dark now.

  5. Just FYI:
    That "3rd level" on the JCPenny was jokingly referred to as The Penthouse by JCPenny staff and housed the massive a/c and mechanical components for the store, as well as roof access.

  6. Late 80s early 90s hotspot. My first job was there at sears. The India store, Camalot music,spencer gifts,free snacks at Pepperidge farms.. good times

    1. I remember my sister, that lived at Sharpsburg Manor, on the hill, took my parents, my brother and myself here after it first opened and yearly come Christmas time. It was spectacular in only the way a mall at Christmas can be. The Christmas village was actually a village to walk thru with animated figures, lit up trees, and Santa at the very end. It was was something I treasured every year and the thought of that mall closing saddens me. I took my kids there when they were young to relive the magic. Century Plaza's Christmas village was never to be equalled in any other mall. It still think about it now, that was back when CHRISTMAS was the draw that made the money, not the stuff you bought. Whoever designed that center court Christmas village, knew what they were doing. I did it as an adult because of my memories and never equalled the magic!

  7. From 1992 until around 1997, that mall was my stomping grounds. I loved to shop, walk around and look, people watch, flirt, and just hang out. Whether with a friend or just by myself, I would be there and it was a lot of fun. I would sometimes walk across to Eastwood Mall, but that was only when Books-a-Million was there. For the most part, it was Century Plaza for me, and I just loved it. I was sad to see it become so run down and basically dangerous by 2003 or so. I was honestly kind of surprised they held on until 2009. Hopefully, they can renovate the place and do something with it. People are still moving to the area, and frankly, some are getting a little tired of having "just Wal-Mart Mall" to shop at.

  8. Please Opening back up Century Plaza Mall. Things have changes since then. We shouldn't have to drive so far to go to the mall and it's one right here. It was the best mall to me and my family. Just think about it. Please

  9. Century Plaza was the mall to go to back in the day and was sad when it closed. Now a church is trying to move in there and put a school and shops in there. I hope this works for my old stomping grounds,lots of good memories in this mall unlike a few others around town.

  10. The old mall is being bought by a church to become a church and school in about 200,000sq.ft of the 700,000sq.ft also part is being offered to the community to use if they have a business that is involved in the betterment of the community.

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