Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gadsden Mall: Gadsden, AL

Gadsden, AL is another one of several small to medium sized cities located along US 431 (historically known as the Florida Short Route) and I-59.  It is located about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham and the state's largest mall, Riverchase Galleria.  It is also one of the more scenic locales in the state due to its crown jewel, Noccalula Falls Park, a city park built around a small gorge and amphitheater-style waterfall that remains a popular regional tourist draw.  The waterfall exists at the southern end of Lookout Mountain, a long limestone plateau with numerous significant natural features that extends northeast through Georgia to end at Point Park in Chattanooga.  The city itself is situated mostly at the foot of it with the Coosa River, one of Alabama's major rivers, flowing through it on the other side.  It is also a town that has historically been an industrial town, and its Goodyear plant remains operational despite an industrial base that has eroded in a similar fashion to many Midwestern towns.  It is a uniquely Northern situation in the Deep South where not only is the struggling local economy dependent on this industrial giant, but also of course Gadsden Mall.

Gadsden Mall sits in a fairly interesting setting.  It sits near the end of I-759, a spur off of I-59 into the city, and the mall is backed by Neely Henry Lake where it starts backing up the Coosa River.  The mall itself opened in 1974, and is a basic one level center that is today anchored by Sears, Belk, JCPenney and a 16 screen stadium-seating theater located off of center court.  It also has a small food court and one junior anchor, Books-A-Million.  Books-A-Million has been a godsend to second tier malls and markets overlooked by Barnes & Noble and Borders, though in many cases the chains overlap.  Ruby Tuesday previously operated at the mall as well, closing in a recent downsizing of the chain.


Here is a look at the north court.  Sears is to the left, the main mall is to the right and I am in the back right entrance corridor facing the front right entrance corridor.  Ruby Tuesday formerly operated in the background.  The first photo is a view along the main mall with Chick-Fil-A and the entrance to the built-in food court on the right just beyond it.  The direction of the photo is walking away from Belk to center court.

A look along the back right entrance corridor, which features a lot of wall with the sign of stores in the background.  The problem is that these aren't empty stores apparently.  It seems this was just a flaw in the design.


Facing the back right entrance.  I think that was the original movie theater on the left.

Gadsden Mall inside is a pretty basic design with a strange combination of some contemporary elements and some extremely vintage elements, but its interior design is far different from most malls these days.  In contrast with the drab white and tan scheme being applied to most malls, Gadsden Mall features a spacey violet blue and lime green throughout the mall oddly reminiscent of the late 70's when it was built to start with.  In the center of the mall is a large fountain, which was unfortunately covered in a Christmas display on my visit.  All the shops also have a fascinating angled overhang that slants toward the mall, and the skylights have been muted with a wavy pattern covering them up partially.


A view of center court facing the JCPenney wing (original main entrance).  Normally this is a fountain, but it was covered up for Christmas.


This less than ideal picture including the fountain was taken on May 3, 2008.  The slight difference in color is due to the fact I was using my older camera.

Another view along the main mall heading toward Belk this time.

 A look at the South court with the left front entrance court straight ahead and the back entrance behind me.  Belk operated there previously as Parisian, McRae's and Pizitz.  It was McRae's the longest.

A look along the left front entrance corridor walking away from Belk.

The main mall concourse is fairly healthy, though the fringes of the mall are definitely showing the effects of the economy.  The mall also features fairly strange long entrance corridors next to all four anchors with shops located only near the entrances with an otherwise big gap between them and the main mall.  This was not exactly the best planning, since these corridors did not integrate with the shops in the main mall.  Most of these have not done well, which gives these areas definite dead mall aspects.  At least one of those empty stores was an arcade, another an older theater and another a location of long-closed Morrison's Cafeteria.  All strangely had doors opening on the inside as well in lieu of the usual pull down metal grates today.  None of these shops remain operational along the back entrance corridors, though the ones facing the front of the mall were tenanted.  That is not exactly a surprise, either, since these backside stores faced nothing but Lake Henry and no department store exists on that side to lure shoppers.  Also, the food court seems to be rather anemic.  I'm not exactly sure why some food courts do well while others don't, but it seems food courts in small city malls definitely have a lot of trouble.  Of course, Chick-Fil-A proved a noteworthy exception as it remains faithful just outside of the food court.  Indeed, by 1974 they still had a ways to go before they mastered mall design for maximum sales per square foot but they were still more fun.

The Food Court, which at the time seemed to be struggling, a carousel attempts to draw children while the aroma of grease would draw the adults.  Since carousels were the rage in the 90's, I am guessing this came with the 1994 renovation and was likely a Woolworth's or McCrory's previously.

The anchor shifting over the decades has been highly confusing.  Belk has moved three times and JCPenney twice.  Only Sears has remained static.  The original anchors when the mall opened were Pizitz, Belk Hudson and Sears.  The Belk Hudson appeared to have the largest store, possibly two levels, but only one level was used if so.  The building still stands as the back anchor, and is now a theater.  Belk Hudson operated at the mall for around 20 years before closing the location in 1994, reopening in a new store in the front of the mall as just Belk across from the original Belk.  At that point, JCPenney took over the former location and operated there until it closed in 2000 due to a company restructuring.  In 2003, the former Belk Hudson/JCPenney was replaced with a stadium seating movie theater.

On the back of center court is the Premiere 16 Cinemas, which operated previously as JCPenney and Belk Hudson.


Across center court is this wing, which ends in JCPenney.  This was the original main entrance up to when Belk built in front of it in 1994 to replace its original Belk Hudson location in the back.

Another view of Belk, which made its third move to this spot.  If Sears wanted to trade, then they could warm their feet at every anchor spot in the mall.


Of course, Sears will have to die before they'll leave this spot.  In a town perfect for Sears, it has been holding firm here since 1974.

The Pizitz store (south anchor) had the most anchor changes.  It became McRae's in 1987 and remained so for years.  In 2006, Belk bought out McRae's.  The problem was, Belk was already at the mall.  As a result, Parisian replaced the former McRae's while the struggling Saks division was on its last legs.  Parisian was an odd fit for the mall, which was by no means upscale enough to support it, but this was a short-lived corporate move.  Belk soon abandoned its recently built location, moving into the former Parisian after buying it out and effectively taking control of both major department stores in Alabama.  The second Belk location did not remain empty long, though.  JCPenney wanted back into the mall, and they gutted the store for a brand new JCPenney.  This new one-level JCPenney features a very contemporary look inside and out, showcasing their new red logo and a radical departure from their often dingy looking stores in the past.  Its design is identical to the new free-standing store recently opened in Hiram, GA.  In all, this is an extremely confusing chain of events that took place, and I thank previous contributor Evans Criswell (The Mall) for clearing this up for me.


Entering the main mall from the north court with Sears behind me.


A happenin' spot in the mall with Gap on the right and Books-A-Millon on the left.  It looks like a wavy design was used to partly cover the industrial-style roof (or how was it originally?).

It doesn't look too complicated now, but this map in 1974 would completely disorient any potential shopper.

Aside from the department store musical chairs played to piped elevator music, Gadsden Mall has been renovated somewhat less than other malls.  Its last renovation came in 1994.  Malls like Gadsden Mall are in a precarious position today, but Gadsden Mall is better off than many like it in the state.  It is the right size for the market, its anchors are popular department stores and it is not situated too close to any other city.  It is also better off because Gadsden lacks many suitable building sites due to terrain, waterways and the odd configuration of the transportation infrastrucutre.  While there might be a better site for a mall land-wise, it would fail on other factors.  The mall, however, faces dangers related to the city itself.  The economy in the country is fragile enough right now, but the risk lies in the fact that Gadsden is an industrial town in an era when American industries have been closing and shipping overseas at a steady, even accelerated pace.  If for any reason, that plant closes it won't just be Gadsden Mall that suffers, but it will definitely be a casualty. I guess my point is that considering this mall was faring better in 2008, the economy in a relatively blue collar city is having an effect.


The front north entrance has a simple, but very contemporary touch.


But the rear south entrance is straight up 1974, I love it!  The window on the left was for the Morrison's Cafeteria, which was accessible just inside the door.

While I have painted a picture that seems less than rosy, I still want to point out that this is a successful mall with solid anchors and A-list tenants.  In fact, it has seen an enormous investment lately for a mall its size and age adding in a brand new JCPenney and Books-A-Million as two major anchor tenants.  How many other malls these days are getting new department stores?  In all, I think the food court is probably the biggest problem it faces, which seems to have seen its better days.  I still find that odd, though, considering that a trip on any given day to the mall greets you with a full parking lot, and the mall is not to any knowledge on any dead mall lists.  In fact, when I visited on a random Saturday in spring 2008 it was swamped.


The only thing that is not 1974 in this photo is the Sears logo.  Too bad they changed it.  The strange stone they used on the gray part of the exterior made the store look even older.  A plaque denoting opening day is found on the front.

From this angle, you would think the mall was new with JCPenney and Books-A-Million sporting their latest looks.

Belk has been considerably modernized on the outside, though it is not known which store did that.  It still has similarities to the original Pizitz, though.

While this loud theater entrance is the first thing you notice, this is the same building that Belk Hudson and JCPenney used.  You can faintly make out a Belk Hudson labelscar on the upper left.


Sears also has an auto center off-mall.  Since the 70's, most Sears Auto Centers are built into the store itself in lieu of an outlot.

For me, while it is a simple mall I am charmed by the vintage trappings including the big modern fountain, moody colors and left-over architectural styles from the era it was built.  While not particularly special, it is a mall that makes me feel nostalgic for those like it in my youth such as long-demolished Riverbend Mall in Rome, GA.  It also helps, too, that Gadsden as a city is noticeably more modest in its retail offerings placing more emphasis on the mall.  In an era where 25 year old malls are treated as dinosaurs, this 36 year-old mall serves its purpose well, and it also continues to provide one badly needed climate controlled escape from the Alabama humidity which tends to be severe in the Coosa Valley.


A mall panorama from JCPenney to Sears on the front.

A stucco clad sign is found on the road, replacing the much more distinct tuning fork used for the original mall logo.

More Gadsden Mall images, ads and drawings coming from opening day are coming on the next post!

Monday, February 22, 2010

University Mall: Pensacola, FL

One of the strangest things is when malls die when the anchors do not.  A good example is Oak Ridge Mall in Oak Ridge, TN.  It died while the anchors to this day remain alive and well.  Such is also the case with University Mall, the "other" mall in Pensacola.  It was built in June 1974 after Cordova Mall, which opened in 1972.  University Mall was the more dominant mall for over two decades featuring a straight shot between Sears and JCPenney, McRae's off a small wing in the center, and a United Artists Cinema along the northwest entrance wing.  Since both malls were quite small, they co-existed peacefully in the growing Gulf Coast city wildly popular for its white sand beaches, semi-tropical climate and blue-green seawater.

Today, University Mall looks solid from the outside but is literally like a tree hollowed out.  While these anchors are alive and well, in between is an open and empty mall with a leaking roof with missing sheetrock and ceiling tiles obviously removed from water damage and never replaced.  Normally a state of disrepair would be the case in any mall with nothing left, but the funny thing is that the mall is still anchored by three solid anchors: JCPenney, Sears and Belk.  Belk was the only anchor change since the mall opened, since Belk bought out McRae's in 2006.  The movie theater, however, has long since closed.  How a mall can have all its anchors and still die is quite strange, but the story is more eerie than most.  The problem was the mall was damaged in Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and for some reason this damage led to Simon deciding to de-mall the center when it was previously doing fine.  The damage was obviously extensive, and I am only going to speculate on the reasons for not simply repairing it.



Lunch isn't served today...or ever again.  This sad food court looks to have been built later than the rest of the mall and is apparently right next to Sears.  The first photo shows center court in a very dilapidated state with missing sheetrock and ceiling tiles all damaged in 2004 and obviously never replaced.  All photos and most of the information on this page are by Stephen Majors.  He went out of his way to get these for me, and I appreciate it.  A few of you have probably also seen these in the Facebook group.

I suppose that Simon was tired of having two malls cannibalize each other.  Simon bought the mall in 1994, and they also own Cordova Mall, so competition is hardly a factor in the case of University Mall.  What also did not help was when Cordova Mall was expanded in 1998 so that it is now a four anchor mall compared to the original dumbbell shaped Cordova Mall.  However, only Belk overlaps at the two malls, thus the two anchors Sears and JCPenney have no current competition nor need to leave the mall since there is obviously no room at Cordova and no other developments exist in the city that would support them.  The most likely reason, though, that these anchors hang on is very likely due to definite plans to redevelop the mall as a lifestyle center as well on top of an obvious lack of space at Cordova Mall.


If you can look past the missing ceiling tiles, the diagonal, almost pinwheel like skylights are quite unique.  The skylights are actually on the side window and not directly overhead. 


More detail of center court.  It seems like it was such a happy place once.

Former Hallmark and Radio Shack.


I'm guessing a mall arcade.  It looks like the hood of an 80's Firebird.


Empty shops along the northwest entrance wing.  This looks like a jewelry store.


Former Hope Community Church, which previously operated as United Artist Cinemas.

Today, the completely barren University Mall looks downright dilapidated.  After all leases were terminated in 2009, it is completely barren inside along with the obvious structural issues.  From the pictures, it was also last renovated apparently in the late 1980's judging by the color tones, non-working fountains and sunken seating area in the center court.  The movie theater also last functioned as a church, but is also empty today.  I guess Simon thinks they can do better than this mall, but the tight credit market and poor economy is the reason this mall is still standing, and it will likely take some taxpayer financing to get the project off the ground.


Caution!  Wet Floor!  A leaky roof is obviously a major issue on the JCPenney wing.

Looking at Belk (former McRae's) from center court including a now non-operational fountain.  This was a very showy entrance indeed.


Looking toward Sears with a dark Rainbow on the left.  This was obviously a mall geared somewhat lower than Cordova Mall.

A closer look at Sears, which stares out at an almost apocalyptic scene.

In some ways, it seems odd that Cordova was not just expanded to include Sears and JCPenney so as to leave University Mall to die, but keep in mind the decline has only been in the past six years.  Cordova has two Dillard's, Belk and a Best Buy: a rather odd line-up for a dominant regional mall.  In fact, the only reason for the Belk overlap is because of the buyout of McRae's four years ago followed by Parisian three years ago.  The Cordova Belk location had previously operated as Parisian, and it came after McRae's had already transitioned to Belk.  Considering that it is a smaller market, both malls likely had much of the same stores, though evidence suggests this mall was somewhat more downscale than Cordova.


Another view of center court.  The only thing I don't like here is the lack of planters and those horrendous colored tiles.

How sad...I guess this was put there just before everybody was kicked out.  Pretty soon, more than just this wall will be a memory.  I wish I could buy this mall, fix it up and offer new leases to everybody for rock bottom prices.  Couldn't they at least put a nice bookstore chain in the old theater and just try to redo the mall?

The ceiling design is one of the more unique elements of the mall containing vaulted ceilings in the center court and high windows arranged in a diagonal, almost pinwheel-like pattern giving a visually appealing experience.  While this is very eye catching and is one of the best designs I have seen, my guess is that the design was not built with hurricanes in mind since most buildings in the 70's were not designed to withstand major hurricanes.  Ivan was a particularly severe hurricane, and likely the damage was sufficient enough that insuring the center would mean major structural modification.  Since malls seem to be out of favor in the world of retailing, to Simon it made sense to empty out the place and demolish it for a lifestyle center in lieu of just retrofitting, restoring and reopening the center.  Rebuilding the existing mall would likely have cost as much as just demolishing and starting anew...the latter option chosen.  I just hope that the new mall is an actual open-air mall with fountains, planters and tasteful architecture in lieu of just building a big driveway down the center of the mall with shops on each side.  Still, I would prefer to keep the enclosed mall.

I am really digging this mall sign.  It is straight up 70's looking.  I guess the sign is saying "We are open for you to wander around in between our lively anchors so long as you don't take pictures."

The food court entrance has mid-90's stucco trappings combined with very 70's doors.


The front entrance of the mall does not look a day over 1974.  The effects of the photo almost make it seem like a big chain link fence is already around it with bulldozers prepared to chomp away at the 36 year old mall.

Simon's purchase of University Mall was an obvious checkmate for the company and a real disadvantage to shoppers in Pensacola since they were offered no true variety.  This is also not the only city where Simon owns both malls.  Knoxville has a similar situation with one mall completely dominant and the other fading very similar to what happened in Pensacola. Nevertheless, the dual ownership assured that both malls survived in one form or another.  While it is unfortunate that the mall had to end this way, maybe the new development will be attractive and more exciting than an empty, torn up mall.


Empty storefront reflecting the photographer.  I remember signs like this in Cookeville Mall.


Robb is not here anymore.  Neither is Erica.  Would you like to schedule an appointment at our other location?  We're booked here clear through 2015.


Claire's has not been gone too long.  That's for sure.


Can't figure this one out.


Radio Shack is actually doing well these days, so they were probably one of the last to go.  Thanks again Stephen!