Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Knoxville Center/East Towne Mall: Knoxville, TN

One thing that Knoxville is passionate about is football, and namely that football involves "Big Orange" otherwise known as University of Tennessee.  Because of this, a rivalry type situation with malls definitely took shape with both major malls of the city referring to the side of the city.  West Town was first then East Towne Mall (including the annoying elegant "e") arrived in 1984 to rival the success of dominant West Town Mall.  The problem with East Towne Mall is that is today owned by the same company as West Town Mall, Simon, and Simon apparently wanted to give the mall more distinction renaming it Knoxville Center when the mall was renovated in 1997.  People in Knoxville did not like the new name at all, however, and it seems they also quit liking the mall as much, either.  Simon also did not give the royal treatment to the mall like they did the crosstown rival stripping out all the fountains and planters throughout.

Knoxville was in a rather unique situation as a one mall town (aside from the downtown pedestrian mall), and the arrival of East Town mall may have been a treat, but it did not change the game at all.  Always playing second fiddle, the main claim to fame for the new mall was that it had two levels throughout and a tent-like structure in the center court.  Other than that, it was basically a conventional large five anchor mall opening with Proffitt's, Miller's, JCPenney, Sears and Service Merchandise.  Service Merchandise was located in a two-level anchor, but only used the top floor with the bottom remaining vacant.  Proffitt's location would be the third mall-based location, and it would also spell the beginning of the company's major expansion falling under new ownership by R. Brad Martin's RBM Acquisition Co.

The first photo features the center court, including a tent roof, plantation-style structure on the lower level, potted trees and a food court on the upper level known as "Cades Cove Cookout".  The second photo shows the bottom level just outside of Sears.

Sears mall entrance clearly dates to the mall's construction considering it is more elegant than the usual ugly tile.  I run across a few like this from time to time.

Getting photos that night was difficult, so this was the best shot I could get of the closed Dillard's, which opened as Miller's and later was Hess's.  I seem to have covered most every mall that ever had Miller's as an anchor.  This is the upper level of "Trout Court", part of the mall's "hillbilly" theme.

Here is a view along the second level of the Sears/Dillard's wing.  Service Merchandise (not pictured) was also on this wing.  Skylights here are just meh.

Mall maps always make it easier to describe these places.  Note the three courts: University of Tennessee Court, Cades Cove and Trout Court.

Knoxville Center's modern mall entrance on the side facing I-640 was a 1997 update from the original entrance, which is photographed below.

To say that East Town Mall is inferior to West Town Mall would not be fair, because it is a very large mall with some distinctive design features.  Aside from the tent structure in center court, the mall has a continuous uphill slope, which is represented on both levels throughout as well as a definite theme all its own.  It was also the largest in the city and comparable in size to Hamilton Place in Chattanooga for over a decade, and it did quite well despite the fact that it was not terribly well located.  The problem with East Town Mall is that the growth of the city has trended westward, and because of this there was never much of a hinterland surrounding the mall.  The mall, however, sits in a far more visible location than East Town Mall situated within view of I-640, which was completed in the early 1980's. 

The ramped sections of the mall being bi-level are pretty interesting.  You see these a lot with one-level malls, but it is not common for two level ones.   This is heading into center court.

Here is another view of center court, which somehow has been pegged to be like Cades Cove.  If they're looking to recreate Cades Cove, then a rustic indoor mill with plush ferns and an indoor waterfall seem like what would be appropriate here, but they might be a tad tacky with the tent roof.  It seems teflon roofs were all the rage in the 80's, but I imagine they are also a maintenance nightmare as well as more expensive to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  They are pretty cool looking, though...especially with the light effects on them.

Another ramped up section is found just past center court.  The Proffitt's/Belk wing is on the right.

A view along the Proffitt's/Belk wing.  I understand Proffitt's closed the lower level for a period of time.

The mall today definitely seems to have a theme despite the lack of fun features that West Town has.  The mall took on a hillbilly theme, including naming the food court "Cades Cove Cookout" after the traffic-choked scenic valley in nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  To make things more confusing, the hillbilly theme is interspersed with University of Tennessee themed court on the west wing of the mall and the dubious "Trout Court" on the eastern end toward Sears and in front of the former Dillard's.  University of Tennessee Court includes a sloping section with a mock-up of a football field, and giant orange "T" and city landmarks along with a basketball hoop.  I guess that's one way to shoot two birds with one shot: play up on the over-hyped local culture and then play up college athletics pride.  What effect this might have had seems rather negligible.

The upper level wing near University of Tennessee court.

Signs in the mall denoting anchors and the food court.  The fake buzzard at the top is a little creepy.

JCPenney is an original anchor, and escalators climb up to the second level entrance.

Looking back into the mall from JCPenney.  I don't see anything too unusual here.

Over the years, the mall has seen a few anchor changes.  Miller's became Hess's in 1987 along with all of the other Miller's locations, and in 1992 the store was then sold to Dillard's since Proffitt's already had a two level store in the mall.  Service Merchandise would then close with the chain in 1999, resulting in the first vacant anchor in the mall.  Proffitt's then converted to Belk in 2006 along with all the other Proffitt's in the area, and Dillard's closed due to poor sales in 2008.  However, Service Merchandise found new life as Rush Fitness within the past five years.  Rush also took part of the long-vacant lower level, which made that part of the mall a little less spooky.  The mall also continues to maintain A-list tenants despite an uptick and vacancies and decline in foot traffic.

College football fans that hate "Big Orange" should not be allowed in this court, which features a giant orange "T", a fake football field and a basketball goal elevated above the court.  Coming from the land of red, a big letter "G" and a little white bulldog, this does seem somewhat foreign to me.  Quotes surround the court as well, though I could not tell from the pics what they said.  Coaches tend to be a source of inspiration for football fanatics.

Here, a fake football field takes over on the lower level.  I would rather they just put in orange fountains with orange lights under the water.  I guess this is a cost-efficient way of being creative.

More of University of Tennessee Court.  You might slip and fall on this Rocky Top.

Here is a front entrance wing on the lower level across from Belk/Proffitt's.  It looks more like kiosk hell to me.  I think I shall dub this the "Dead Sea Wing".

Some people these days wonder if this mall is dying, but so far it seems to be hanging on.  It definitely received a blow with Dillard's closing, but with both malls on the same team Simon either wants this mall to die or they intend to play up the strengths of each, and judging by the opening of Hollister right as Dillard's closed I am leaning toward the latter.  One way that this mall may find new strength is the fact that Macy's is interested in finding a location in East Tennessee.  They have no presence in the market currently, and they were recently blocked from both West Town Mall and Hamilton Place Mall by their competition Dillard's and Belk.  However, with Dillard's vacating the slot at the mall, it leaves an opening for Macy's to enter the market.  It is unknown, however, how serious the talks are or if Macy's is weighing the viability of that location.  It would probably help if the mall was more developed surrounding it.

Escalators are located off-center in the center court area.

Here is Trout Court.  Gasping for ideas, they wanted to trout something new, but so far this fishy design is a flop.  This is also the most dead portion of the mall.

On the back side of the mall is this very 80's mall entrance aside form the newer logo.  It was very difficult to photograph due to the presence of rowdy teenagers and security.

Still, I snapped this close-up shot of the cool mall entrance.  The front used to have one like it, but it was changed to a woodsy mountain theme in the 1997 renovation.

My personal view of Knoxville Center, is that it is an attractive mall, but it could be a lot better.  The 1997 renovation made the mall look too generic, and the presence of a dead anchor is not helping the mall, either.  What is worse is the lack of development in that side of the city as well as the fact it is a poorer side of town with most of the money west of the city.  Additionally, the mall has poor access compared to its cross-town rival, which recently had an interchange re-directed for easy access to the mall from I-40/75.  In other words, the original developers must have built there on speculation of a growth boom, because I believe the mall would have done better built north of the city somewhat north of the interchange of I-75 and I-640 instead of closer to I-40 east.  As the mall is pushing 30 years old, it clearly has some image problems, and a high profile shooting incident on October 8, 2008 did not help, either.  Considering that all of the other anchors are holding on after Dillard's left and Macy's thinks they may want to get started there, it is clearly pulling adequate business, but what could be done to make this mall more popular?

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  1. Great summary, just one minor correction, the Service Merchandise was not two levels. The lower level underneath it was not ever used, and never even had a storefront in front of it until the cleaning company put their office in down there. Part of lower level is actually used by the Rush, the first time that space has ever been open to the public.

    Proffitt's always used the lower level of their store, though it was frequently remodeled. In much of the RBM era, the two Knoxville Proffitt's stores seemed to be in a constant state of remodel.

    Unlike at West Town, Dillard's did not do much when converting this store from Hess's. They basically replaced some carpet, put tile in a couple of departments, painted walls, and changed up where certain departments were located, but they did very little to the store overall. They even kept the trademark Miller's parquet floors in the aisles and their trademark exterior entrance, which was also found at West Town and Foothills. It looked much the same the day it closed as it did the day Miller's opened it. The marble mall entrances (drywalled over since your visit) were never changed, though Dillard's did a much better job of patching the labelscars in the marble than Belk did.

    Dillard's considered closing the store multiple times before they actually did. The mall had Kohl's interested in the space (which Dillard's owned, and still does) in the late 90s, but Dillard's elected to remain
    in the mall and Kohl's opened down the street in a new center instead as a part of a three-location entrance into the market.
    This mall also had the first mall-based Ruby Tuesday, which moved from the World's Fair Park downtown location in 1992 and kept the downtown store's 003 store number. It replaced Fuddruckers, which closed in 1990 and did not re-appear in Knoxville until the mid 2000s.

    The area directly around the mall has never been that bad, and it's getting better with some very nice developments, but they were very slow to institute rules to prevent hoodlums from assembling, whereas West Town has always been heavily secured. I won't say it isn't safe at night, but the teens (of all races) that assemble there at night make it seem that way.

    You're right that it was built on speculation. I640 was being constructed at the same time the mall was. That was also one of its biggest problems, one way in, one way out. Three entrances to the mall, all on one road that led to 640.

    You thing there's little development around it now, you should have been here in the early 90s. The mall opened in 1984. In 1991, there was still literally zero developement around the mall. None. The only thing at the entire interstate exit was the mall. No outparcels, nothing. In 1991, they opened a Phar-Mor next to Sears on the mall perimeter. Circuit City followed a year or two later. Toys R Us opened on the hill overlooking JCP around the same time.

    Finally, in 94 they were able to sell outparcels to Applebee's, Wendy's and Just for Feet. Pier 1 came a few years later, Sam's opened in the early 00s.

    Across the interstate, a shopping center was developed in 1992 with Food Lion, Home Depot and Regal Cinemas. Regal converted the mall theater 6 to a dollar theater. When the mall was renovated, Regal flip-flopped the two and added three screens to the mall theater. They closed and demolished the shopping center theater in the early 00s.

    WalMart opened across Millertown Pike from the mall in 1992-93, when they opened a total of six new stores in a market that had once only had one. You read that right, until the early 90s, the third-largest city in Tennessee had one WalMart, and it was not even in the city limits. The market was dominated by KMart and Target.

  2. One thing I have to say about second-fiddle malls is that you gotta love the old-school facades that some of the stores may have. Check out that Limited and (empty) Structure/Express Men next to it in the "escalators are located off center..." pic.

    The Express and Express Men at Georgia Square Mall still have their original early-90s look in all it's "French" and "Columns" glory, respectively.

  3. One of the distinguishing features of this mall originally were the two waterfalls. Those stood out in my memory far more than anything else about the mall. I visited this mall 2 or 3 times from 1990 to 1994. The next time I went (I guess after the 1997 remodeling), they were gone. Removing those was a big mistake.

    I always noticed the atmosphere at this mall was a bit different than any other I went to. There seemed to be some hostility between some of the people working in the stores and some of the mall patrons. When I was in the "Tape World" store in the mid 1990s, the guy working behind the counter said, "Keep Walking" to a couple of people who were on their way out of the store. I noticed arguments between customers and people working in stores elsewhere in the mall, too.

    I was never very impressed with this mall (other than the waterfalls and the fact that it was a 2-level mall). In the early 90s, I figured this mall would become the city's dominant mall, but I was wrong.

    I went in this mall about a year ago and it was depressing because of a lot of empty stores and Dillards being gone. Last time I was in it years ago, it was still doing well.

    The access back to the interstate is aggravating from the mall. You can exit to Millertown Pike and get to the mall quickly, but getting back on I-640 going west is not possible there. You have to use that long road and go through some traffic lights to get back on. During the busy shopping season, back when the mall was doing well, I bet that was a nightmare.

  4. GO VOLS!

    Now that that's out of the way...

    This certainly is not the East Towne I seem to remember, although I went there just once. It's amazing the useless crap my mind holds on to -- I went there because the Proffitt's at WT didn't have a certain pair of black shoes in my size, so they held a pair for me at ET. Why do I even remember that?

    Now that I think about it, I suppose a dichotomy could be drawn between WT/ET and SouthPark/Carolina Place here in Charlotte. One is the nice, fancy mall that people go to when they want something expensive, and the other is a normal mall where people go for normal stuff. One is in what pretty much everyone would consider the fanciest part of town, while the other is in an okay, but still not awful, part of town. I could go on, but those are just my general impressions.

    That and the access to the entire place just seemed poorly designed. I wonder if the interchange at Millertown Pike was original and the C&D lanes and the half-diamond at Washington Pike were added later with the mall.

    As far as Macy's coming in there...I've heard that idea floating around for years, and honestly, I just don't see it at ET. I think if they somehow managed to get into WT first I could see them opening at ET, but a sole ET store in the entire eastern part of the state leaves me scratching my head a little. (Actually, could we call this a re-entering of the market, thanks to the rebranding [boo] of Rich's?)

  5. "This mall also had the first mall-based Ruby Tuesday, which moved from the World's Fair Park downtown location in 1992 and kept the downtown store's 003 store number."

    @Brian, are you sure about that? I remember a Ruby Tuesday at Gwinnett Place mall back in the late 80's. I went on my first date there in 1989. Unless my memory is pulling a colossal fail (which is possible), I think there was at least that one and the one at Lakeshore Mall before 1992.

  6. @Brian, I'm guessing you meant the first Ruby Tuesday moved into the mall, because for certain the one at Town Center at Cobb Mall was there in 1986 (and still is). The now-closed location at Cobb Galleria Mall was also an early one. Otherwise, I made the corrections you said. Can I e-mail you about something Knoxville retail related?

  7. You guys would be correct about Ruby Tuesday. My mistake, I was relying on an old article, when I could have just picked up the phone and called someone at RT in Maryville, which I have since done. The East Town store did indeed keep the 003 store number, but was not the first mall-based store.

    JT, feel free to email me at brice16 (at)

  8. Whats the adress?