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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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

West Town Mall: Knoxville, TN

Knoxville is not one of the most recognized areas retail-wise, and indeed I have heard comparatively little about it compared to other cities in the South.  It is also a fluky and difficult to understand market where stores that have come there tended to fail while stores that come out of there also do likewise.  It is still a modern, interesting city with TVA and University of Tennessee both major employers, but its hillbilly image proves a bit difficult to shake: at least to prospective retailers.  Nevertheless, the Knoxville area is among one of the most scenic locales, and its proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park has drawn significant vacation home growth as well as tourism.  The area infrastructure has also had to expand significantly to handle football crowds, tourists, traffic from the junction of two major interstates and, of course, organic growth in the area.

In all, the Knoxville area has had four major malls in recent years.  In addition to West Town Mall, these include East Town Mall (renamed Knoxville Center), Foothills Mall in Maryville and Oak Ridge Mall in Oak Ridge.  Oak Ridge Mall was a poorly conceived idea where a 1950's strip mall was converted to an enclosed mall, and it was never successful.  It was sealed off in 2008, though I took pictures in 2005 and covered it in depth.  Foothills Mall is marginally successful, but it is a weaker player in the market, and it lacks the offerings of Knoxville's two major malls.  West and East Town Malls, however, are a vastly different story with both carrying the torch in different times as the star of the city.  East Town held it in the 80's and early 90's and West Town, the first, still does today.

Here, I am first entering the mall from the Dillard's wing.  This is the oldest part of the mall.

Dillard's is located on the site of what was previously Hess's and originally Miller's of Tennessee.  The store, however, was gutted and rebuilt with two stories vs. the original anchor.

One of the things I find so special about this mall is that instead of making it all kiosk hell, they actually kept scultures and built-in planters all throughout the mall.  This one is on the same Dillard's wing.

Detail of the planter pictured above.

West Town Mall is not just one of the malls.  It is, in fact, the premier mall for all of East Tennessee.  This one story mall checks out at around 1.5 million square feet anchored by two Belk stores, Dillard's, Sears, JCPenney, junior anchor Forever 21 and a large movie theater.  While the anchors are mid-market, the mall offerings are somewhat more upscale featuring many of the trendy shops, including some of those typically found in lifestyle centers such as Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.  While the mall is no Lenox, SouthPark or Green Hills, the mall definitely leans upscale with such stores as Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic.  The Belk also was set up as an A-class store offering merchandise closer to Nordstrom in lieu of the typical Belk offerings making it similar to its flagship stores at South Park in Charlotte and Phipps Plaza in Atlanta.  However, Belk is struggling to obtain brand loyalty after it purchased Proffitt's and Parisian, which were both extremely popular stores in the mall.  Dillard's, recognizing that the mall has no truly upscale anchors, features more exclusive offerings since Parisian became Belk.  Macy's is not in the Knoxville market at this point, and since the city has no luxury department stores so mall patrons are likely grateful that Dillard's has helped.

Here, I am entering the longest part of the mall with many more surprises and a lot of walking in store.  Belk Women's is behind me.

Here, I am entering a court area that includes an arbor, trees and skylights.  To the right is the food court, which originally was Frankenberger's.  The path to the left leads to an outside mall entrance and straight ahead continues to Sears, JCPenney and Belk Men's (formerly Parisian)

Here I am walking under the arbor in the same court.  Thank you, Simon.  This was special for a change.

Another view of the court pictured above coming from the food court

This is the path to the left of the arbor going to the northwest outside entrance.  It's a little bland, but the tree there definitely helps.

You do not have to be directionally challenged to get lost in this mall.  Where I am standing is in the wing dividing the blue part of the mall, and the court pictured above is where that wing junctions with the main part of the mall.

A view of the food court, which once was the inside of a department store.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about Frankenberger's.

West Town Mall was the city's very first mall, and according to Mall Hall of Fame, it was planned as early as 1965 but delays led to it not being completed until 1972 making it slow to gain a mall for a city its size.  In fact, Chattanooga, Cleveland and Kingsport all had malls open for business years before West Town Mall opened its doors.  When finished, the mall featured Proffitt's, Miller's and JCPenney as its major anchors and Frankenberger's as its junior anchor.  Sears would arrive soon after the mall opened giving a city that had never previously had a shopping mall of any kind a five anchor mall.  Five anchors for 1972 was astounding.  All original anchors in the mall except Frankenberger's were two-levels.  As for Proffitt's, this was their first mall-based location as well as the newly designated flagship for the Maryville-based chain.  Proffitt's was also only barely two levels with its home store on a small lower level.  Miller's was also entering the mall business for the first time, and it is not to be confused with Miller Bros. in Chattanooga, which did not consolidate into Miller's until 1973 and already had mall locations in Chattanooga and Cleveland. 

Here, I am walking along the Sears wing.  The second photo shows a ramped area with the wing extending to the food court visible on the right.  About the only surprises this mall does not have are a surprise second level in one of the wings of the mall.

Here, I am approaching Sears.  Despite being an original anchor to the mall, the store has been expanded and renovated to the point that it looks like most any other.  With the way Sears is going, this may one day be a Macy's, Nordstrom or even something like Von Maur.

Malls in this period tended to include several items guaranteed: a supermarket, a cafeteria-style restaurant and a movie theater.  While Morrison's Cafeteria filled the restaurant slot in the mall, both A&P and the movie theater were located on outparcels of the center.  With the mall doing very well, the mall existed free of competition until 1984 when East Town Mall attempted to steal some of its thunder.  Oddly, the mall did not react for quite awhile to the news, and the mall co-existed with its new crosstown competition unchanged for a long period of time.  Apparently the mall was not worried due to its nonchalant response to its new rival.  About the only change to occur at all in the first couple decades was the closure of Frankenberger's in the 70's, which brought a new food court in by the early 80's.  In the mean time, one of the mall's original anchors Miller's turned into Hess's in 1987 only to close in 1992.  Dillard's reopened in the space in 1993, gutting the store and adding on to the building according to their own needs while keeping some of the original Miller's exterior intact.  Dillard's then was new to the market, and they also opened a location in the former Hess's of rival East Town Mall.

This court is in the new section of the mall where the small JCPenney wing splits off from the longer Belk Men's (Parisian) wing.  This did not turn out the best since it was overloaded with Christmas decorations.

A look at the mall entrance to JCPenney v.2.0.  Opened in 1998, it replaced JCPenney v.1.0 the original 1972 store that is now part of the mall itself.  Insert tech geek joke here.

Belk Men, Home and Kids featuring swanky wood trim.  Inside, an A-class store awaits shoppers still pissed off that Parisian is not there anymore.

Dillard's arrival to West Town Mall spelled the beginning of major changes to the already unusually shaped mall.  By then, it was the smaller of the two rivals, and it joined many other malls in the 90's to do humongous expansions in order to remain competitive.  With the U-shaped mall already enough of a maze, the layout would become much more complex.  The reason for this is because the new wing would extend on the other side of the existing JCPenney to include a new JCPenney store and Parisian.  One might then ask what happened to the original JCPenney?  This is where it gets interesting.  The old JCPenney did not actually get a new anchor in its place.  Instead, they cut the portion where the mall corridor passes through down to one level.  The rest of the upper level was restructured into to a Regal Cinema on one side and family entertainment complex on the other side, the latter of which has since closed.  Along with that came a six story parking deck and two new wings forking off the other side of the de-anchored Penney's connecting to the relocated JCPenney and brand new Parisian, all completed in 1998.  By then, what was first and still a dominant mall suddenly became a force to reckon with.  This also made West Town Mall the largest in the entire state.

Now, for the most amazing feature of the mall is this pond and fountain with a bridge over it.  On the other side of this was the original JCPenney mall entrance prior to 1997-98.  You can still get to JCPenney that way, but you have to walk through what was the store to get there.

A view of the fountain from the bridge complete with more sculptures.  All malls should be required to have something like this. 

Walking across the bridge.  This whole feature should be in every advertising brochure of this mall.

Obviously, the mall has seen some anchor shifts over time.  Not only had the anchors expanded, but they were also moved around.  Proffitt's was expanded the most, expanding both into the mall (eliminating the front entrance wing) and into the parking lot.  Since 2005, the anchor shifts were all due to Belk moving in to completely dominate the market through the gradual buyout of the whole Saks, Inc. portfolio aside from Saks Fifth Avenue itself.  First, Belk purchased Proffitt's in 2005, converting the store by 2006 to the Belk banner.  Belk would then move in and grab Parisian later in 2006: a move which forced the chain to create an A-class store to appease the removal of an upscale department store anchor.  The dual Belk setup resulted in the old Proffitt's flagship becoming a women's store with the Parisian becoming a men's store.  Belk also was left with excessive space, so the lower level of the old Proffitt's was sealed off and what appeared to have been the Proffitt's Home Store was spun off to Forever 21.  As a result, Belk's arrival did lead to definite changes to the mall including the loss of the popular Proffitt's flagship store, which chain-wide apparently was not profitable enough for Saks, Inc.

Belk Women's here was Proffitt's flagship store up until 2006.  It is an unusual store with a basement level that is currently sealed off as well as parts of the store that are expanded into existing mall space.  The mall makes a 90 degree turn at the mall entrance.

The court in front of Belk Women's is the way they used to be: a lush jungle of vegetation and modern art.  Note the sculpture on the right.

My visit to West Town Mall presented me a mall that was more like one of the 70's than so many of the struggling malls of today.  The parking lot was nearly to capacity even with the parking decks.  Having never seen or paid any attention to the mall before, I was not prepared for how incredibly huge this mall was inside.  The mall also featured many distinctive court areas including a small pond with a bridge, ironworks, trellises and trees.  The detail reminded me a lot of Biltmore Square Mall but less elegant.  I also was surprised to find that such an extremely popular mall was only one story.  Did structural issues keep them from just making this a two-level mall to start with?

I personally detest night shots of mall anchors from the outside, but I was here at night and I did well to get all of these to turn out.  Photos are of Dillard's, on site of the former Hess's and Miller's, Sears, Belk Men's Home and Kids in the former Parisian, JCPenney and Belk Women's in the former Proffitt's flagship store.

The expansion of West Town Mall may have been a little too successful.  The reason for this is that the other three malls in the city took a big hit from that 1998 expansion.  East Town Mall (now Knoxville Center) is also owned by Simon, and it is struggling to stay alive especially after losing Dillard's in 2008.  Foothills Mall in Maryville has also lost ground to the behemoth, and Oak Ridge Mall faded into history 10 years from when the project was completed.  Perhaps West Town Mall is too much of a good thing when city residents have apparently lost interest in patronizing the other malls of the area.  Granted, I will say that Knoxville Center and Foothills Mall could be better, but what comes of these other malls is unknown.  Foothills Mall is in a lower growth area, which makes it difficult to evolve, but Knoxville Center has one advantage in that West Town Mall will have a difficult time expanding to accomodate any new anchors such as an entry of Macy's into the market.  This gives Knoxville Center a slim opportunity to recover despite the fact that retail has only gravitated west of the city, not east.

One of the outside mall entrances between Sears and Belk Mens, Kids and Home

I cannot complain about the mall sign posted along Kingston Pike.  This is pretty elegant!  I don't much like the name, though.  I would rather this have been called Kingston Square Mall (for Kingston Pike, where the mall is located), Kingston Ridge Mall, Knox Ridge Mall or something else more distinct.  At least they avoided the moronic elegant "e" on the end of town.

This was my best attempt at an early map of West Town Mall.  Imagery used was from 1993, so I am uncertain of the original size of Miller's or Sears.  Please feel free to make corrections.

West Town Mall is not going anywhere, however.  Few malls are this solid, but I do believe that the mall will have to make some changes in the future to its design: namely a major renovation to make the mall not so colorless and a reconfiguring of the former JCPenney location.  However, the unusual layout and special touches really make this mall.  The pond and fountain in the middle of the mall is the biggest treat with the bridge crossing the middle of it.  It is rare to find themed court areas in most malls these days, especially Simon malls.  Fortunately, it seems that Simon has shown more interest in keeping the mall distinct to protect its status as not just a mall, but a tourist destination for East Tennessee in the region's largest city.

ALSO: Check out the new Google Maps link to the mall.  This is a new feature I plan to add to more posts in the future.