Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Downtown Mall: Meadville, PA

A trend in retail that fortunately has proven to be mostly uncommon is the "downtown mall".  An ill-conceived idea by desperate urban planners, the goal was to try to keep retailers from fleeing downtown for the malls and shopping centers.  The way they were going to do so was sort of a reverse psychology where if the then-wildly popular malls were placed very close to or in place of downtown, the urban core would continue to thrive since downtown was also the mall.  Earlier (and more successful) downtown malls included closing the street to vehicles and adding covered canopies to the existing downtown shopping district, but later versions involved actually creating an enclosed mall.  Thus, the location of the mall in or close to downtown would hinder the ability of suburban competitors from killing downtown businesses.  The later version of this involved actually creating an enclosed mall downtown.  This trend lasted from about 1970-1982 and was helped along by federal urban redevelopment grants that aided in the cost of building the new structures and demolishing what was already there.  What was often lost were tons of irreplaceable historic old buildings and a sense of place.  Even worse, these malls were smaller than your average suburban mall, had awkward layouts, difficult parking and were quite unsightly from the outside.  Furthermore, these downtown malls were mostly colossal failures that ended up either demolished or repurposed for offices.

Meadville also jumped on the bandwagon for this trend bringing its first mall to the city.  Constructed in 1973, this mall fortunately proved to be less destructive in that it was built with an attractive exterior design, ample free parking and was worked into the edge of downtown instead of in place of it.  While it barely retains its original function today, the mall itself is still a haven for many small local businesses and is not yet completely a dead mall like many of this type.  It also provides a climate controlled easy starting point to reach and explore the rest of downtown.  Furthermore, it outlasted its only other mall competitor in town: quite a feat for an enclosed downtown mall!

Downtown Mall's main entrance from Water Street is pretty strikingly vintage, but it's only accessible by foot from nearby streets.  Most people enter from the opposite side.

A little more detail of the mostly vacant strip outside of the main entrance.

Some detail of the entrance overhang with skylights.  It's hard not to miss when this was a typical mall entrance.

On the side of the entrance to the left was this gorgeous Rhododendron in bloom.  Plenty of these were found across the region highlighting the beauty of the area.

A view of the north end of the mall from the main entrance.  At the far end was a local department store called Weldon's.

The mall entrance from the parking lot side was, unfortunately, updated.

Seeing H&R Block as the first tenant listed at a mall does not sound terribly promising, does it?

Meadville's sole competitor was not exactly a superregional mall, but it sure wanted to be.  Named Meadville Mall, it was an L-shaped mall that opened a couple years after Downtown Mall opened in 1976.  It was originally anchored by Montgomery Ward and Grant City, later Kmart.  Like many other malls in the region, it was also built by Zamias Services.  The two malls co-existed for around 30 years until Montgomery Ward failed.  After no replacement was found for years following Wards departure with the mall falling into disrepair, the mall closed and demolished in 2008.  The Kmart, however, was not demolished and remained open until 2017.

A view from the back entrance corridor to the front entrance.  Center court is just ahead before those doors.

So...this is center court.  One awkwardly placed overhead skylight, high ceilings, a stage (I guess they thought events would be held here?) and a sad little plant next to it.  There might have been more to this originally, but the flooring looks pretty original and unmodified.  Of course, if you're bored you can exit through those doors and head downtown!

The hallway to the right leads to Big Lots, originally Fisher's Big Wheel.

A pretty quick look shows that most of the tenants are your 8-5 variety that are not exactly selling stuff to your average shopper.  This is the fate of most malls like this.

Meadville's history is on display on the short hallway leading north from center court to the parking lot.  This is 90 degrees from the back parking lot entrance and parallel to another hallway leading to Dollar General.

Railroads are the theme here suggesting the city's former history as a railroad hub.

Nonetheless, Meadville Mall was located far enough outside of town to attract a larger retail strip, was close to I-79 and for years posed a significant threat to Downtown Mall.  However, the existence of the Downtown Mall also helped deflect interest away from expanding Meadville Mall.  Plans to add Sears, JCPenney and Ashtabula, OH-based Carlisle's fell through in 1990.  Sears again attempted to enter the mall in 2002 by taking over the former Wards, but this again mysteriously failed.  The result of this was that a once viable competitor ultimately found itself unable to survive in a market that was not only competing with another mall, but also not really thriving considering that Crawford County's population is stagnant.

Big Lots with a mall entrance!  Until 1994, this was Fisher's Big Wheel, a New Castle-based discount chain.

It is not clear what is here now, if anything, but this old Murphy's plaque is interesting.  Did this mall once have a Murphy's?

Heading back to center court.  It's a pretty short hallway.

Look to your left at the hallway leading to the parking lot (and the shortest walk to Top's Supermarket).

Now look to your right.  Another mall corridor!  This one lead to Weldon's (now Dollar General).

Downtown Mall also has another closer competitor with Park Avenue Plaza.  A strip of 1960's vintage, the center has many stores that might otherwise locate in the mall such as Peeble's and Dunham's.  Peeble's itself is housed in what was another regional department store: Erie-based Trask's (hard to say!).  While it is today a lower-end shopping center, it is not completely vacant either.   Several local stores and non-retail services operate in the mall itself, and its original anchors are both tenanted by chain stores.  However, you could not actually call it a healthy mall.  Usually malls in this state are not too many years from being redeveloped.

A look down the northeast corridor.  Dollar General is in the background.

Empty jewelry store.

Sign still up, but no jewelry to be sold.

Dollar General is rather strangely oriented in the mall.  Past Dollar General (and the front entrance corridor), the mall makes a 90 degree turn to a back entrance (facing west).

When Downtown Mall opened, it had two anchors: Fisher's Big Wheel, a defunct discount chain that was based in New Castle and Weldon's department store.  Fisher's Big Wheel is today occupied by Big Lots (with a mall entrance), and Weldon's is now Dollar General.  Fishers Big Wheel went under in 1994, and this appears to have been when Big Lots took over.  It is unclear when Weldon's departed, but it was most likely also during the 1990's.  However, the Tops supermarket on the outlot of the mall appears to be an original anchor unchanged.  It is unclear what else was in the mall, but most likely a drug store took up a decent portion of the interior mall.

Walking back into center court.

Center court facing the back (west) entrance.

Picture of the tops on the NW corner of the mall.  The mall is to the right of me.  Unfortunately, for some ungodly reason I failed to get more exterior shots: especially of the old Fisher's Big Wheel.  Fortunately, all sides of the mall are completely visible on Google Street View.

Like most enclosed downtown malls, Meadville Mall has an awkward layout.  The front of the mall actually fronts Water Street looking like a large one-story office building.  Parking is to the rear of the mall adjacent to French Creek Parkway, Meadville's by-pass for US 19.  The mall itself, never updated on the inside, features a large center court with one side abutting the Water Street entrance and four hallways extending away from the court.  One goes to the back parking lot, one goes to the former Fisher's Big Wheel (Big Lots), one goes to Dollar General (former Weldon's) and one goes parallel to the Dollar General corridor to a back exit.  All corridors except the one to Big Lots lead to outside entrances.  It also appears that the Weldon's space was subdivided with no mall access considering that the space is much too big for Dollar General.   It is a rather plain design for the era it was built as well with no fountains or planters although it is possible that one or two were covered up in center court.  In all, the mall was basically outmoded 25 years ago.

Explaining the layout of this mall is difficult, so this map was created showing the placement of the pedestrian corridors and the anchors.  However, there are missing pieces of information here and any help with this map would be appreciated.  It is assumed that a few of those spaces were junior anchor tenants as well.

Despite being a competitor, it is not exactly clear that Downtown Mall ever truly caught on.  In truth, it was always a poor competitor that primarily hindered the ability of the city to gain a better mall.  While not totally dead, it is clear that the interior mall has long past outlived its usefulness.  More popular chain stores are found down the road in Park Avenue Plaza, but not a lot of retail is thriving in Meadville.  However, Meadville appears to overall be mostly lacking in retail options compared to many other cities.  It is unclear why this is.  The nearest major mall in Erie, is 35 miles away.  This means Meadville should be able to sustain more stores in the market than just Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Tractor Supply.  Perhaps this is the reason that Downtown Mall continues to defy the odds 45 years later.


  1. I see Park Avenue Plaza has a Peebles in a very vintage, mid-century modern building. I wonder what store that used to be.

    1. I was originally going to include it in this post and may go back and add it. It's a store that originally opened as Erie-based Trask's

  2. So let me get this straight... The Meadville Downtown Mall is slightly a bit older than the now long gone Meadville Mall? I had I feeling it was! Interesting enough in 1973 another greater-Erie, PA area mall (Harborcreek Mall) in the same year that the Downtown Mall did. I wonder who developed the former Harborcreek Mall because many of its architectural details [at least on the exterior] looks very similar to the one in Meadville. Hence the same year it opened.

  3. Tops used to have a different name in the 1990s. It was called BiLo. Not sure if it was the same parent company or not.