Monday, June 27, 2011

Monroe Mall: Monroe, NC

While nothing truly spectacular, Monroe Mall still holds its own in Charlotte retail.  Now located in Charlotte's metropolitan area, the mall is located just far enough from other malls in the region to remain marginally successful.  However, the mall is by no means a draw for the rest of the Charlotte region primarily drawing mainly from residents living in or near Union County and residents of nearby Charlotte suburbs still finding the mall convenient.  If closer to Charlotte, the mall would probably be on a death watch, but at around 25 miles from Uptown Charlotte, it stays comfortably far enough away with the added benefit of not being located on an interstate meaning that the drive to other malls in the region is still a major ordeal with congestion on U.S. 74.

Monroe Mall is also a very small, dark and basic mall for a small city in the South featuring the typical roster of Belk, JCPenney and Sears although this anchor line-up in the past was far more interesting than today.  At one point the mall was truly endangered as new retail projects in the sprawling southeastern suburbs threatened the mall, but mishaps coupled with a weak economy along the way have protected it for the near future.  The mall's recent renovation coupled with Belk's major expansion have also shown that the 3 anchors' commitment to the mall helps.

Despite its small size, there is much spooky about this mall.  I am unsure of what this entrance is, though.  The first photos is a photo in the middle of the mall showing how dark it is.  Typical of malls in that period, little natural light was planned in the design.  Photos by Mike Kalasnik.

Another mystery shop sitting vacant in a cove next to Sears.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

A children's play area...a creative, while very non-lucrative way to fill a void.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

JCPenney greets shoppers with a dark glass mall entrance typical of the era.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Another dark shop near center court.  The lack of many trendy shops will be the biggest factor in its eventual demise.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Next to Belk is this greenhouse fronted store.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Monroe Mall first opened in August 1979 as a somewhat lower-end shopping mall featuring the same Belk and JCPenney, but the other two anchors were quite different with Woolco forming the southeast end and regional player The Collins Company built in on the northeast as a junior anchor.  The most significant anchor, however, is Belk.  Why this is important is that this is where Belk got started opening a store in Monroe in 1888.  This same store is the one that relocated to the mall from downtown when the mall opened.  As the story goes, Belk as a company moved Uptown literally by snatching up Charlotte's Efird's Department Store, and the rest is history.  As to the mall, the mall would certainly be strange if it lacked a Belk, but at the same time it was sad to see the very first store downtown close down because of the mall.

Here is a brighter wing of the mall looking dead on the right, alive on the left.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

More of the same.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Sears mall entrance originally opened to Woolco and, for awhile, Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart always seems to be a VERY bad anchor for malls, but I never seem to understand why.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Belk here sports a new logo on one of their otherwise coolest 70's designs...but something is sadly missing.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

A year before, this is how it looked.  Note the brassy overhang that was removed.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken May 2010.
Belk Kids, now Belk Children since the logo change.  I guess "Kids" did not sound very professional.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken May 2010.

Two of the original anchors did not last very long after the mall opened.  Woolco folded in 1983 leaving a dead anchor for several years and The Collins Company sold out to Peeble's in 1984.  Woolco would eventually be filled by Wal-Mart, arriving in 1986 in their expansion strategy in the state.  Nothing else drastic happened until 1998 when Wal-Mart decided it was time to trade up to a Super Center, leaving the mall in 1998.  Once again, the former Woolco found itself vacant until Sears finally took over the spot, opening at the beginning of March 2001.  However, despite all of these anchor changes, the mall never underwent a single expansion in that entire period.  Peeble's, however, appears to have made the mall a little smaller leaving the mall sometime after 2006.  Today that location is filled by Interior Solutions.

JCPenney here features one of its stores from its ugliest era.  While outlandish throughout the 70's, this is just plain as dirt.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Around the back side of the mall is this spooky looking mall entrance that was tempered by the addition of the new mall logo.   Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 6, 2011.

Here is another angle of that same mall entrance.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Located just east of Sears is this empty store.  It is unclear what this was, but it appears to have been a former grocery store of some kind, probably Winn-Dixie or Food Lion.  It last operated as Big Lots closing this past year.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

A high resolution map image is provided here of the mall's directory.  Sans vacancies, it's a pretty typical small town mall now in an increasingly tough position.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

A look along the Sears wing.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011
In 2011, Monroe Mall has the potential to grow, but it seems to be continuing the organic route partly due to the relatively limited footprint the mall is on...a typical problem for the oldest malls in the state.  The only expansion at the mall that has taken place is the new addition to Belk underway.  Coupled with this is a renovation of the mall completed in 2010.  Despite these changes, competition from Charlotte does continue to have an effect on the mall.  Mall offerings remain limited, and vacancies are a problem in the 32 year old mall.  Still, it could be far worse.  Belk's expansion shows that there is still plenty of faith in the mall even with a struggling mall and economy.

Sears is here to inform you that they are far too cheap to make an old Wal-Mart not look like one.  You could just change the sign out front to "Goodwill" and nobody would know the difference.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Luckily, Belk was captured prior to its remodel on the outside in these images. This is one of my very favorite late 70's designs Belk used although the 90's teal paint-over was very inappropriate..  You can almost hear The Eagles song "I Can't Tell You Why" if you stare at this long enough.  Unfortunately this has now been torn off in the remodel and expansion.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Here, we see new tacked onto the old.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Here, a chained off former outside entrance now peers into the new part.  I assume Belk Kids, Children, Young'ins, whatever will probably move into this space when completed.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Here's the Belk store for the little whippersnappers for now.  Photo by digitalsky taken May 7, 2011.

Monroe Mall could have been headed in a very different direction, though, if a planned regional mall had opened to the northwest.  Plans were set in the middle of the last decade to build an enclosed shopping mall where U.S. 74 meets I-485, and plans remain in the works to build a lifestyle center two exits north on I-485 known as the Bridges at Mint Hill.  I-485 has definitely not been a help to the mall as the city was formerly much more isolated from Charlotte, but now traffic moves more freely in the area with once far-removed Carolina Place Mall now a much faster drive down the interstate, which opened a decade ago.  While I-485 pulls enough on the mall, a new regional mall at the fore mentioned location would have devastated the aging mall, pulling away all the anchors and leaving the mall deserted.  Economic-influenced delays coupled with General Growth's bankruptcy have combined to stall both projects, so Monroe Mall at least for now is able to survive.

These old "Open Tonight Until X" should make anyone wax nostalgic.  The time was usually lit up as well.  Some old photos I saw showed a Loveman's in Birmingham having one of these classy features, too.  Now we just get the dorky door stickers.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

Ongoing construction on the Belk store.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

Belk here features its "new" look.  Belk still builds attractive stores, but this one doesn't hold a candle to the older look.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

Close-up of the Belk entrance.  At least it has brick and metal instead of just a blob of stucco.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

Belk is here to inform you they are still open, but no longer cool.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.
Pathetic, just pathetic.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik taken June 5, 2011.

Monroe Mall's good luck, though, should not mean they should relax and forget about what almost happened.  It would be wise for the owners to consider expanding the mall, luring in a new, solid anchor such as Dillard's or a big box anchor to broaden the mall's appeal.  Obviously land issues would make this difficult, but at the same time not impossible with most likely expansion through the existing Sears.  Located a hair from Charlotte's most sprawling suburbs, the mall still has a fighting chance, but not for long.  As the smallest and oldest operating mall on the eastern side of Charlotte, it is important to consider that a few cosmetic renovations will not keep the mall competitive in the long term especially with the amount of vacancies it has.  With areas between Monroe and I-485 prime for a huge retail expansion, when this growth comes it can work either as a compliment or detriment to the mall.  So far, though, the mall has been pretty lucky.

A Google Maps image of the mall.  On street view, you can see how the mall looked outside before the last renovation.

Here is a video taken in 2010 by Mike Kalasnik of the mall prior to the Belk renovation and with Big Lots operating a store in the now vacant store pictured above.