27 October 2013

Bridge Street Town Centre, Huntsville, AL

An extant asset

8 April 2023

Bridge Street Town Centre's genesis can perhaps be traced all of the way back to the early sixties. It was then that a man named Milton Cummings purchased land on the small but growing town of Huntsville's western extremities to build a new headquarters for his young company, Brown Engineering. The Army had already moved much of their missile program to the Redstone Arsenal while NASA's new Marshall Space Flight Center had just opened its doors. The next logical step was to enable a cluster of the high tech and research companies that were sure to follow a place to grow. Thus, Cummings Research Park was created and has since grown to the United States' second largest research park. It also ranks as the fifth largest on the globe.

The Commercial Center of Research Park pamphlet ca 2002.  View the full PDF version here.

By the time that the eighties came around, the park was nearly at capacity. So, eight hundred acres of farmland further west was purchased to expand the park into what is now known as Cummings Research Park West. The expansion's main thoroughfare would run in a circular fashion through this phase, and at the center of this loop was to be the anchor of the park- a commercial center combining live, work and play elements years before this concept became a nationwide buzz phrase. Adtran, however, ended up building their headquarters on that land, forcing the planners to offer an alternate parcel for the commercial center. Its proposed location was moved to the southeastern corner of the park, a less central position but one that offered better road access. But it would still be over a decade before the plans for this commercial center came to fruition.

1 & 2- Cummings Research Park West.  3 & 4- Adtran's headquarters, located where the original commercial center was to be located.  5- The former McDonnell Douglas facility.  6- The University of Alabama at Huntsville is located in the older, eastern portion of the park.

In the early 2000s, O&S Holdings of California was chosen to develop the property. Having seen success with their Louisiana Boardwalk in Bossier, LA, they presented a striking proposal for the facility. The retail center was to be located on a narrow isthmus between two lakes with a bridge traversing a small waterway connecting the two bodies of water. It was to be anchored by one, or perhaps two, department stores, a cineplex and a large hotel. Surrounding the lakes would be greenspaces, walking trails, residential units and office buildings. Its proposed name- World Famous Bridge Street. I loved it. It was quite the departure from the usual [Insert Pleasant and Airy Word Combination Here] Town Center that had become so overused.

1- World Famous Bridge Street article ca. 2003. View the full PDF version here.
2- An early Bridge Street lease plan, ca. 2006. A lot of the stores listed never actually moved in, but it's interesting to see what names the developers had in mind. View the full PDF version here.

I always thought that the name World Famous Bridge Street gave more of an impression that the development was intended to be entertainment focused, which is something that was sorely needed in a city which was rarely described as exciting. Besides, Madison Square, the city's go-to retail facility, was located just down Research Park Boulevard while Parkway Place had just opened on the city's south end, with its own upscale skew. It was kind of exciting to have another new concept come to my little town.

Around Bridge Street.

Not long after the groundbreaking a few changes were announced. First, there would be no full-line department stores, only junior anchors such as Barnes & Noble and Old Navy. Second, much of the proposed residential and office space was put on hold. Thirdly, they were dropping the World Famous, keeping the Bridge Street and slapping Town Centre to the end of the name, complete with the -TRE spelling of the final word. The design was modified slightly, which I thought was actually an improvement on the design's original s-shape. I was still hopeful that something special was in store for my hometown, despite the conforming name.

1- Bridge Street Town Centre mallmanac, ca. 2010. View the full PDF version here.
2- Bridge Street Town Centre mallmanac, ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

I watched with interest as Bridge Street Town Centre rose from the flat landscape of the city's western fringes. The hotel would be a Westin, the state's first, twelve stories tall and topped by a few floors of condominiums. Tons of Alabama red clay was moved for the installation of the two lakes. Barnes & Noble, with its Spanish tiled roof, seemed to be finished way before the rest of the buildings. It was fascinating (yet a bit perplexing, I'll get to why later) to see so much retail being added to our growing city.

1 & 2- The flagship Belk store.  3 to 6- Around Bridge Street.

Bridge Street's retail portion finally opened to the public with much fanfare in early November 2007. It debuted new stores and concepts to both Huntsville and to the state. There was a Monaco Theater, a cineplex with mezzanines in each theater which were reserved only for those aged twenty-one and above. The town center boasted retailers such as Lucky Brand, Anthropologie, Fossil and Juicy Couture. For diners, exclusive restaurants Conner's Seafood, Ketchup and Dulce were added. The brands that Bridge Street seemed to attract to Huntsville were unmatched by most cities of a similar size. And in the middle of it all, were gondola rides; one could savor a romantic dinner or make one of their marriage proposals in the gentle glow of the shoreside Banana Republic.

1 & 2- Mall scenes.  3 & 4- The Monaco Theaters.  5 & 6- The Westin Hotel.

It was a bright and crisp Autumn day when I first visited Bridge Street. I walked slowly along the concrete and brick walkway, past landscaped seating areas, ornate water fountains and the double span namesake bridge. The exterior of Anthropologie was covered by vertical gardens, while a carousel spun whimsically next to the gondola docks. They attempted to lend the place a feeling of being in Venice, I suppose, but the result looked about as faux as It's a Small World. But I loved it. Nowhere in the state was anything like it- an open air mall (yes, I know they call it a "lifestyle center," but it falls more along the definition of an open-air mall, a la, well, Ala Moana) where one could wake up in the morning, walk to work then stop and grab a bite to eat at PF Chang's on the way home without ever stepping foot onto a patch of asphalt.

Bridge Street Town Centre mallmanac, ca. 2015. View the full PDF version here.

And the mall hasn't stopped growing. Several years ago, a small power center with retailers such as Sports Authority and Toys R Us opened to the main facility's west. And earlier this year, the mall's new owners announced a major expansion. Finally, that full line department store would be coming, with a flagship location no less. But was it to be Macy's or Nordstrom (both of which apparently had serious discussions with the city), everyone was wondering. The populace was on its retail edge until the big announcement came out that it would be a... Belk. After the initial shock and disappointment, the news only got better. The store would be built on the site of the western lake, which would be drained, the gondola service would become a thing of the past, and Belk would be closing their store at Madison Square as part of the move. Woo-hoo! Progress.

The Bridge of Bridge Street Town centre.

Bridge Street Town Centre has been quite the success since its opening day and should only continue to prosper. It seemed the perfect complement to its enclosed peer, the upscale Parkway Place and gave my hometown a retail selection that only much bigger cities can usually boast. Sure, it will be the last nail in the coffin of Madison Square, but that's how retail evolves. And, although I'm no big fan of traditional "lifestyle centers" like Birmingham's The Summit and Montgomery's The Shoppes at Eastchase, this is the retail trend of the day. And I find Bridge Street to be the perfect combination of the old style, pedestrian focused shopping mall and the new style center.


-8 April 2023

Bridge Street Town Centre mallmanac, ca. 2017. View the full PDF version here.

As Huntsville’s newest mall, Bridge Street continues to do well in the market.  Although a lot of focus has shifted to the nearby MidCity District, the outdoor center still draws very good crowds.  Though there is a lot of talk about the impact that MidCity will have on Bridge Street, so far they seem to be co-existing well.  It’s fairly ironic that Bridge Street contributed to the death of Madison Square Mall, yet the latter’s replacement is being talked about negatively impacting Bridge Street.  So goes the cycle of retail.

Some of the different water features around Bridge Street

There has been some tenant shuffling, though no major recent changes to the mall itself.  An Element Hotel has opened alongside the Westin while a Hyatt Place Hotel was added to the property.  The proprietary Monaco Theaters were rebranded as a Cinemark, though they still have their signature balcony level allowing alcoholic beverages and an overall more adult focused experience.

Views of the Westin and the eastern lagoon.

Along with the Hyatt Place, most of the more significant changes have come on the site of the shopping center rather than in the main facility itself.  Residential complexes Mosby at Bridge Street and Seleno at Bridge Street have sprung up nearby.  Also joining in the fun is a Main Street events center.  A Cabela’s outdoors shop was recently added nearby, though not on center property.

Bridge Street Town Centre scenes.

The mall itself has also been declared as one of Huntsville’s entertainment districts, allowing patrons to buy alcoholic drinks from participating tenants and continue browsing the shops while enjoying it.  BJs Brewhouse, Cheesecake Factory and Fat Tuesday have also recently signed on.  Retail names the Apple Store, lululemon, and H&M clothing store have opened as well.

Bridge Street Town Centre scenes.

When I visit Huntsville every year, I usually spend most of my time downtown, which itself has blossomed into quite the entertainment district of its own.  But I always try to stop by Bridge Street when I can, if only to buy more team merch at the Rocket City Trash Pandas store or grab a bite to eat at Kona Grill.  But I’m glad that even though more competitors are being added to the market, Bridge Street, along with Parkway Place remain strong players in the evolving market.

Bridge Street Town Centre mallmanac, ca. 2020. View the full PDF version here.