28 May 2013

Decatur Mall, Decatur, AL

An extant asset

7 January 2015
24 March 2024

This is the Mall of Multiple Monikers. Since its addition to this small market more than three decades ago, four different labels have graced the placards outside of Decatur, Alabama's only enclosed retail facility. Initially, it was christened the Beltline Mall. Then, the designation was "softened" to River Oaks Center. Upon a new management takeover, the signs were modified to show Colonial Mall Decatur. Presently, it displays, perhaps, the least imaginative alias of all, plain old Decatur Mall.

River Oaks Center Mallmanac, ca. 1995. View the full PDF version here.

Our family's first visit to Alabama's river city came during the summer of 1985. The Navy was transferring my father to the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, so we had to make the move from Orlando up the Atlantic seaboard. As we had a few weeks to spare before my father had to report for duty, we decided to take a detour on the way from Florida to our new home and to make it a full-fledged vacation. Come to think of it, we could have taken in the sights of the massive metropolis of Atlanta, relaxed on the sandy shores of Myrtle Beach, hiked the rustic trails of the Smokey Mountains or just have made a quick stop in any number of other, more desirable destinations during that wide open month. Instead, we opted to spend a couple of weeks in Decatur.

1- The Beltline Mall at its opening. 2- The River Oaks Center after its late eighties expansion.

Decatur plays the role of Huntsville's kid sister city as they share the same combined metropolitan area. Its census numbers put it at just a little over one fourth the size of its larger, cross-river neighbor, but the town is significant enough to contain a unique culture, a namesake civil airfield and its own enclosed retail destination. And when we visited that summer, it was named for the congested thoroughfare on which it was built, the town's busiest, Beltline Road.

Colonial Mall Decatur Mallmanac, ca. 2000. View the full PDF version here.

As we arrived during the season of the deep south's most agreeable weather, the experience was double the pleasure. We stayed on a relative's farm just outside of the city limits, and it sucked. The hundred degree days were spent testing our survival instincts while collecting cucumbers and watermelons from their vines, and a-haulin' 'em down yonder to the farmers' market. It was all worth it because once that relentless, asshole of a sun went down, well... There still wasn't much to do. There was the occasional little league match or church snake handling event, or even a trip to Point Mallard water park for some drowning under the stars.  But more often than not, we just joined the rest of Decatur's blasé youth at Beltline Mall.

-UPDATE-  1- The Beltline Mall Rogers and center court in the 80s.  2- The Castner Knott mall entrance.  3 & 4- Beltline Mall’s main concourse all gussied up for Christmas in the 80s.  (Source for all)

I really don't remember that much about the Beltline Mall, except that it was rather dark inside and gave us something to do until nine. We did go to see a movie or two at their inadequate, sticky and grody theater. E.T. was showing as a re-release that summer and we caught it with our cousins who had yet to see it. I recall their making fun of me in their thick southern accents as I left the theater with gum on my shoes and tears in my eyes. But mostly we just wandered aimlessly from end to end, which wasn't a very significant distance, with nothing particular in mind.

-UPDATE-  Decatur Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.

After a week or so of this monotony, we were pretty much over the Beltline Mall. So we decided to change things up by proposing a road trip to the grand-spanking new retail Valhalla in Huntsvegas called Madison Square. Although having only been open for a year, it was already the stuff of legend in locales as distant as Danville, with those lucky enough to have been there regaling the rest of us with their tales of The Supermall. There was one obstacle, however. Two, actually. Our parents. It was a bit of a drive with its location across the Tennessee River and in the convoluted, dangerous confines of the “big city,” so our overlords refused to grant us passage. Brokenhearted and bored, we were stuck spending our nights in the same musty place we had already seen way too much of. Not surprisingly, it was the longest two weeks of my life.

-UPDATE-  Decatur Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

The Mall of Multiple Monikers opened in 1978 in the growing southwestern quarter of the port city. It was Decatur's first enclosed complex, and by far its largest shopping destination of any format. The Beltline Mall was an instant success, as its main rivals within the county consisted of a Farmer's Market, a Piggly Wiggly and the Lacon Swap Meet. Its initial anchors, as far as I could tell, were Penney's, Castner-Knott and Florence-based Rogers.  In its early days, it formed a marketing partnership with Parkway City Mall in Huntsville.

A comprehensive history of the mall has been elusive, so what follows is just what I could piece together. In 1987, the mall added a couple of new wings to its flanking side along with two new anchors as bookends. Sears occupied one spot while JCPenney relocated from their original space to one of the new ones. Soon after, Birmingham-based Parisian took over Penney's former pad. At this point, the center was resigned as the River Oaks Center and the interior underwent an extensive and rather attractive renovation at about the same time, not taking the pastel motif to the extreme as other malls did.

Decatur Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2015. View the full PDF version here.

In the late nineties River Oaks Center was added to the portfolio of Colonial Properties Trust who immediately implemented the second label adjustment to Colonial Mall [Decatur]. When the Birmingham-based property manager divested this and many of its other medium sized market projects in the mid-2000s, the center was designated as the Decatur Mall. In recent years, the facility has seen the ownership of several different companies come and go, narrowly avoided foreclosure, saw Dillard's vacate two anchor positions and is enduring a gradual rise in vacancy rates. The newest owners seem to be taking a more proactive approach by having Carmike Cinemas move from their location on a perimeter out lot to the former Roger's location that was recently vacated by Dillard's as well as signing Nashville-based Electronic Express to open their first Alabama location in the northernmost pad, also left vacant by Dillard's.

My rendering for a redesigned [NewNameHere] Mall.

Truth be told, I really enjoyed shopping at ColonialBeltRiverDecaturOaks Center Mall. Though not having near the selection found at the "big city" facilities in Huntsville, it was always worth the trip just to catch the great deals at their JCPenney outlet. The layout has never allowed for a food court, which is something that I think would really benefit the place. I envisioned a redesign where the middle anchor (originally Roger's) was removed and replaced with an open-air plaza straddling the space between the Sears and JCPenney. It always seem somewhat of a dead spot back there. Positioned as components of this area would be the free-standing multi-plex, a smaller complex with only 10 or 12 screens, while attached to the main structure would be a contemporary, glass-enclosed 8 unit food court featuring a couple of full service restaurants, filling a glaring void in the center's lineup. As far as I can tell, the only difficult thing to figure out would be what in the hell to call this place then...

-UPDATE-  (Source)


-7 January 2015

The Mall of Multiple Monikers has seen its line-up of anchors reduced again. Both Sears and the JCPenney Outlet (one of my favorite stores back in the area) have drawn their curtains for the final time. This has left Belk as the only full line department store remaining not only in the mall, but in the entire city. A Bed Bath and Beyond has been added to the former Dillard’s space on the north end of the mall alongside Electronics Express, but the only hope I see for the former River Oaks Center is to downsize. By removing the newer, but now vacant, buildings once housing Sears and JCPenney as well as their adjoining corridors, perhaps the metro’s only regional, enclosed retail complex south of the Tennessee River will soldier on.

1- The entrance of the former Sears. 2- The Sears auto center after closing.  3- The exterior entry to the former Castner-Knott then Dillard’s store.  4- Now a church, the former Castner-Knott home store located to the northwest of the main structure on an out lot.  (Source for all)

-24 March 2024

Decatur Mall lease plan, ca. 2020. View the full PDF version here.

Well, it looks like I was finally right on the nose about something.  Just a couple of years after I wrote my last update, the owners of Decatur Mall did, in fact, demolish both the vacant Sears and JCPenney anchor stores along with their short stinger corridors coming off of the main concourse.  The entire facility was recently purchased by the Hull-Story Group which specializes in shopping malls in these size markets.  I hope that this will give the place some added spark, but I’m keeping my expectations down.  I’ve gotten the impression that most malls located in these size cities, around 50,000 residents, are all declining quickly.

Decatur Mall’s interior after the most recent renovation (Source for both)

Belk continues to hold on, as it seems to have found a niche in these smaller southern markets. In the former central pad once occupied by Roger’s, an AMC multiplex has been built right in between the former locations of JCPenney and Sears.  Unfortunately, the smaller interior stores are still departing.  As of this writing, only 17 different businesses are listed on Decatur Mall’s online directory, though national names like American Eagle and Hibbett Sports still have a presence.  But with the loss of Bed Bath and Beyond as well as Electronic Express, I doubt it will stay that way.

27 May 2013

Northgate Mall, Hixson, TN

An extant asset

26 December 2021 

I've always been one to root for the underdog, even when it comes to shopping malls.  There's just something about those obscure, secondary retail centers within a community that have since been overshadowed by a more sophisticated, newer and flashier competitor with their newfangled natural lighting, climate control, and ADA compliance that just completely captures me. It's this predisposition that causes me to pull for Washington Square's success over that of Eastland Mall. The very same impulse leads me to carry an admiration for Pembroke Mall even though Lynnhaven Mall was the vast majority's preferred destination. And this mindset makes me far fonder of Chattanooga's Northgate Mall than its bustling rival Hamilton Place.

Northgate Mall Mallmanac, ca. 1997. View the full PDF version here.

Northgate Mall is a bit off of the beaten path, but it's definitely worth the drive. It's literally over the river and through the woods from Chattanooga proper in the city's northern suburb of Hixson. When coming in from the south on Highway 319, the first piece that comes into view is the large, rectangular Sears. Its walls are of a basic brick styling painted an off-white hue, but the brutalist entrance treatments are quite a feast for the eyes. The porticoes have the unique faux-effect appearance a widow's-walk off of the second level. On the rear of the building is an even bigger delight- the mocha with a touch of cream shaded, ultra-modern JCPenney look of the early seventies. With its curved corners and varying roof heights, it represents the disco era in every way. The shape of the entire structure kind of favors sci-fi spaceship designs from movies such as Alien, to the extent that I've dubbed this building the Starship Penney's.

The front side of Northgate Mall including Sears.

On the inside, Northgate Mall followed the exact template of other projects from the same era. The corridors were of an excessive width underneath ceilings of a notable height. The courts at the access points of the two end anchors as well as the main, central court were all of a precise box shape. All interior corners were drawn at strict right angles with little to no deviation. The main corridor was a curve-free, rigid channel with either end anchor having direct line of sight with the other. The floors were of an obligatory murky tile, wood was liberally utilized in the accenting of both the fixtures and the ceilings and the lounging sections were of a basic, hard edged design, not yet replaced with the soft seating areas that became the retail facility standard in the 2000s.

I love the curved lines of what I call "Starship Penney's".

Northgate Mall opened as Chattanooga's second major suburban shopping center in 1972, though it was the first to debut fully enclosed. Its original anchors were Millers, JCPenney and Sears. The mall was updated in 1991, 1997 and during the mid-2000s. While JCPenney and Sears have remained unchanged, Millers was eventually superseded by Hess's before being converted to Proffitt's. After a few years under that banner, the space became home to Belk, which already had a small presence at Northgate with a modest women's store near JCPenney.

Northgate Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2014. View the full PDF version here.

Northgate Mall is neither a groundbreaker nor historical in any way. There was nothing exceptional about the exterior look or the interior design. But there has always been just something about the old school aura of Chattanooga's secondary enclosed shopping facility that really made it attractive to me. Maybe it was the absence of oversized groups of people dominating the walkways or the under-abundance of stores like Hollister with their overpowering fragrances and incessant bumping rhythms disturbing the quiet sanctity of the nearby Orange Julius. Whatever it was, when not in downtown Chattanooga, it was definitely my preferred shopping destination over Hamilton Place whenever in the Scenic City.


-26 December 2021

Northgate Mall lease plan, ca. 2021. View the full PDF version here.

The wondrously groovy Starship Penney’s with its rounded corners and dark brown brick façade has closed. The nearly 50 year old location was a victim of the troubled retailer’s round of 2014 closings. There were only two of these Starship Penney’s designs that I knew of, and now the one at Coliseum Mall has been demolished while this one stands empty. Though JCPenney tends to have some of the more distinctive and unusual design elements on their exteriors, this is my favorite and I hope to see more before they’re all gone.

Valdosta Mall, Valdosta, GA

An extant asset

Valdosta in southern Georgia is really nothing more than a quick stopover between the larger cities of the southeast and the sunny holiday destinations of Florida. In fact, we were on one of these runs when we decided to take a somewhat spontaneous diversion. But we weren't just there to eat and get gas, oh no. We were also planning on spending a couple of days at the nearby Wild Adventures Amusement Park, a respectable collection of thrill rides and water slides that made its debut on the big screen playing the role of Pacific Playland in the living dead comedy, Zombieland. While this attraction is probably the main reason that most people who aren't just hopelessly lost make more than a fleeting stop in the town, I suppose another would be Valdosta Mall.

Valdosta Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2007. View the full PDF version here.

Valdosta Mall opened in 1983 and is now home to anchors Belk, JCPenney and Sears, though I'm not sure if all of these were there from the mall's opening. In the early 2000s, the center was taken into the Colonial Properties Trust portfolio and they, as they did with most of their properties, changed its name to Colonial Mall, [The-name-of-the-town-where-it's-located]. In 2006, an outdoor element was added to the structure's forward face, bringing Ross, Office Depot and Old Navy, among others, into the lineup. In 2007, Colonial divested this and other properties, and the name was reverted to Valdosta Mall.

Valdosta Mall as of this writing.

We were too busy riding mediocre roller coasters and eating overpriced cotton candy during that 2007 trip for us to ever actually pay the Valdosta Mall a visit, but I don't reckon that we missed much. But at least I was able to get my hands on a mallmanac at the Georgia welcome center just north of the state line.

Valdosta Mall's official website

Totem Lake Mall, Kirkland, WA

A dead mall

26 December 2021

Due to its geographic limitations, the entire Seattle area is a bit more densely built than the average American urban core. There's really just a narrow strip of land that's suitable for development between the Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound, and much of that is dotted with lakes and swampland. So builders in this region never have had as much land to play around with as the Houstons and the Chicagos of the world. This fact has contributed to one positive outcome- the Seattle area, despite its consistent growth and its being home to of one of the nation's first shopping centers, has never had an overabundance of malls.

Totem Lake Mall can easily fool the average observer into thinking this is merely another big-box power center.

Not counting the downtown verticals, there have only been a handful of traditionally designed and marketed enclosed centers ever built in the entire Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, with the addition of a few more smaller facilities when the consolidated area's outlying counties are taken into account. Of those few, all but two remain healthy and viable. Lakewood Mall, constructed in the south sound town of the same name, was never much of a draw and was recently converted into a power and community center. The other black sheep, probably soon to follow in those footsteps, is Kirkland's Totem Lake Mall.

L- Totem Lake Mall as of its opening. R- Totem Lake's last anchor lineup before its downward spiral.

During the numerous times that I had visited the Puget Sound region in the early 2000s, I had no idea that Totem Lake Mall even existed. Then, not too long ago, I read about this unlikely anomaly, a dead mall that couldn't survive in a market crowded with many more shoppers than facilities for them to frequent. Based on what I gathered from descriptions and viewed in photographs, it seemed to be a pretty insignificant player. Even with its desirable location along an exceptionally busy stretch of interstate, its limited size and selection never made it popular among the local populace with major competitors like Northgate Mall and Bellevue Square within a short drive.

TL- The unmarked southern entrance to the enclosed portion. TR- The front side contains the healthiest part of the mall, a series of big boxes that still draw in a respectable audience. BL- New retailer My Home now takes up the anchor spot originally occupied by Seattle-based Lamont's. BR- The flanking side of the mall, including some groovy old school stonework.

It was a chilly and overcast day in early May when I first went to see The dead mall of Seattle for myself. The unassuming structure was just a short walk from the nearby freeway transit center while being surrounded by several large multi-level medical and professional buildings. Just past their modern facades and down a small hill lay the oversized and rather disused carpark along with a lofty sign declaring Totem Lake Malls looming over it. I could see how its modest design could easily be mistaken for that of either a tired old strip mall or an unpopular power center, as the front face is lined with entrances to various spaces, a few larger than others while some sat vacant next to others' still doing business. Then, through one of the unmarked side entrances, I made my way into the barren interior.

Inside the eerily quiet corridors of Totem Lake Mall.

The concourse was everything I expected it to be. While still lit fairly well, there were no shoppers to take advantage of this luminescence. The corridor was of a more than adequate width and featured several funky seating apparatuses at regular intervals. But there was nobody to use them, and no reason to require any rest. I was pretty disappointed by one unexpected find. I was hoping to catch a shot or two of a wonderful Gottschalk's label scar from above the former anchor's entrance, but, alas, its gates were risen and the insides brightly lit. There were streamers crossing the drop ceiling along with a banner exclaiming "Grand Opening." A new addition named My Home had recently moved into the space, adding a little spark of life to the otherwise forgotten place. Damn.

TL- My Home is open where Gottschalk's used to be. TR- I love the stonework on the anchor's walls, but I hate that its original, natural hues have been hidden under a bland coating of white. BL- One of the funky seating areas. BR- The only thing green in these halls is the tinting of the lights, as no cash has been exchanged in years.

Totem Lake Mall came to be in 1973, following a long period of planning that had commenced in 1968. The one major anchor, a 40,000 square foot Lamont's, opened a few months later that year. It was joined by an Ernst Home and Nursery, located on the northern end of the building without any interior access. The mall did well enough for its first couple of decades, but its misfortune began in 1996 with the shuttering of the Ernst space. Though it was soon subdivided and leased to Ross Dress for Less, Cartoys and a Famous Footwear, the complex never seemed to fully recover. The center also saw the departure of some of its larger tenants such as Rite-Aid, Comp USA and Gottschalk's, which had taken over Lamont's, by the late 2000s. The smaller shops followed closely behind, effectively abandoning the place to its inevitable fate.

Shots of the East Mall, located just behind the closed portion.

There is a strip center associated with the enclosed portion called the East Mall, and it seems to be doing relatively good business. In the main facility, the front facing larger stores like Ross still seem to host a steady stream of customers. But the diminutive enclosed portions, like so many of its peers nationwide, gives today's time starved shopper no incentive to come inside. There are generally two kinds of retail client these days- those who just want to park immediately in front of their targeted destination in order to grab what they need as expeditiously as possible and those who would rather make the visit to their preferred retail complex an all-encompassing event, spending hours browsing its wares and sampling the different cuisines. Totem Lake, in it's present format, cannot offer the convenience needed by the former type nor the selection required by the latter type. There really is no place for meager malls like this, even in a sparsely served market like Seattle.


-26 December 2021

Totem Lake Malls site plan ca. 2011.  View the full PDF version here.