28 May 2013

Decatur Mall, Decatur, AL

An extant asset

This is the Mall of Multiple Monikers, but not many physical alterations. 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.

L- The Beltline Mall at its opening. R- The River Oaks Center after its late eighties expansion.

Decatur plays the role of Huntsville's kid sister, as they share the same consolidated 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 its own downtown, 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.

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 not the kind of farm with verandas and mint julips and hired hands working the fields. 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 shit 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.

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

I really don't remember that much about the Beltline Mall, except that it was rather dark 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.

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. Needless to say, it was the longest two weeks of my life.

L- Colonial Mall Decatur's layout during much of the 2000s. R- Decatur Mall as of this writing.

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.

Decatur Mall from above. (Source)

A comprehensive history of the mall has been elusive, so what follows is just what I could piece together. Any further information or corrections would be appreciated. Anyway, 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 JCPenny 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.

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

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. 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 outlot to the former Roger's building which 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...

7 January 2015

Decatur Mall's official website


  1. The outparcel theatre was Regal River Oaks Cinema 8 and it closed December 2012 a few months before Carmike Century Cinema 8 on 14th Street closed when moving to the new Carmike 12 in the mall. I'm not sure about the JCPenney. I seem to remember Parisian already being at the east end before the Sears and JCPenney wings were built. Those opened in 1990, I believe. The mall originally had black floor tile, if I remember correctly, and the remodel really brightened the place up.

    1. Thanks for the comment, chris21718.

      I always did remember Parisian being in that location as well, but according to Decatur Mall's Wikipedia Entry, which references The Decatur Daily, it happened the way I explained above. I always take Wikipedia with a barrel of salt, and even with the reference, I'm still not completely sure about their info. Really, I don't understand why JCPenney would move from a highly visible, larger store on the south end to a hidden, smaller space on the backside.

      Thanks for the reminder about the black tile. I really just remember that in the 80s the mall was so damn dark and kind of dingy, but we were a bunch of bored kids just happy to have something to do.