19 May 2024

Midlands Mall, Council Bluffs, IA

 A relic of retail

Across the Missouri River from the city of Omaha sits its Iowa based companion, Council Bluffs.  And a rule of retail has always been that people are reluctant to cross bridges for their everyday retail needs.  This eventually led to the town’s Mall of the Bluffs opening in the 1980s.  But many don’t realize that this was not the first of its kind to be built past the eastern banks of the river.  That distinction belongs to Midlands Mall.

1- The blocks of cleared buildings just before Midlands Mall’s construction.  2- An overview of the newly built mall.  3- Philip’s location on the center’s eastern end.  4- Built as an open-air mall, this is one of the many plazas of the original complex.  (Source for all)

On the last day of my visit to Nebraska’s largest city, I finally made the trek for my first time ever into Hawkeye State on the number 41 bus.  I disembarked at the far western end of the municipality’s quaint downtown which, though not nearly as distressed as the central areas of, say, East Saint Louis or Gary, has definitely seen better days.

Midlands Mall’s much darker original interior just after being enclosed.  (Source for all)

After a nice stroll past Bayliss Park, I headed back to Broadway and was soon standing next to what most would think is simply a somewhat modern, somewhat dated office complex anchoring the central business district.  But what many do not know is that this indistinct, gray concrete building started its life as Midlands Mall.

Midlands Mall lease plan, ca. 1975. View the full PDF version here.

Today known as the Omni Centre Business Park, hallways that were once lined with the top retailers of the seventies and eighties now host community groups and government satellite offices.  Enclosed after originally debuting as an open air center, the narrow corridors with rather shallow concrete ceilings were punctuated by several interesting courts placed under loftier trussed canopies.

1 & 2- The signs of the old Midlands Mall displaying its new name.  3 to 5- The center’s front exterior facing Broadway.  6- The main entrance.

With little variation, the main corridors form somewhat of a rectangular racetrack with the corners and edges housing the more elaborate plazas.  The hallway floors themselves are still blanketed in pastel colored tiles, surely added during the decade of big hair and miniskirts.  Some of the inline stores remained vacant and still retained their former retail occupiers’ façades.

1- Downtown Council Bluffs from the facility’s eastern end.  2 & 3- Exterior facing frontage on the side facing North second.  4- DaVita now occupies Philip’s former space.

Much like Southroads Mall located just across the river in Bellevue, I loved how this place, although presently hosting a different type of client, still existed in much of its original layout.  The exterior of the former Midlands Mall is surrounded by several courtyards featuring basic seating areas but with plenty of greenery.  All in all, it was a relaxing destination and fits quite well with the leisurely pace of Council Bluffs’ downtown today.

1- An entrance to what used to be Sears.  2- The west end courtyard just outside of the old Sears.  3 to 5- Scenes around the former anchor.  6- Another main entrance to Sears’ old spot.

However, the conception of Midlands Mall as well as the two other proposed enclosed retail destinations for the small city, Madison Mall and Eastroads Mall, is a complicated story of a town based on aging industry attempting to maintain relevance while abutting a much larger municipal counterpart.  The genesis of Council Bluffs’ first shopping mall is embedded in the urban renewal movement of the post-war decades and the city’s desire to offer more retail choice to its residents, who were more than accustomed to crossing the Missouri River to the much larger Omaha for the majority of their shopping needs.

1 & 2- The main entrance on the old Midlands Mall’s west side.  3 & 6- In and around what used to be the Brandeis location, the only two level portion of the complex.

The initial plans to build a large shopping center in Council Bluffs materialized as soon as the mid-sixties.  Developers were already purchasing acres of land on the outskirts of the town intending to construct a badly needed source of tax revenue for the city.  Madison Mall was being planned for the corner of Madison and Bennett Avenues while Eastroads would be located on Highway 6 close to its interchange with Interstate 80.

Midlands Mall’s main courts.

But these rival private developers were not only competing with each other, but also with Council Bluffs itself as the latest conceived that a retail anchor in its rapidly declining downtown would reverse the misfortunes of the previous decades.  Though voters turned down using tax dollars to purchase then raze what was then known as blighted buildings just to the north of Bayliss Park, the city used federal loans and grants to proceed with their proposal.

1 to 4- The courtyards on the old Midlands Mall’s flanking side facing northwest.  5- The main entrance on the north side.  6- Just inside the north entrance.

Midlands Mall was on the fast track to open before either of its rivals and construction was started after the hasty removal of hundreds of buildings that today would be deemed of historic significance.  The open-air center made its debut in 1976 with anchors Sears and Brandeis, which boasted Iowa’s first escalator, as well as junior anchor Philips headlining the development.

1- Looking east down one of the concourses toward one of the facility’s several court areas.  2 to 4- The former Midlands Mall’s court located midway down the northernmost southwest to northeast corridor.  5- The small court located on the building’s northeastern corner.  6- A concourse just past the court. 

Though popular in its first years and eventually enclosed, Midlands Mall soon felt the pinch of Madison Mall’s competition in 1986 when it opened as the Mall of the Bluffs.  Only a dozen years after making waves in the Council Bluffs trade market, the then struggling retail destination was sold and subsequently renamed Centre Point Mall.  It languished for a few more years before inevitably ending its run as a shopping center in 1992.

1- Looking toward the southeastern court.  2 to 6- The sunken court located just inside the main front facing entrance.

Proposals for the vacant monolith blighting the downtown it was supposed to invigorate included serving as a new home for the Iowa Western Community College, but these plans never materialized.  Eventually, it was purchased for pennies on the dollar and was repurposed as the Omni Centre Business Park, the name under which it operates to this day.

Omni Centre Business Park Mallmanac, ca. 2023. View the full PDF version here.

Today it is pretty well agreed upon that building massive retail centers in a city’s central business district is rarely a recipe for success.  Even in much larger cities, building these outsized, single use structures appears to do more damage than good.  Unfortunately, Council Bluffs was one of the earliest municipalities to learn this valuable lesson the expensive way.

1- Inside the main entrance facing Broadway.  2- Looking toward the former fountain court, located at the halfway point of the southernmost corridor.  3 & 4- The eagle sculpture at the no longer running fountain.  5- The Snack Shop, the only remaining “retailer” in the former Midlands Mall.  6- Just inside another mall entrance.

As I’ve said before, I’m very glad that the former Midlands Mall remains a tangible destination, though in a strange turn of events, the mall that contributed to Midlands’ premature failure itself closed in 2019 and, unlike it’s centrally located counterpart, was demolished later on that same year.  Strangely enough, the site for the third proposed enclosed shopping facility in Council Bluffs, Eastroads Mall, itself eventually became home to an extension of the Iowa Western Community College.  Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems that the city once touted as being able to support three enclosed retail destinations is not able to sustain even one.

The largest court is located on the west end of the mall connecting the northern and southern parallel concourses each running from the southwest to the northeast.

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