Once-vibrant mall faces uncertain future
By David Irvin
Montgomery Mall is jammed with shoppers Nov. 26, 1988.
A calendar in the management office of Montgomery Mall reads "If money could talk, mine would say 'goodbye.' "
It's meant to be a statement on the excesses of shopping, but these days it's also a sad commentary on the nearly 40-year-old shopping center itself.
Store after store sits vacant, and the reason why depends on who you ask. Almost everyone, though, offers one of two reasons, often both: crime and race.
The owner, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust, is even so tired of battling the perceptions that it's willing to sell at the right price.
Some experts assert that the mall, which opened in 1968, is nearing the end of its life. Others believe its best years lie ahead.
Either way, the on-the-ground reality is difficult to ignore.
Department store Parisian is leaving by March, the third anchor to pull out in three years. It follows Dillard's and JC Penney. Gone also are the likes of Victoria's Secret, Lane Bryant, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Eddie Bauer.
Mall officials would not release the most recent fill rates, but the 2004 report shows 70 percent store occupancy.
Numbers don't lie
Shoppers, even retailers use the number of blacks living near Southern Boulevard and McGehee Road to explain the mall's demise.
Chad Emerson, who is a law professor and an expert in urban planning, doesn't buy the social-economic excuse.
"If you draw a five-mile circle around the mall," said Emerson, who teaches at Faulkner University, "you ... also bring in some extremely high economic demographics."
Census data backs Emerson up. The wealthiest parts of the city in terms of per capita income are directly north and west of the mall.
As for crime, the Montgomery Police Department has not changed the way it patrols the mall but acknowledges fewer shoppers mean every shopper is safer. Capt. Huey Thornton maintains crime is not a big problem at the mall because "there is a lot less businesses in the mall than there used to be."
Still, old notions are hard to change, and Michael Bird knows because he's trying to change them.
After the Parisian closing was announced, Bird fired off a letter to the editor about the misperception that high crime only exists on the south and west sides of the city. The east side, he wrote, has just as many "drug and thug problems."
Bird said he believes the mall is in decline for many reasons, one of them being negativity in the media. He cited the coverage of two major events, a shooting in late 2003 and a rowdy reception for hip-hop star Ludacris a year later.
"If people run away from the problem ... then you set up a terrible dichotomy. You have the 'haves' and the 'have nots' at war with each other," said Bird, who predicts Eastdale Mall will have similar problems if Montgomery Mall fails.
In good company
Emerson advocates a theory of development known as "smart growth," in which housing and commercial properties stand together. If that theory is true, the traditional, enclosed mall has simply run its course.
The case could be made that Montgomery's first mall, Normandale Shopping Center at 572 E. Patton Ave., shows what Emerson is talking about.
Built in 1952, it originally had an anchor department store -- Loveman's -- and many fine specialty shops on either wing. Today, its major tenant is Calhoun Foods. Some of the other businesses are a Compass Bank branch, Dollar General, It's Fashion, Maxway, Pizza Hut and H&R Block.
"What has happened in Montgomery Mall will happen in Eastdale Mall in X number of years. Then it will go on to the next mall," Emerson said. "None of these malls are built in a mixed-use, sustainable way."
To drive home his point, Emerson cites Deadmalls.com. The privately run Web site acts as a memorial to hundreds of traditional malls nationwide that are dying or already dead.
The International Council of Shopping Centers, however, doesn't buy that a mall has a "life cycle." A mall's success has to do with "what people have done to make sure malls stay vital," said council spokeswoman Patrice Duker.
Steve Floyd's property company turned Cloverleaf Mall in Hattiesburg, Miss., inside-out. It went from four outside-accessible stores to a dozen. Today, the retail occupancy rate stands at 98 percent.
Montgomery Mall has even transformed itself once.
Built in 1968, Montgomery Mall was challenged by the newer Eastdale Mall in the late 1970s. Only a few years later, Montgomery Mall expanded so Parisian as well as several other stores could move in.
The updating bought the shopping center some time. Then, in late 2003, the Shoppes at EastChase pulled away Montgomery Mall's most critical anchor, Dillard's.
City leaders blame the mall's problems on Glimcher's management.
"With the right management and the right ownership, that mall can work," said City Councilman Glen Pruitt, who represents the district where Montgomery Mall is located.
Emerson, though, thinks putting office, retail and commercial space together would breathe new life into Montgomery Mall as well as the surrounding areas.
Glimcher officials like the mixed-use approach but insist they need to land a big retailer to anchor the project.
"We are probably taking more of a 'clean sheet of paper' look at it," said chief operating officer Marshall Loeb, who also insists the mall is not being actively marketed for sale.
Loeb recognizes the mall hasn't done well, blaming local competition for seizing most of the momentum in the market.
Pruitt remains skeptical about the mixed-use development idea.
"I've been hearing this now for almost (the) two years I've been on the council," he said. "I'm ready for someone to show me something."
The mixed-use approach worked for the 1960s-era Winter Park Mall in Winter Park, Fla., which declined severely in the 1980s after losing many of its major tenants. The developers transformed the property into an outdoors open-air market, incorporating loft apartments, restaurants and retail space.
Today, it is filled.