It’s the last days of Sears at the Riverchase Galleria.
The national retailer is closing 26 large-format stores around the country, as traditional big box chains continue to fall, casualties to retail’s changing economic landscape. That’s 147,000 square feet of space suddenly vacant at the Hoover mall by the end of October.
What does this mean for the future of the Galleria, Alabama’s largest shopping mall? It could mean a new direction for the complex off Interstate 459, as well as a new performing arts center for the City of Hoover.
Whatever happens, it will take place at a time when malls in the Birmingham area are looking for strategies to remain vibrant and reconnect with shoppers – a retail brick and mortar crisis being felt around the nation. Hoover Mayor Frank Brocato’s words about the Galleria could apply beyond.
“Where do we go from here?” Brocato said. “We’re still trying to determine that. Whether it’s private, public, or a partnership – we’re not at that point to know yet. We just know we want to develop something that people can look at and come to and get excited about.”
Birmingham’s retail landscape has cautionary tales for mall enthusiasts. There was Eastwood Mall, only the second enclosed mall in the southeast when it opened. It lasted from 1960 through 2006. Where a glass atrium food court once stood is now a Walmart Supercenter.
Not far away is Century Plaza, built in 1975 and, at one time, home to more than 100 tenants. It closed in 2009 and was bought last year by Lumpkin Development. Over the years, various schemes for revivifying it have been floated, from a church to storage space. Lately the large parking lot which welcomed shoppers for decades has been home to hundreds of Mercedes SUVs, temporarily parked from the Vance plant and awaiting export. A spokeswoman for the plant said Mercedes is “working to get this topic resolved as quickly as possible.”
‘Ahead of its time’
The Galleria, though, is still unlike any other mall in Alabama. Opened in 1986, it features 1.4 million square feet of retail space, the 15-story Hyatt Regency and a 17-story office building. In the beginning, it was on the fringes of the Birmingham metro area. Now, it connects Birmingham and Hoover along a major route to Tuscaloosa.
“When it was built, it was ahead of its time,” said Greg Knighton, economic development director for the City of Hoover. “With a large hotel and office tower – and both of those properties do very well – they feed into the retail that’s there and create an opportunity for future retail development. The demographics around it remain great.”
That was demonstrated last year with the adapted reuse of space for Dave and Busters, he said. The Galleria also continues to play host to tour buses and traveling shoppers, showing there is plenty of activity to build on.
It has also had to cope with several high profile acts of violence over the last year.
In August, a 15-year-old male was wounded when shots erupted in the Galleria’s north parking deck. The deck was also the scene of a shooting in June that left a 20-year-old UAB student dead. Zachariah Taylor Music was killed on the fifth floor of the deck in what police said was a drug deal and armed robbery. Two suspects have been charged.
But the shooting death last Thanksgiving night of E.J. Bradford garnered the most attention. Bradford was shot by Hoover police responding to another shooting inside the mall in the midst of a pre-Black Friday shopping crowd. That killing, ruled justifiable after a lengthy investigation by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Attorney General’s Office, also sparked weeks of protests.
An estimated 15 million to 17 million people walk through the doors of the Galleria each year, which is the 43rd largest indoor mall in the U.S. An examination by Hoover police found that the overwhelming majority of calls they received over an 18-month period at the complex were non-violent misdemeanors, and 1.6 percent were considered serious or significant felonies.
“The Galleria is still one of the safest places anyone can shop,” Brocato said.
The complex contributes about 22 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue, and revenue has stayed steady at around $13 million since 2015, Brocato said.
“The Galleria is not only important to the city of Hoover, but the entire metro area,” Brocato said. “And it’s up to us to maintain it, and to keep it the premiere property that it is. And we’re going to do that.”
Brookfield Properties, owners of the Galleria, is still mulling over plans. But Brocato said there are several possibilities. One is for the Galleria to become more of a city center with a Main Street look, with storefront businesses along with green space and use of outparcels.
Included in those talks could be a performing arts center. The city currently has a 250-seat auditorium at the library.
A performing arts center would be a venue for concerts, traveling shows and special events.
“We feel like there’s a pent-up desire there,” Brocato said. “It’s a great location, and there’s plenty of places to dine after. We feel like a performing arts center would be very successful. But we’re not there yet. We’re doing some research and just taking some steps.”
In Birmingham, The Summit continues to pull in more than $14 million in sales tax revenue each year. Unlike the Riverchase Galleria and other traditional enclosed malls, The Summit is a 22-year-old “lifestyle center” development, which has more than 1 million square feet of retail space on a mixed-use development with storefronts and streetscapes on a concentrated campus outdoors.
Earlier this year, nine new stores opened or relocated there, and the development awaits the opening of outdoor store REI Co-op’s 20,000-square-foot store next month. It will be the chain’s second location in Alabama.
Last week, the Summit announced the expansion of lululemon, which will occupy 5,435 square feet, occupying space that formerly held Flip Burger and Michael Kors. The athletic apparel retailer will move to the new location once work is completed.
“Lululemon has always been a destination store at The Summit and we’re excited to continue to create and enhance places people love,” Carver Boynton, general manager of The Summit said.
And The Summit uses other ways of drawing out shoppers, such as its long-running Food Truck Friday, which is set for Oct. 4. Sarah Morton, marketing manager, said it’s just another way to drive traffic to different areas of the complex.
“We try to do it monthly,” she said. “We usually have three treat trucks, three savory trucks and some live music.”
When Brookwood Village opened in 1974, it was a showplace whose design won an award from Shopping Center Design Magazine. It later had a $35 million remodeling in the late 1990s, which added a streetscape with dining, and a $20 million renovation after Cypress Equities bought the 816,000-square-foot mall from the former Colonial Properties Trust in 2015.
But anchor tenant Belk closed in 2018, prompting fears about its future. Brookwood Village now competes with several nearby shopping centers that did not exist at its beginning, such as The Summit, Cahaba Village Plaza, and Lane Parke.
B. Prince is a women’s clothing store that is now located in Lane Parke. But it was once Betsy Prince, a tenant at Brookwood Village from 1981 to 2016. Its owner Bezshan Dolatababi made the decision to relocate to the Mountain Brook shopping center three years ago.
“I knew if our business was going to grow, it was going to have to move,” he said. “The way malls were going, the way Brookwood Village was going, I knew I had to come up with my own plan. It was a pretty easy decision.”
Brookwood Village, he said, was a great location in its time for his store. “I have a lot of warm feelings for them,” he said. “Customers have changed – they like driving up to a storefront.”
But Brookwood Village’s owners are looking at several options for the long-term, and its management is following a blueprint that has proved successful elsewhere. Around the U.S., as Forbes reports, mall traffic during the 2018 Black Friday weekend was actually up 2 percent nationally, as malls have begun shifting to entertainment destinations and shoppers “spend their money on experiences rather than on material things.” The idea is to draw shoppers and consumers to venues such as gaming and performance venues, giving them opportunities after to shop and dine at existing spots in the malls.
Anne Stephens, Brookwood Village’s marketing manager, said the mall plans long-term to transform into a mixed-use redevelopment that “may feature retail, restaurant, entertainment, hospitality, office and residential space.” Those plans could be announced by the end of the year.
But Brookwood Village in the last few months has added several non-traditional and hyperlocal tenants. Homewood Flowers has located across from Books-A-Million, while White Flowers, a 30-year-old family boutique, has opened on the street level near LOFT. Darnell’s Fun Stuff of Vestavia Hills, a gift, clothing and accessories store, has added a second location on the street level across from Cocina Superior.
Clothing boutique Butterflies and Magnolia is open next to Macy’s while See’s Candies will have a pop-up location for the holidays. Cannella Gelato will soon open in the food court.
And the most unique additions have not been retail stores but follow the entertainment destination model. Edgewood Dance, which opened in the downstairs portion of the mall. Founder and Director Heidi Stoeckley, a graduate of the Julliard School of Dance and a professional dancer, offers classes in ballet, modern dance, yoga and aikido, along with private lessons.
Upstairs, across from Books-A-Million, the Homewood Theatre has taken over a former storefront and transformed it into a 120-seat venue. Kyle Bass, executive director, said the theatre sold out all four of its first performances back in August of “Bill Bugg and Friends Part 3,” featuring show tunes in a piano-bar style setting.
It took two months to refit the space for performances. Workers added dressing rooms and sound booths and sales counters and bookshelves were re-purposed.
“We raised the audience and left the stage on the floor,” Bass said. “We’ve really been surprised at how much the space has offered itself. It’s much more accommodating to a theater.”
This story was modified at 4:02 p.m. Sept. 25 to reflect that the City of Hoover is not considering replacing the library auditorium.
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