The Mall that once Was

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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- Let's forget about the crowded mega centers and strip malls of today - bustling with all those holiday shoppers -- and turn back the clock for a moment - to say, the 1950s.

At that time, when you needed to buy something, there was only one place with almost everything: it was a shopping center known as downtown. With all the stores - Loveman's, Parisian, Blach's, variety and hobby shops and restaurants, the center of Birmingham was the place to be for shoppers like Rosemary Lucas.

Rosemary Lucas"...it's not like it is now where you go in jeans and casual dress - you would dress, I mean gloves and hat and no pants, no slacks. You would dress to go shopping."

But by the 1960's, people began moving away from the center of town and other areas started to grow.

One intersection -- Highway 78 and Oporto Road - quickly became one of the busiest in the state. Even today, traffic is bustling at this crossing.

It was here that a new retail phenomenon would be built: Eastwood Mall: the first indoor mall in Alabama and one of the first in the nation.

Evelyn Allen"I thought it was the greatest idea since white bread, or rye bread better."

Former advertising executive Evelyn Allen helped promote the department store Parisian in the early days. It's store at Eastwood was one of the chain's first forays outside downtown Birmingham.

Eastwood had 60 other stores - encompassing more than a half million square feet. No more scrambling in different directions to shop; everything could be found under one big roof. In the winter, it was heated. In the summer, it was air-conditioned.

"Everything was at your fingertips; it was wonderful. You could walk in one door. And you were there."

But today, with the exception of that Parisian store and just a few others, the mall stands empty and the main door is locked.

You can still get in, but there's not much to see... only remnants of what once was. Inside one former store, big yellow signs say "Moved to Hoover." Other signs that dot the mall remind customers about clearance and going-out-of-business sales that took place weeks or months before.

The DanielsAnd the only people you're likely to encounter aren't shoppers, but folks like the Daniels, "mall walkers" who exercise by treading Eastwood's long, empty corridors. The Daniels' are longtime east Birmingham residents and have been coming to this mall for years.

MR. DANIELS "We were shopping here before we started walking. (So, over the past twenty years, you've seen a lot of changes in this mall) MRS. DANIELS "...a whole lot. MR. DANIELS "...a whole lot." Big changes. You know like different stores leaving the mall. Why? I don't know. They leave. Then, very few people come out to shop."

And that's the catch-22 at Eastwood. Stores close because nobody goes there and nobody goes there because stores have closed.

"At one time Eastwood Mall was the right thing at the right place at the right time. But today, I think it's the wrong thing and the wrong place at the right time."

Dr. Jack TaylorBirmingham-Southern College Professor of Retailing Dr. Jack Taylor says there was a time when Eastwood fit a successful niche: for people who lived within a few miles who didn't want to travel far for one-stop shopping. But with freeways to take people farther and faster...and newer stores locating in growing areas...the mall simply couldn't compete.

"People are willing, I think, to drive a little further and even in traffic to get a selection. There was nothing at Eastwood Mall that you couldn't find at many other places - and more of it.

He cites massive shopping meccas that were built in the last twenty years: the Summit, Galleria and Brookwood Village -- centers that were developed in sprawling suburbs to the south and east, in places that were becoming heavily populated. All while people were moving out of the area around Eastwood.

Michael Shattuck"The biggest attribute that I could think of as to the decline of Eastwood Mall is the decentralization of the population."

Michael Shattuck is the Director of Research for the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"Your family type households -- and family meaning mother and dad with 2-point-5 children -- are now residing in Leeds and Trussville. That's the growth of the area. And shopping centers and retail follow population. This is an established area, so it's a little different. And it may not be on the surface or on paper look as lucrative as Leeds and Trussville. Developers weigh these sorts of things when they're considering a location."

But while the mall's managers - Trimont Real Estate Advisors - have - from all indications - given up on Eastwood, Birmingham city leaders are enthusiastic about the property on which it stands.

Griffin Lassiter, the Economic Development Liaison to the City of Birmingham, says the city, the mall's owner and one corporate giant - he wouldn't say which one - are in negotiations over the property.

Griffin Lassiter"...and we've come very close. Right now, we're well-down-the-road with a major retailer and we hope that we're going to be successful, because that's going to spur development throughout the eastern part of the city."

One developer close to the situation who didn't want to give his name says Arkansas-based Wal-Mart is that major retailer. He says the company is interested in putting a huge Supercenter and Sam's Club on the site.

A plan that University of Alabama retailing expert Dr. Robert Robicheaux says makes sense for Eastwood.

"...a smaller department store or a traditional department store located at Eastwood might draw people from a 1-5 mile area - very effectively. But it would not be strong enough to cause people to bypass other shopping venues. A Wal-Mart store on the other hand would first and foremost appeal to a larger percentage of the population. Rich and poor. Value conscience or not. Everybody likes to occasionally take advantage of low prices and that's the one thing that Wal-Mart offers above all else."

While most economic developers and city leaders regard a giant Supercenter as positive, the store itself - with its behemoth size and selection -- will at first, stifle some of the competition, according to Dr. Robicheaux.

map of eastern Birmingham"There will be some small mom and pop type merchants and other chain and franchise stores that will lose market share to Wal-Mart. There will be a transition, but eventually the great traffic stimulated by Wal-Mart will attract the parasite stores that live off of that traffic and then there will be new job opportunities for entry-level workers at the retail level for sure."

Dr. Robicheaux says the number of jobs created by a Wal-Mart Supercenter and Sam's would number in the hundreds. Jobs that he says would be stable and offer good benefits, and in turn, would support the community with a larger tax base. People who shop and work there would spend more money nearby.

A win-win situation, he says, if it happens. That developer who didn't want to be identified says nothing's certain yet.

What is certain, says Birmingham-Southern's Dr. Jack Taylor, is that unless there's a renewed commitment to lease out all the empty space of Eastwood Mall, Alabama's first indoor shopping center is likely to become a museum of the past.

"Yeah, I think the days of Eastwood Mall as we know it - or have known it - are over."

~Steve Chiotakis, December 15, 2003