According to rumor, 19th-century outlaw James Copeland and his gang used Wragg Swamp to hide loot. When it first opened more than 100 years later, what was then known as Springdale Plaza offered loot of a different type, in the same area.
In 1839, Copeland and his gang started fires to create a distraction, before looting shops along Dauphin Street, architectural historian John Sledge said. Many locals believed the gang used the nearby swamp as a hideout. Portions of the swamp were drained in the late 1950s to make way for shopping centers and as a result, Sledge said, rumor has it there’s still loot under the pavement.
Whether or not there was ever any buried treasure, the opening of Springdale Plaza in 1959 and Bel Air Mall eight years later signaled a new era for retail shopping in Mobile and was met with much fanfare.
Mobile History Museum historian Scotty Kirkland wrote in an email message that while Springdale was considered to be on the edge of Mobile “proper” at the time, the population shift westward had already begun and continued to accelerate. With it came an increase in automobile ownership, and the malls were strategically located at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and a section of Interstate 65 completed in 1963.
In the book “Mobile: The New History of Alabama’s First City,” Harvey Jackson III wrote “In the first decade after World War II, the number of motor vehicles in Mobile doubled and with the increase came congestion usually associated with a larger metropolis.”
To alleviate some of that congestion, federal funds were sought to help finance a new beltline highway, “consisting of I-10 and I-65,” Jackson wrote. This beltline highway accelerated the city’s westward expansion, according to Jackson.
“Where Airport Boulevard crossed the Beltline, developers began to build Mobile’s first shopping mall, Springdale, and shortly downtown merchants, discouraged by the lack of off-street parking, began to move out,” Jackson wrote. “This gave residents of the growing western suburbs a downtown of their own and marked the beginning of the decline of the city’s center.”
Jackson wrote that by the time the interstates were completed, Springdale had been joined by Bel Air Mall, which opened in August 1967, to create “a new, regional shopping hub.”
According to newspaper clippings of the time, Bel Air was the city’s first indoor mall and was planned to be the largest in the state.
Plans for Bel Air were detailed in a Sept. 20, 1964, Mobile Register story in which Sears was announced as one of the anchor stores, noting a second location downtown would not be affected. A movie theater was also announced.
Local department store chain Hammel’s joined Sears as an anchor and the cost of the project was estimated to be $20 million. Construction started in January 1966.
Across the street, plans to enclose Springdale Mall were “finalized” in 1974, according to the Register. At that time, it was anchored by Gayfers and Montgomery Ward.
A changing retail landscape
Sledge said the development of the two retail malls and their proximity to the highways, while convenient for the migrating population center, hurt downtown business.
“The most significant thing about it was it put the kibosh on Dauphin Street,” he said. “The build-out began around the perimeter of town, where the traffic was.”
Retail and residential abandonment of the city’s center forced downtown to “reinvent itself,” Sledge said, as more of an entertainment scene. Still, “old school” retailers, like Naman’s and Hoffman Furniture, remain.
The decline also created new opportunities for development downtown, he suggested, offering the conversion of former businesses and warehouses to modern condominiums as an example.
“Arts and entertainment scenes are logical places for people to come,” Sledge said. “It becomes a destination.”
But he also admitted the process was harmful. With vacant lots, boarded-up buildings and comparatively inexpensive real estate, it’s evident downtown still hasn’t fully recovered.
“It was in decline for so long … we’re way ahead of where we were 30 years ago.”
While city centers nationwide were vacated in what is generally characterized as “white flight,” more recently, traditional enclosed malls have been on the decline.
In January, The New York Times quoted figures from Green Street Advisors — which tracks the mall industry — stating that since 2010, “more than two dozen enclosed malls had been closed” and another 60 were on their way to closing.
In the 45 years since their construction, Mobile’s malls have faced their own competition. In 1998 and 1999, it was reported the owners of Springdale Mall were planning to convert to a plaza-style center.
Springdale also introduced big-box retailers, like Best Buy and Sam’s Club, in order to compete in a changing market.
Bel Air was renovated in 1990, 1997 and 2006.
Local developer Phillip Burton, president and CEO of Burton Property Group, said the retail market has been changing as a result of urban sprawl and the growing popularity of strip centers.
Stephen Schmidt, senior vice president at Cypress Equities, said the change can be attributed to the changing habits of shoppers. For instance, Schmidt said, outdoor malls where a shopper can drive right up to the store they want to visit are more convenient than traditional malls, where shoppers more commonly park far away and must walk through or past other stores to reach their destination.
But New York City-based developer Rouse Properties, which bought Bel Air Mall last year, argues there is still value in indoor malls. Chief Operating Officer Brian Harper wrote in a statement that the mall’s location made it attractive to the company.
“Bel Air was a perfect fit for our portfolio of dominant, ‘only-game-in-town’ middle-market malls, as it is the only enclosed regional mall within a 60-mile radius and has an expansive geographical reach, serving shoppers in Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle,” he wrote. “We see substantial opportunities to apply our national platform and create value through targeted improvements to the asset and to the retailer merchandising mix.
“In addition, there is a long and growing list of prominent retail, restaurant and entertainment brands that are focusing their expansion efforts in dominant middle markets,” he continued. “Therefore, Bel Air’s attractive position in the market make it the premier retail real estate in Mobile.”
Harper was vague about what, if any, changes Rouse has planned for the mall’s future, but noted WiFi Internet access had been installed “from end zone to end zone.”
“While we can’t share any specific details at this time, we see great potential in Bel Air and are evaluating similar opportunities,” he wrote. “We are very excited about Bel Air’s future and are committed to ensuring it remains the premier shopping and social destination in the Gulf Coast. We look forward to making several major announcements in the near future which we believe will be well received and highly anticipated by the local community.”
A fact sheet available on Rouse Properties’ website sheds some light on Rouse’s investment, estimating that the population serving Bel Air Mall, along with average household incomes and total number of households, will increase by 2020.
Recent shopping center renovations
While indoor malls have redeveloped since opening decades ago, outdoor malls and strip centers have become commonplace in both Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Some of the early developments are undergoing renovations or facelifts, while others are still under construction or welcoming new tenants.
Two, McGowin Park and Westwood Plaza, were developed through public-private partnerships, where a government entity incentivizes development with tax abatements.
For McGowin Park, which is zoned as an “improvement district,” the city will return 1.4 cents of its five-cent sales tax collection and the county will return three-tenths of a cent of its one-cent sales tax collection on revenues projected to be as high as $200 million per year, fully leased.
One of McGowin Park’s anchor tenants, the first wholesale retailer Costco in the Mobile market, opened last week. Josh Burmeister, executive vice president at JLL Real Estate, said Dickey’s Barbecue also opened recently. He said other tenants, like Field & Stream and Dick’s Sporting Goods, will open in mid-July.
Construction has also started on phase two of the retail development off Government Boulevard near Interstate 65, which will welcome tenants including Ross, Petco, OshKosh, Starbucks and Jared, Burmeister said. Opening dates for phase two are planned for September or October, he said.
Burmeister also handled leasing for Westwood Plaza, which is owned by Burton Property Group. Westwood struck a similar $9.25 million tax abatement deal with the city last year. Under the 15-year agreement, Burton Property Groups’ $25 million investment in the old shopping center will be rebated by any sales tax revenue, exceeding a 40 percent increase from what the shopping center reaped in 2013.
If Burton recoups $4.7 million in rebates for the initial capital expenses on the project, the deal is capped to a maximum of $450,000 a year until it expires. The deal further stipulates that retailers at the plaza have to either be the market’s first-ever store, or a second store. A store already in the market is ineligible to relocate to Westwood, at the southeast corner of Schillinger Road and Airport Boulevard.
Burmeister said JLL just signed Mobile’s second PetSmart store for the location. Other tenants include outdoor retailer Gander Mountain, clothier Ross and Hobby Lobby, among others.
Burton lauded the public-private partnerships for allowing reinvestment in older shopping centers. He said in most cases, the deals help bridge a funding gap and make investments of that size reality.
“Without it, the investment wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “It can make a project work, instead of not.”
In addition to Westwood Plaza, Mobile’s Pinebrook Shopping Center at Airport Boulevard and McGregor Avenue has been undergoing renovations. When complete, it will be home to the area’s first Whole Foods Market.
The Eastern Shore has seen the relatively recent development of at least three outdoor shopping centers — Eastern Shore Centre and Spanish Fort Town Center in Spanish Fort, as well as Jubilee Square in Daphne.
While Eastern Shore Centre and Jubilee Square have been fully leased, Spanish Fort Town Center has struggled to fill its immense space.
The center, anchored by Bass Pro Shop and JCPenney, entered into receivership in 2007 but emerged last year, according to developer Cypress Equities.
At a June 4 ribbon cutting for a new park the developer hopes will lead to a turning point for the center, Schmidt didn’t deny its history. He noted that since it opened, the area has been hit with a major recession, an oil spill and a major hurricane.
“We hope the park becomes a great amenity for the city … and will help jumpstart leasing,” he said.
Cypress Equities Managing Director of Leasing and Marketing Michael Wheat said he’s excited for the future of Spanish Fort Town Center, despite its slow start. After the ribbon cutting, Wheat said two new restaurants would be coming to the center, which would be announced in the fall.
Across Interstate 10, Jubilee Square has been more successful. Burton said the center is now full.
“We’re very fortunate we’re at 100 percent occupancy,” he said.
Numbers provided by local economist Dr. Semoon Chang suggest an increase in sales tax revenue countywide is attracting more retail developers.
Mobile County collected more than $54.5 million in sales taxes in 2014, according to county gross tax receipts, Chang said. That number is up from $52 million in 2013 and $50 million in 2012, when the area was still recovering from the recession.
According to Chang’s numbers, 2008 was the last year prior to 2012 the county collected $50 million or more. For 2009, 2010 and 2011, the county collected around $49 million per year.
Chang said developers are, most likely, banking on a full recovery and a bright future.
Burton agreed, cautioning that while no one has a crystal ball, retailers and developers are hopeful the trend continues.
“The climate has improved and retailers have become more active,” he said.