"The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns; well so long, farewell, goodbye."- Modest Mouse, "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine"
I'm bored. Very little of any significance is happening right now, so let's talk about something random. Today, we'll discuss Madison Square, Huntsville's next "dead mall."
Ask yourself: When was the last time you went to Madison Square? I can bet that for many of you, it's been a while; probably longer than your last trip to Parkway Place or Bridge Street.
Madison Square Mall was opened in 1984, with 5 anchors: JC Penney, Sears, Parisian, Caster Knott (now Dillard's), and Pizitz (became McRae's, now Belk). It has room for up to 120 stores. Madison Square has been renovated twice-- once in 1994 and again in 2006. At the time of its opening, it was built in what seemed like the edge of nowhere; Huntsville stopped at Sparkman, as seen in this 1982 map (Look-- a Woolco!):
Despite store mergers, liquidations, and stores surrounding Madison Square closing and/or moving farther out into the sprawl of western Madison County, it fared relatively well for its first 20 years, mainly because it had no competition. Madison Square's opening began the slow and painful decline of the three older (smaller) malls near downtown that shared that title through the 70s: The Mall, Parkway City Mall, and Heart of Huntsville Mall (now Constellation); all of which had become "dead malls" by 2000.
But those dead malls came back to haunt Madison Square. In 1999, the Fountain replaced The Mall, and while the power center, with anchors like Home Depot and Costco, had little effect on Madison Square, the opening of Parkway Place (formerly Parkway City) in 2002 did, which, ironically enough, is partially owned by the same developers/owners of Madison Square (CBL of Chattanooga), who had scrapped plans to build a 1.2 million sq. ft. enclosed mall (scroll down) in South Huntsville in the late 90s to redevelop Parkway City. After that, Madison Square was referred to as the "old mall" (as in, "Hey, want to go to the mall?" "Which one? The new mall or the old mall?"). But despite the label, Madison Square held on to most of its name-brand tenants until 2007-2008, when it was hit twice: Bridge Street opened a couple of miles to the south, and the recession began soon after, with stores like KB Toys, Friedman's Jewelers and Steve and Barry's closing as part of their respective company liquidations.
Now, to be fair, despite the odds being against it, Madison Square is still holding on. Four out of its five anchor spots are still occupied, and it still has over 80 stores (not including the food court or kiosks). Definitely not a dead mall. But some of the recent tenants-- a blacklight mini-golf course, a now-defunct auto dealership, even a sex shop-- are signs that the end is near for Madison Square.
In the next few years, it's going to get harder for Madison Square to hold its ground. Bridge Street and Parkway Place have plans for future anchor tenants. While we can safely speculate that Macy's (not a Madison Square anchor) is at the top of at least Bridge Street's list, it isn't out of the question that one of the current Madison Square anchors (especially JCPenney) could be siphoned away with the promise of a new store elsewhere. And then there's the threat of uber-sprawl developments such as WaterStone in Madison.
There are several ways a dead mall can be "resurrected." In Nashville, a mall called Bellevue Center quickly died after losing two of its three anchors, and all that remains today is a Sears. The mall is now planned to be partially converted to a Kohl's on one level and a branch of the Nashville Public Library on the other (though it's on hold due to legal reasons). On the other side of the city, there are plans to convert part of Hickory Hollow, a mall very much like Madison Square (age, size, ownership), into a satellite campus for a community college. Converting Madison Square into a power center or an educational facility could work, but let's be creative, shall we?
From "super-regional" to "super-mixed-use"
Here's my idea for that day in the near future when Madison Square kicks the bucket. Let's look at what it's got: it's in a very visible location, at the intersection of University and AL255, an area with ~100,000 vehicles passing through every day. A high-visibility location such as Madison Square deserves a high-visibility redevelopment. So how about this: assuming the current anchors remain (they separately own the parcels of land their stores sit on), build a 40-ish-store open-air center in the parking lot and move the current tenants there along with some new ones. Then close the old mall and convert it to an open-air center, with another 40 retail spaces remaining on the ground floor and office space on the upper level.
The sea of parking at Madison Square could be put to better use by creating a high-density, pedestrian-friendly environment (like Atlanta's Atlantic Station and Austin's The Domain) surrounding the new open-air center. One idea is to build several mid- and high-rise (5-15 floors) office buildings, and add a few hotels, new anchors, and condos/apartments down the road. Parking would be consolidated into several multi-story parking garages. I left off most of that on the layout above (note the large chunks of remaining parking lot) because the number of possible layouts is infinite; I'll leave that to your imagination.
Note that this is merely my idea; it is NOT an official plan by CBL (the developers/owners of Madison Square). So don't get on to me if this doesn't happen, because, it won't.
Madison Square still has a few years left in it; worst-case scenario, I give it until 2014, its 30th anniversary. And a smaller revitalization (such as demolishing only a portion of the mall and converting it to an open-air center) might add a decade or so to its lifespan. Admittedly, my idea is quite radical. But that's what Huntsville needs-- new, fresh, unique ideas-- to get itself away from having the feel of an overgrown suburb.
Educate yourself: If you wondering what the heck I was talking about when I mentioned "dead malls," here's a couple of my favorite blogs on the subject. They include some interesting articles on some Huntsville malls, including The Mall and Madison Square:
deadmalls DOT com