Monday, January 7, 2013

The Galleria's Food Court Fountain

     In case you didn't know, I am and have always been a really big mallrat. I think it stems from the fact that when I was growing up, malls were a bustling hotbed of youth activity. There really wasn't much in Birmingham for kids to do and the mall had a book store, music store, an arcade, a movie theater, Spencer's, a Taco Bell, etc. We spent a lot of time hanging out there and with the exception of the Great Silly String Battle of 1995, nobody ever asked us to leave.
     Though in recent years it has been suffering a steady decline, the Riverchase Galleria has always been my favorite local mall. Opened in 1986, I remember taking a field trip there when I was in elementary school. Before adding the Sears expansion, the mall had an impressive 1,200,000 square feet of floor space and four anchor stores. The presence of the Wynfrey Hotel and the Galleria Tower office complex made the Galleria one of the largest mixed-use projects in the southeast. After the Sears expansion, the complex grew to 1,570,000 square feet and became one of the top ten largest mixed-use projects in the entire country.
     The City of Hoover was quick to see what the tax income from the retail giant could do for the city. They shot themselves in the foot by encouraging new developments instead of working with existing structures. The result was a series of new strip and outdoor malls that have had a severely damaging effect not only on the Galleria but also the City of Hoover. The Galleria is no longer the draw that it once was. The newer establishments are more attractive to tenants as well as shoppers. The result was a lower number of big businesses and anchors in the mall and strip mall ghost towns in the city.
     Last year, mall management started on a $60 million dollar redevelopment. This includes a facelift for aging parking decks, relocation of the food court elevators, the revitalization and sale of the Wynfrey hotel and the addition of a new anchor: Von Maur. Included is a facelift for the mall's 19th Century Dentzel Carousel, which is what brought me to posting.
     If you don't live in Birmingham or haven't lived here long you aren't familiar with or can't remember what the Galleria used to be like. Let's start with the ceiling: it is entirely glass skylights. As a visual and architectural wonder, this was a huge attraction and part of the appeal of the mall. Each of the cross members is fitted with a full row of neon lights. They span the mall in three colors depending on the section: red white and blue. There are the giant light towers in the food court with giant radiant white sections at the top and multiple lights up the side of the main tower. Unfortunately, the neons are no longer in use, nor is the full potential of the light towers. The biggest shame, is the absence of the food court fountain.       
     The food court at the mall is open and expansive, especially vertically. At the center court there was a large and impressive fountain. From a ring around the center, ribbons of water were directed to the middle and occasionally a tall stream would erupt upwards. There were tiered sections around the fountain where you could sit and watch it while eating. It was pretty awesome to see and I remember always thinking it was one of the coolest things about the mall.
     Traditionally, the carousel was only in use a few months for the holidays and the fountain was there the rest of the year. I guess at some point management decided that as the fountain cost money and the carousel made money, the fountain would be shut down and the carousel would stay. The effect was that the carousel lost it's uniqueness and appeal and the food court's vertical expanse would never again see the awesome burst of the fountain.
     I was hopeful that as the carousel would be taken down that maybe the fountain would be making a return. I saw this as a hopeful moment, a chance for mall management to capitalize on what could be a potential harm: the lack of the carousel. They could have used the brief return of the fountain as a draw for people like me, people who remember the fountain and it's appeal and who would like to see it again and for their kids to see it too.
     Alas, this was not to be the case. As the carousel was taken down, I talked to a representative of the mall who not only confirmed that the fountain would not be making an appearance but that the entire ring that surrounded it would be filled with concrete. It's a sad day in my opinion and proof that the new management of this retail establishment lacks long term vision. Malls normally have a lifespan of around 20 years and at nearly 30 years, the Galleria is pushing hard with the $60 million redevelopment to beat the odds.
     What they seem to be missing is that to keep the mall vital, you will have to bring back the "wow" factor. Birmingham is not the same city it was in 1986 and the Galleria is now far from the only game in town. People can shop anywhere. What they can't see is that they need to give people a reason to shop there. These draws are often not the retail stores themselves but the things that surround them. This includes things like the fountain.
     I am hopeful but realistically pessimistic for the future of the mall. Let's see what 2013 brings. 



  1. Actually, the center is as vibrant as ever. It is hard to walk through sometimes. I think you are reacting to the fact that it lost some luster as it became common place to us. It is not the unique thing it was at the time of opening. I too miss the fountain. I would buy something to nibble on just to sit by the fountain and would do this more than once per visit. For a long time my visits to the center reduced to about one every two months. This past year that increased back to almost once a week. The loss of the fountain is very bitter to me but I do know that fountains are being pushed out of all shopping centers. The outdoor centers still have some that are puny. (if you want to see a great fountain go to Rennaisance Colony Lifestyle Center at Jackson Ms. It is worthy of a palace in Europe) The center is great too. I visit once a year for a Eurpopean vintage auto show.
    I am concerned that what the GGP is doing to the mall may be a bandaid but I did read last week that the current figure they are spending is up to 145 million. We shall see. I know that VON MAUR will not let us down. We need that for the great loss of PARISIAN which was the second draw after the fountain for me. (maybe it was GODIVA)
    We have to face the fact that as time goes on we feel less of the focus on ourselves. It is growing older. The malls are full of things like the carousel and drink and candy machines because they make money and becaue malls are catering to 20 to 35 yo.s (meaning they are the ones producing children) If you have kids you are welcomed and if you are older and alone you might not be noticed. Being older in our society comes much younger today.

    Raj Kapoor

  2. Hey Raj, thanks for the comment.

    I'm sure you are right that familiarity has made it not as nice to me. That being said, a lot of what the management has done, or more correctly stopped doing, is contributing to that fact. The Galleria used to be a destination. Now it just seems like a pace to buy things. It's actually worse than that, it is a place to be sold to which to me feels dirty and cheap.

    We'll see what the renovation and Von Maur can bring but my long term expectations are low. Thanks again for reading.

  3. Raj, not sure when you've been walking through the Galleria, but it must have not been this past Christmas. Far from the hustle and bustle it used to be.

    JBMFT, I totally agree with everything you said. I think GGP is just trying to keep the mall viable for the short term, but not for the long. Things like the fountain really are what connect people to places like this... They bring it identity... It's not just another place to shop and eat.

    I remember as a kid, coming to The Galleria and always wanting to get a table as close as I could make my mom get to the fountain. Yeah, the carousel was fun, but the fountain was the cooler thing. The Galleria's ceiling was built so high for some reason... and I'd have to argue one was to accommodate the soaring mist of the fountain! I can't believe they finally decided to fill it in. I thought one day they'd take the carosoul out and surprise us. Not sure why I even got my hope up.

    Hoover really did hit itself in the face with all the developments. It's funny to see how lovely and sparkling Patton Creek was when it was built... and now half the leasable square footage is vacant. Signs of a weak economy, the real estate bubble and companies going kaput. The Grove is the biggest example... A Bryant Bank opens up there on the hill... closes not even a year later. Hard to stay in business when you're on a hill so high traffic doesn't see you. Companies are getting out of the strip mall business too! Colonial Properties Trust merged with an apartment company in 2013... and has already sold off two of its promenade strip malls. I'm sure Brookwood Village won't be far behind.

    I bet the fountain would have been so cool with today's LED technology all in it. It could've been a real spectacle. It sucks.

  4. Thanks for your comments Taylor.
    This type of retail development is nothing new for Hoover. The result is all of the empty spaces you see at every shopping center in town. We got lucky with the addition of Bargain Town.
    It is crazy though, the old Walmart (now Hobby Lobby) strip on 31 has been struggling for quite some time. Nothing but the anchors and retail giants can survive there. Restaurants especially have a hard time. The new strip across the street with no less than 5 restaurants in it. You think at some point the city would cap it but since it is so dependent on tax dollars it cannot afford to.
    Like now, when there is a recession this is where we find ourselves, with a huge number of vacant retail space.