Monday, January 7, 2013
The Galleria's Food Court Fountain
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.