The Montgomery Mall in Montgomery, Alabama opened its doors in 1970 to an excited group of shoppers, who unknowingly were about to step into what would become one of the most iconic pieces in our country’s history. Sure, they were aware that malls were the big thing at the time, and any city to have a mall built knew they were about to become one of the coolest cities for not just teens and young adults, but an entire economy of shoppers, movie-goers, and more. I mean, during this time, malls had become a way of life for many, whether it be the place they met up with their friends every Friday, met their first love or got their first job. I think what people were unaware of though, is just how big of an impact these malls would have in the not too distant future; not because of the legacy they built during their lively years, but the impact they would make historically, when almost out of nowhere they would collectively begin to fall apart, and many would become abandoned. It was something that nobody could have imagined happening. Hell, even when I was a child during the 90s and early 2000s, I don’t think I could have ever imagined seeing the end of the shopping mall the way it was, considering how fun and full of life they were. But it happened.
These once incredibly popular places, arguably the most popular places in United States history, practically vanished overnight, leaving only a handful standing. Of the ones standing today, it’s rare to see one anywhere near as lively as almost every mall was even 15 or 20 years ago. The emotional rollercoaster that many would experience when malls would begin their rapid decline as our entire society saw huge changes would be something we never thought we would be talking about today. But here we are.
Before the mall was constructed, Montgomery Fair, which opened in 1967 was the one lone department store in this area. Construction of the rest of the mall would begin in 1968, and two years later Montgomery Mall would open its doors.
Montgomery Mall was an enclosed shopping mall, and featured two anchor stores on the day it opened; Montgomery Fair, which by this time had been rebranded as Gayfer’s, and JCPenney. Aside from the two anchors, other major tenants included Lerner New York, Morrison’s Cafeteria, Singer Sewing Center, and Elmore Variety Store.
It was located fairly close to Normandale; a popular shopping center that had opened in 1954. Although they were close to each other, one didn’t compete with the other as shoppers could find entirely different things at each. Rather than competing, they sort of complemented one another. It was not until 1977 that Montgomery Mall would see its first competition with the opening of Eastdale Mall. While the opening of Eastdale had a small effect on Montgomery, it had a larger effect on Normandale. Things would continue fairly well for Montgomery Mall moving forward.
In 1987 Montgomery Mall would undergo a huge renovation, adding a new wing anchored by the Birmingham-based store Parisian. The wing was completed in 1988, and the opening of Parisian brought back a nostalgia that many had for Loveman’s; a store formerly located at the Normandale Shopping Center.
Ten years later in 1998, the mall was purchased for $70 million by Glimcher Realty Trust, but it wouldn’t be long before things started to fall apart. The Montgomery Mall would start to see a decline into the early 2000s as several stores had begun to close. Piccadilly Cafeteria, Gap, Eddie Bauer, Ruby Tuesday, and American Eagle were all gone less than six years after Glimcher had purchased the mall. Things were starting to look bleak.
Poor management by Glimcher and deterioration of the surrounding area ultimately led to the inevitable decline of this mall, which just six years earlier was operating at 95 percent capacity. In 2005, JCPenney and Dillard’s, which had taken over the former Gayfer’s space, closed their doors at the Montgomery Mall for good. Both stores moved to new locations – JCPenney to Eastdale Mall, and Dillard’s to The Shoppes at Eastchase.
Steve & Barry’s moved in and took over the former Dillard’s store in early 2005, but decline for the mall continued. The mall would see more closures over the next two years as Parisian and several other stores left. In May of 2007, Glimcher sold off the Montgomery Mall, and just over a year later it would close for good. Steve & Barry’s was one of the last remaining stores, finally leaving the mall in September 2008.
After several years of declining traffic, the Montgomery Mall had been entirely closed and left to decay.
In May 2011, plans were announced to purchase the mall. Keith Corporation purchased the 440,000 square foot mall, including the former JCPenney store, and started planning to convert the former space into health offices. In February 2013, redevelopment was started, bringing new life to the mall.
Since redevelopment was started, many areas of the mall have seen new life, including use as a school, fire and police station, and medical clinic.
The fire and police stations employ 175 city workers, and the Loveless Academic Magnet Program High School, which moved into former mall space in 2017 after a $12.6 million renovation, has a student body of approximately 500.
In the former JCPenney, Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies offers students a place to learn about the digital technologies of today, along with offering classes in welding, robotics and more.
It’s interesting to see reuse like this for a former mall that has sat mostly vacant since 2008. There are further plans for redevelopment of the rest of the currently unused space, with ideas for a student-run farmers market beneath the arched glass ceilings within the former food court. There are hopes to bring new life to former shop spaces by filling the empty stores with private instructors. Students could come to learn music, culinary arts and more. Among these ideas, there are hopes to also eventually include an 850-seat performing arts center where students could have shows, among numerous other uses.