23 May 2013

Malls of My Own - Dominion Center

It was late 1989 and our family had just returned home to Virginia Beach after a holiday spent visiting family in the Orlando area. Staying with relatives who weren't prone to venturing far outside of their cozy little suburb of Winter Park, we one day convinced them to be a little adventurous. It was exciting to see those tree-lined streets in our rear view mirror as we headed to the city's south end, the fun side of Orlando full of roller coasters and monstrous rodents. Our destination was the fairly new cross-town super-regional on the southern outskirts of the city. This would be my first visit to The Florida Mall, and its expansive layout as well as its unique design and varying interior architectural themes made quite an impact on me. From the Debartolo development there were more than a few elements that I borrowed in the creation of my own first megamall, a facility that would eventually would be known as The Dominion Center.

Second floorplan of the center, then called The Alabama Mall.

I sketched an expansive and elongated facility with angled corridors and room for six anchors. In tribute to its real-life inspiration, I christened it The Alabama Mall, as it was to be located in my soon to be new home of Huntsville. This initial floorplan, which I have not been able to locate, actually did not include an anchor where Hess's stands in the above drawing. In the unoccupied pad immediately outside of that entrance, which led to the rather immense food court, I actually included plans for an outdoor promenade of shops and eateries. I thought that this addition would be a novel and nifty little component for an otherwise enclosed shopping mall, making it into somewhat of a hybrid years before this element became a common retail standard. I then decided that another anchor could be added to the far end of this gallery of stores, one not physically connected to the main building and with only exterior entrances. It was a concept years ahead of its time..

The mall's third layout, the one on which the rendering below is based.

The complex was altered to varying degrees during the course of its evolution. It's official designation was changed from The Alabama Mall to The Mall of Alabama then finally to the Dominion Center when I settled on a location for the landmark retail destination. It would be built on the Peninsula of Virginia's Hampton Roads area in unincorporated real estate midway between the cities of Newport News and historic Williamsburg. This prime locale would enable it to attract local as well as visiting patrons on holiday in one of the country's most popular vacation spots, another acknowledgement of it's roots in the Florida Mall, as that facility was built with both of those crowds in mind as well.

The number of department stores also was subject to several adjustments. It usually varied between five and seven, with no junior anchors added until the most recent update. This brought the number of majors to a final tally of six, including five full line retailers. Originally, the complex was to be three tiers, with the food court occupying its own single level wing. I finally decided that such an extensive layout with three different floors may, perhaps, be overkill, so I settled on making it a bi-level center. The central anchor spot on the flanking side was also subject to many redesigns. Initially, it was established as a flagship (?) Montgomery Ward. Then, in the name of diversity and owing to the target tourist and visitors market, it was repurposed, first, as an indoor theme park, followed by a multi-purpose arena and finally a convention and trade center. In the most recent footprint, the former anchor spot serves as the location for an upscale high-rise hotel.

The second most recent design, featuring a wood and earth-tone interior.

The concept of an outdoor element offering an array of exterior facing shops and restaurants, a feature originally conceived on those first sketches I had produced, was heavily expanded on in later renditions. The most recent draft includes a vast open air cluster of businesses in the shadow of the opulent hotel. Some of the destinations would include an AMC multi-plex, a big-box retailer (originally a Borders bookstore) and maybe a theme restaurant or two. On the far side of this alfresco selection were plans for a rather substantial lake or lagoon, with a waterside boardwalk leading to a slate water feature marking the entryway to the spacious amphitheater. Some square footage located directly above a few designated retailers would serve as residential lofts, giving the Dominion Center a real live-work-play function.

The most recent design of the mall. Though I prefer this layout the best, I much prefer the color scheme of the previous rendering.

Another feature of the Dominion Center, existing since the initial design without much, if any, variation, was the inclusion of an ice skating rink on the far right end between Sears and Thalhimer's entrance corridors. To be called Southern Glacier, a name I've always been proud of, it would be for mainly recreational use as its irregular footprint would leave it without regulation hockey-sized dimensions. It was my first original venue to include such an active and dynamic element, but one I've wanted to incorporate since I was inspired by the zombie-free outings enjoyed by the survivors in their Dawn of the Dead mall of refuge.

A 1994 rendering I sketched of the Dominion Center.

Vaulted skylights would run the length of the concourses, with elaborate atriums marking each entranceway. The frontal threshold would serve as the facility's focal focal point, with a large outdoor plaza bordered by the interior access, the JCPenney, the colossal Macy's and the car park. One of the signature design elements I envisioned, as illustrated in the rendering above, was the twelve story marble, steel and glass atrium tower rising dramatically over mall's midpoint. The structure would include no offices or leasable space, but would only serve as an ornamental shell, thereby making the ceiling over center court well over 100 feet high in certain places. I know that this addition would be cost prohibitive and completely impractical but so is a 250 store, six anchor, bi-level Hampton Roads based enclosed shopping center in today's economic environment, so what the hell.

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