27 October 2013

Extant Assets - Bridge Street Town Centre, Huntsville, AL

Bridge Street Town Centre's genesis can perhaps be traced all of the way back to the early sixties. It was then that a man named Milton Cummings purchased land on the small but growing town of Huntsville's western extremities to build a new headquarters for his young company, Brown Engineering. The Army had already moved much of their missile program to the Redstone Arsenal while NASA's new Marshall Space Flight Center had just opened its doors. The next logical step was to enable a cluster of the high tech and research companies that were sure to follow a place to grow. Thus, Cummings Research Park was created and has since grown to the United States' second largest research park. It also ranks as the fifth largest on the globe.

By the time that the eighties came around, the park was nearly at capacity. So eight hundred acres of farmland further west was purchased to expand the park into what is now known as Cummings Research Park West. The expansion's main thoroughfare would run in a circular fashion through this phase, and at the center of this loop was to be the anchor of the park- a commercial center combining live, work and play elements years before this concept became a nationwide buzz phrase. Adtran, however, ended up building their headquarters on that land, forcing the planners to offer an alternate parcel for the commercial center. Its proposed location was moved to the southeastern corner of the park, a less central position but one that offered better road access. However, it would still be over a decade before the plans for this commercial center came to fruition.

 
The original rendering and layout of what was then known as The Commercial Center of Research Park. (Source)

In the early 2000s, O&S Holdings of California was chosen to develop the property. Having seen success with their Louisiana Boardwalk in Bossier, LA, they presented a striking proposal for the facility. The retail center was to be located on a narrow isthmus between two lakes with a bridge traversing a small waterway connecting the two bodies of water. It was to be anchored by one, or perhaps two, department stores, a cineplex and a large hotel. Surrounding the lakes would be greenspaces, walking trails, residential units and office buildings. Its proposed name- World Famous Bridge Street. I loved it. It was quite the departure from the usual [Insert Pleasant and Airy Word Combination Here] Town Center that had become so overused.

 
L- Business Journal article about Bridge Street, ca. 2003. View the full PDF version here.
R- An early Bridge Street layout, ca. 2006. A lot of the stores listed never actually moved in, but it's interesting to see what names the developers had in mind. View the full PDF version here.

I always thought that the name World Famous Bridge Street gave more of an impression that the development was intended to be entertainment focused, which is something that was sorely needed in a city which was rarely described as exciting. Besides, Madison Square, the city's go-to retail facility, was located just down Research Park Boulevard while Parkway Place had just opened on the city's south end, with its own upscale skew. It was kind of exciting to have another new concept come to my little town.

 
Bridge Street in the evening. (Source)

Not long after the groundbreaking a few changes were announced. First, there would be no full-line department stores, only junior anchors such as Barnes and Noble. Second, much of the proposed residential and office space was put on hold. Thirdly, they were dropping the World Famous, keeping the Bridge Street and slapping Town Centre to the end of the name, complete with the douchey -TRE spelling of the last word. The design was modified slightly, which I thought was actually an improvement on the design's original s-shape. I was still hopeful that something special was in store for my hometown, despite the conforming name.

 
L- Bridge Street Town Centre Mallmanac, ca. 2010. View the full PDF version here.
R- Bridge Street Town Centre Mallmanac, ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

I watched with interest as Bridge Street Town Centre rose from the flat landscape of the city's western fringes. The hotel would be a Westin, the state's first, twelve stories tall and topped by a few floors of condominiums. Tons of Alabama red clay was moved for the installation of the two lakes. Barnes and Noble, with its Spanish tiled roof, seemed to be finished way before the rest of the buildings. It was fascinating (yet a bit perplexing, I'll get to why later) to see so much retail being added to our small city.

 
L- A concert on the Westin's lawn. (Source) R- One of Bridge Street's office buildings, with the Westin behind it, rises over Research Park Boulevard. (Source)

Bridge Street's retail portion finally opened to the public with much fanfare in early November 2007. It debuted new stores and concepts to both Huntsville and to the state. There was a Monaco Theater, a cineplex with mezzanines in each theater which were reserved only for those aged twenty-one and above. The town center boasted retailers such as Lucky Brand, Anthropologie, Fossil and Juicy Couture. For diners, exclusive restaurants Conner's Seafood, Ketchup and Dulce were added. The brands that Bridge Street seemed to attract to Huntsville were unmatched by most cities of a similar size. And in the middle of it all, were gondola rides; one could savor a romantic dinner or make one of their marriage proposals in the gentle glow of the shoreside Banana Republic.

 
Bridge Street Town Centre's cobblestone bridge. (Source)

It was a bright and crisp Autumn day when I first visited Bridge Street. The guy I was seeing at the time and I walked slowly along the concrete and brick walkway, past landscaped seating areas, ornate water fountains and the double span namesake bridge. The exterior of Anthropologie was covered by vertical gardens, while a carousel spun whimsically next to the gondola docks. They attempted to lend the place a feeling of being in Venice, I suppose, but the result looked about as faux as It's a Small World. But I loved it. Nowhere in the state was anything like it- an open air mall (yes, I know they call it a "lifestyle center," but it falls more along the definition of a mall, a la, well, Ala Moana) where one could wake up in the morning, walk to work then stop and grab a bite to eat at PF Chang's on the way home without ever stepping foot onto a patch of asphalt.


L- Bridge Street Town Centre Mallmanac, ca. 2015. View the full PDF version here.

And the mall hasn't stopped growing. Several years ago, a small power center with retailers such as Sports Authority and Toys R Us opened to the main facility's west. And earlier this year, the mall's new owners announced a major expansion. Finally, that full line department store would be coming, with a flagship location no less. But was it to be Macy's or Nordstrom (both of which had serious discussions with the city), everyone was wondering. The populace was on its retail edge until the big announcement came out that it would be a... Belk. After the initial shock and disappointment, the news only got better. The store would be built on the site of the western lake, which would be drained, the gondola service would become a thing of the past, and Belk would be closing their store at Madison Square as part of the move. Woo-hoo! Progress.


Bridge Street from the sky. (Source)

Bridge Street Town Centre has been quite the success since its opening day, and should only continue to prosper. It seemed the perfect compliment to the slightly less upscale Parkway Place and gave my hometown a retail selection that only much bigger cities can usually boast. Sure, it will be the last nail in the coffin of Madison Square, but that's how retail evolves. And, although I'm no big fan of traditional "lifestyle centers" like Birmingham's The Summit (a glorified strip mall) and Montgomery's The Shoppes at Eastchase, this is the retail trend of the day. And I find Bridge Street to be the perfect combination of the old style, pedestrian focused shopping mall and the new style center.

-UPDATES-
7 January 2015

Bridge Street Town Centre's official website

3 comments:

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  2. Wow... How have I not found you. We have a LOT in common. Awesome blog!

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    1. Why thank you, Scott. I've been reading your blog as well and have linked it to my own. Sorry that I was a bit neglectful of my own in 2014, but it was a crazy year. I'll be able to give it much more TLC, so come back often.

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