I took a nice drive out to the new Shops at Grand River outlet mall, Phase One of which opened today. ( The developer is expected to break ground on phase two next year). Because I live at the opposite end of the Birmingham metro area, I spent more time driving out there, than I did at the center.
The project is accessible and visible from I-20 and several billboards tell you where to exit, so I had no trouble finding the project. It appeared to me that there were only two main entrances to the property from the access roads, which could be a problem during unusually busy times. Today, the traffic was well managed by many well placed traffic cops and others waiving traffic along to the parking area. I assume these will go away after the excitement of a grand opening subsides.
From the parking lot, the project looks like a large shopping mall, except there are no big anchor stores. Entrances are well marked with large signs visible from thousands of feet away. This is the typical scale for a large project adjacent to a major highway. Money was well spent at the entrances which is appropriate to attract your attention to where you enter the project. The rest of the buildings were pretty plain, but that is OK, as they face the parking lot or well screened service areas.
The civil and landscaping design of the project has won accolades for its sensitivity to the the at risk Cahaba River, which is directly adjacent to the project. I think it should serve as model for good development practices and in my opinion, much of what was done should be mandatory for all large projects , even when not next to an environmentally sensitive treasure like the Cahaba River. All storm water ends up in a living stream and river eventually, and the developer did a good job keeping mud out of the river according to the Cahaba River Society.
The project is as big as many shopping malls, enclosing over 330,000 square feet of retail space. It is laid out like a village with 30′ wide pedestrian streets lined by retail storefronts, such that the shops face each other rather than the parking lot. This layout is typical of shopping streets through out human history. However, the scale of the store fronts, and the signage seems inappropriate for the small 30 foot wide open air “streets”. (You can see a photo of the streetscape here). It is as if they first designed a typical strip shopping center, with its large signage on tall billboard like sign bands intended to be seen from a highway 1000 feet away, and then folded it into itself. Many signs on the walls above the awnings are so big you can’t take them in with out scanning your head from side to side, or looking up at an awkward angle. Apparently the sign criteria allowed for some small under canopy signs, as some, but not all shops have small easy to read signs either on their doors or hanging under the awnings that tell you who they are. So, instead of the nice human scaled space suggested by the layout, that might encourage people to linger, they have built a space that feels cramped, tunnel like, crowded and somewhat awkward (not to mention, neck straining).
Thus, the interior streestcape was somewhat of a disappointment to me. As an architect who spent most of his career
designing and building shopping centers, (15 million Square feet worth), it seems to me that an opportunity to raise the bar was missed here. While the layout suggests a small pedestrian oriented village, it appears that the architect, (a well respected local retail design firm), simply applied some nice strip center designs from it’s portfolio and applied them to fit the site plan. Rather than creating the feel of a small pedestrian street, the architecture screams strip retail. I will say it is otherwise a very nice design, with nice materials, hard scape and well executed details, but you can’t step back far enough to appreciate it. Even old style closed in shopping malls typically have more human scale. With just a bit more effort, in my opinion, they could have created a streetscape that fit the unique site plan, for the same or less cost.
Of course, in the end, it is good value oriented retailers and the location that bring the customers to an outlet mall, not the architecture, so there is no doubt in my mind that this project can be successful and be the expected economic boom for the Leeds area. A nice mix of retailers makes the center very attractive from a shopper’s point of view, and adjacency (by car) to the nearby Barber Motor sports Park, Bass Pro Shop and Talladega Speedway (just down the interstate) should provide bursts of customers before and after events. Assuming the shops are real outlet stores, with relatively low prices, it should also attract area shoppers from Birmingham trying to survive these times of austerity.
One suggestion for the City of Leeds: Put in some sidewalks to and from the mall and along those roads you expect will one day be lined with hotels and restaurants. Otherwise, you have created another place where only cars will feel comfortable and traffic will be a nightmare.
Regardless of my disappointment in the architecture, I wish Daniel and their equity partners financial success, because, in the end, The Shops at Grand River is a very well executed outlet mall, worth the drive.