Sunday, August 19, 2007

Problems At Peabody Place Rock Downtown Rhetoric

If anything should qualify us to be honorary members of the Belz family, it’s the pained feeling that shoots through our bodies every time there’s a new headline about a failed business at Peabody Place.

The latest was about the closing of Ann Taylor Loft, the latest on the lengthening list of businesses who found the mall environment problematic on its best days and heart-breaking on its worst.

Putting so much of their own money – as well as public incentives - at risk, the Belz family certainly deserves better. And yet, it’s hard to escape the potent reality that every failure at Peabody Place is another troubling sign for downtown Memphis.

Wanted: Magic Bullet

These days, patriarch Jack Belz and the rest of his family are grappling with ways to reverse the tide of problems at Peabody Place, but there is one thing they have decided already – there’s no easy answer.

Among the ideas being reluctantly considered is converting the complex into an outlet mall. Actually, this was considered when Peabody Place was in the planning stage, even including a big box retailer like Wal-Mart or K-Mart. It was probably the safest course of action, but Belz Enterprises felt that aiming higher would best serve the interests of downtown.

Unfortunately, the company’s higher ambitions haven’t been supported by the marketplace, and as the Belz family considers its options, no one understands the problems associated with an outlet mall – particularly the apparent contradiction between it and the Peabody Hotel brand. But at this point, the first priority is stopping the flow of red ink.

Fortress Mentality

As Belz Enterprises considers Peabody Places’ future, we find ourselves remembering a visit to Louisville four years ago as that city faced a similar question - what to do with a failing enclosed mall that was supposed to be downtown Louisville’s salvation. It opened in 1982, a jarring suburban transplant plopped down into the fabric of downtown, separate and apart.

The Galleria was so big that it spanned Fourth Avenue which was closed so more space could be put inside what largely appeared from the outside to be a walled fortress. It reflected a traditional mall sensibility – get the people inside and keep them there.

Only the mall sensibility didn’t work. From the outside, the massive walls and glassed-in entrances were uninviting and austere. On the inside, you could just as easily be in suburban Louisville, because there was no connection to its urban setting.

Starting Over

City of Louisville officials weren’t sure what to do. Eventually, city government bought back the mall for $4 million so it could control the project’s future. After accepting proposals from several development companies, Louisville selected Cordish Co. to tackle the problem and sold the Baltimore-based company the Galleria for $1.

The company decided to start over. It knocked the sides out of the old mall, restored traffic to Fourth Avenue, evicting the typical suburban mall mix of stores and focusing on the creation of a bright, lively, bustling entertainment zone.

In setting out to literally turn the Galleria inside out, officials with Cordish Co. said that for the project to be successful, it had to have a “distinctive sense of place,” something graphically lacking in the Galleria; it had to connect directly with its urban surroundings; and it had to respond to the expectations of the public looking for a uniquely urban experience.

Soul Reborn

Put another way, Cordish executives said the place had to have a “soul,” and if anything was obvious about Galleria, it was the very soulless atmosphere of the place.

The new $70 million project was nothing short of risky. As a Brookings researcher said, it was precisely the kind of mixed-use project that’s the most risky real estate development in cities like Louisville – whose similarities to Memphis in geographical setting, demographics and challenges are striking.

After about two years of construction, the reborn Galleria project was completed October 30, 2004. The Louisville project – now dubbed Fourth Street Live (photos above) – is not without its critics, particularly for the public subsidies it received, but it’s hard to argue with the results -- it now draws more than four million people a year, making it the most visited site in the State of Kentucky.

Powering Activity

As part of Fourth Street Live, the Cordish Co. asked for the re-opening of Fourth Avenue, but asked and received permission to close it Wednesday through Saturday nights for the 150 special outdoor special events – particularly free concerts by national acts - that enliven the area.

Today, reminders of the old walled-in mall are gone, and because the new development plugs organically into the urban landscape, it actually is a catalyst to the overall vibrancy of downtown, rather than a cloistered center where people parked, shopped, got back in their cars and drove back home.

The Cordish Co. has worked similar magic in other cities, and it is regarded as the best in the business. In its hometown of Baltimore, it’s given a new burst of life to the Harbor with its Power Plant project. In Kansas City, it’s developing a $850 million, nine-square block redevelopment in the Power & Light District, long known for its dilapidation and neglect.

But as impressed as we are with so much of the company’s work, it’s the Fourth Street Live project in Louisville that have always captured our imagination. Hopefully, Peabody Place can sidestep the hard lessons of Louisville.

Downtown Math 101

Of course, we’re not telling Mr. Belz anything he doesn’t already know. There’s little about downtown development like the one in Louisville that he’s not familiar with, so perhaps, with his experience, he can determine if there are any lessons that could help to turn around Peabody Place.

The stakes for Memphis are much too high for Peabody Place to be a failure and go dark. That’s exactly what happened in Louisville before officials there got serious about doing something with the Galleria. Come to think of it, it’s also exactly what happened here with the Peabody Hotel itself.

If there’s one overriding moral of the Louisville story, it was in turning the mall outward to the street and to the people on it that it was resuscitated and become a node of vibrancy that in the end delivered the best measurement of a successful project - two plus two equals more than four.


mike said...

Some things that need addressing:

1. Easy, accesible, cheap parking.

2. How does rent inside PP compare to other available spaces downtown? To similar business spaces around the edges of downtown? To comparable business/mall spaces in Memphis? Are they affordable? Is he willing to rethink and maybe accept lower rental payments in exhange for building the larger business long-term?

3. Are they catering to the crowd at the Peabody? To a wished-for demographic that doesn't necessarily go downtown? To the folks who actually live downtown? (Is that demographic enough to support a PP?) What about the vast crowds of young, black Memphians who go downtown on the evenings and weekends? Are they even being addressed? Catered to? Ignored?

4. There are repeated requests for certain kinds of businesses downtown -- a newstand like the old World News, a grocery store, hardware store, mid-range clothing stores, etc. Does Belz not see an opportunity there? Or do those kinds of businesses clash with his idea of "what PP ought to be?" Maybe he needs to radically rethink?

Speaking of malls downtown, what about the old "Arcade" space along Second, just south of Court Square? (IIRC) It's a long galleria-like space that's been sitting vacant for decades. There a similar space in downtown Nashville, near Legislative Plaza, that kicks all kinds of restaurant and activity ass. Seems like yet another missed opportunity to me.

john said...

Of anywhere Downtown, I would think that Peabody Place has the cheapest and most accessible parking. I find myself parking there even if going elsewhere b/c of the hourly rate. That said, free parking for movies would probably be a good gesture toward getting me downtown to watch one. If any movie theater in town were to develop a reputation as being tough on people who can't keep their cell phones off and mouths shut, then I would likely go there.

Smart City Consulting said...


Every time we walk past the old arcade off Second, we are as perplexed as you are about why this isn't a redevelopment priority because it's got so much potential charm and distinctiveness. I can remember years ago going out of my way to walk down Second so I could stroll through the arcade and see what was going on there. It could be that kind of interesting surprise and diversion again.

Anonymous said...

I love going downtown to Peabody Place. I like the fact that we have a mixed croud of Blacks and Whites. I would like to see more measures from Security or MPD inside Muvico. I like the atmosphere at PP. I would like to see more and yet different businesses that are able to satisfy the needs and appeals of those that enjoy com- ing to PP without taking a step backward from a business standpoint.

RuralFreeDelivery said...

As far as turning the mall inside out and engaging the passer-by pedestrians, I never really found PP that inaccessible from the street. I do think that Tower Records' closing affected that element in a negative way. When the record store was open, you had a (sometimes) bustling, well-lit, visually stimulating front door to the mall facing Third/Peabody Ave. Now it's a series of posters and logos that doesn't invite anybody to do anything.

It would seem to me that the success of the Louisville Galleria had a lot to do with the sense of "happening" that Cordish built the mall's brand on, with the public concerts and cramming people into the street; that's Tipping Point 101--get a ton of people to do something, and then show pictures of it to a ton of other people so that they'll follow suit. That's one of the reasons why the "lifestyle center" fad has been so successful--not for the shopping experience (which is basically like visiting any other strip mall) but for the millions of free concerts, arts and crafts things, film screenings, etc. that they have for customers to experience while they roam from GAP to Starbucks. The brand becomes "there's always something happening there... and I do need a new pair of chinos" instead of "I've heard there's an Ann Taylor in there somewhere... but do I really want to deal with the parking and the hassles?"

I would be curious to know how well the restaurants are doing there. Presumably Encore does some good business, and Dan McGuiness and Texas De Brazil always seem packed. I know that Isaac Hayes' restaurants have not fared well in other cities, so I'm not sure how much of its failure can be attributed to PP. Maybe the mall could be dramatically repurposed as a dining-only destination?... Instead of trying to force people to come downtown to shop at the GAP or Hot Topic or any number of stores that can get to more easily in the suburbs, give the mall a brand that's wholly distinct and interesting.

Alternately, as Mike suggests some kind of big box retail may need to be forced in there. I shudder at the thought of it becoming a massive two-story Target or Home Depot... but you've got to pay the bills somehow.

Elizabeth said...

I never did any significant shopping at Peabody Place, but my reason had little to do with parking, location, or restaurants. I simply found the shopping to be incidental to the entertainment venues.

There were not enough options for back-to-school shopping, family holiday shopping, nor "event" shopping (how likely was I to find the perfect little black dress if my only choices were Ann Taylor Loft and Gap?). In turn, why would I need a food court if I didn't shop long enough to work up an appetite for cheap, greasy food?

That said, my daughter and I have enjoyed Muvico, Putting Edge, and Jillian's so I hope that those sorts of family spots do not disappear entirely.

Anonymous said...

The heart of downtown Minneapolis has a wonderful urban Target that blends in perfectly with its surroundings.

Will Barrett said...

Wow! That target looks very much like the entrance to Peabody Place. I wonder how the square footage compares to what is available in PP?

Anonymous said...

if they get a store that memphis does not have, crate & barrel, for example, i think peabody place would see a resurgence.

unless you live downtown, why would you drive down there to pay to park to go to the same things you can get at oak court....ann taylor loft, gap, victoria's secret, etc?

Jeramia said...

The Target is also similar to the one in the Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn. The Target revitalized the retail aspect of that piece of property. Here's a link, but the pic isn't very good.