At the height of the popularity burst of enclosed suburban malls, Jacksonville featured half a dozen of them throughout the city.
Today, we have just two within city limits: The Avenues and Regency Square Mall. And to be frank, calling Regency a mall at this point is generous.
The balance has shifted in recent years, both locally and nationally, toward open-air centers like St. Johns Town Center and River City Marketplace. Enclosed shopping malls across the country have either shut their doors permanently or are barely hanging on by a thread like Regency. (It’s worth noting, though, that nearby Clay County’s Orange Park Mall is still holding strong.)
It’s been thirty years since work began on The Avenues, which opened its doors in 1990. With vacancies mounting and another open-air center planned for the greater Jacksonville market, the mall now finds itself at a critical transition point. Can it avoid the fate of Regency and the city’s other malls?
The Avenues has managed to stay relatively successful in spite of mounting odds against it.
In its early days, it outlived the upscale Grande Boulevard Mall that was located just down Southside Boulevard. It survived two anchors, Maison Blanche and Gayfers, going out of business during its first ten years. It even added a fifth anchor, the upscale Parisian, to deal a death blow to Grande Boulevard.
In 2005, when St. Johns Town Center’s arrival began to loom heavily over the mall’s future, a multi-million dollar renovation project brought in major upgrades and did away with the mall’s distinctively-‘90s color scheme.
The next year, Parisian went out of business as well, but the mall quickly filled the vacant space – first with existing anchor Belk expanding to a second space, and later with Forever 21.
For the first quarter-century of its lifespan, The Avenues handled just about everything thrown at it.
But can the mall keep up its time-defying stunts as a new set of cracks begin to show?
The mall currently has twelve vacancies – a small number for a large regional mall, but still more than it’s had in recent years.
And with brick-and-mortar brands, like the recently-closed Brookstone, continuing to collapse at a high rate, that number is always at risk of rising. One of the mall’s anchors, Sears, has been on the verge of financial ruin for over a decade and announces new store closures multiple times each year. (Editor’s note: Sears has since closed its Avenues location.)
Losing Sears, which seems likely within the next few years, would force the mall to find yet another replacement anchor tenant – at a time when competition is about to be at an all-time high. Also looking to lock in future anchor tenants is St. Johns County’s Durbin Park, which is set to eventually become the Durbin-Julington area’s equivalent of St. Johns Town Center.
It’ll be a hard sell for The Avenues to convince anchors – or even regular tenants – to choose their enclosed shopping mall over the lure of a brand-new outdoor center in a fast-growing area.
So far, it looks like the mall’s management team – Simon Property Group, the same managers behind SJTC – is making the right moves to keep the mall going. They’re avoiding notable mistakes that helped accelerate Regency’s demise, like holding out for big-name tenants while vacancies start to pile.
There would be far more than twelve vacancies if the mall hadn’t recently started opening its doors to tenants that would have once felt out of place. Tenants like a furniture outlet, a movie poster store, a crystal shop, and others now stand alongside the mall’s existing higher-end offerings.
And local startups like Savory Olive are using the mall’s still-steady traffic as a launching pad for success.
The potential remains for The Avenues to enter decline, as American shopping habits continue to change and the e-commerce revolution marches forward. It’ll largely depend on how much of Durbin Park’s plans are realized, and how the mall can adapt if another anchor tenant is lost.
But at least so far, the mall is doing the right things to stick around for a while longer.