Hamilton Place mall's huge impact felt 25 years later

Hamilton Place mall's huge impact felt 25 years later

August 4th, 2012 by Mike Pare in News

This aerial picture shows Hamilton Place mall in East Brainerd.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilton Place opened 25 years ago.

Hamilton Place opened 25 years ago.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

From the top of the CBL Center office building next to Hamilton Place mall, two Chattanoogas stand out.

One revolves around the mall, owned by CBL & Associates Properties Inc., and reflects the hundreds of millions of dollars of commercial development since the center opened in August 1987.

The other is made up of a large adjacent neighborhood filled by finely kept houses and manicured green lawns.

Each tries to co-exist and manage alongside the other - a tension that has at times boiled over as city officials seek a balance between commercial interests and residential neighborhoods in the area.

Within the next year and a half, the 12-year-old land-use plan that has guided development in the sprawling East Brainerd area around the mall will come up for review.

Among the issues bound to receive discussion is traffic.

Better traffic flow is sorely needed, said Susan Nicholas, who lives on Igou Gap Road.

"I'd like to have more money on roads," said Nicholas, who added that she worries about crime and spoke out against a controversial proposed IHOP restaurant in the area.

City Councilman Jack Benson said he wants more "quality growth."

"Un-smart growth is no good," he said, noting that the new plan will involve "all the stakeholders" in the area.

The 1.2 million-square-foot mall, for many years the largest in Tennessee, changed the face of retailing and shopping in the Chattanooga area by all accounts.

Charles Lebovitz, Chattanooga-based CBL's chairman and former longtime chief executive, said the mall brought 75 new retailers to the city the day it opened.

"We opened two new department stores. They were the first new department stores to enter the Chattanooga market in 50-plus years," he said.

"It hit the ground running," he said, terming it "truly a super-regional mall" drawing shoppers from Georgia, Alabama and toward Nashville and Knoxville.

According to CBL, estimates are that its flagship mall and the company's other nearby shopping centers have drawn more than 50 million people since Hamilton Place opened.

The mall and CBL's adjacent retail footprint, which is equal to another 1 million square feet, produce sales of about $420 million annually, the company said. That amounts to sales taxes of about $40 million a year, according to CBL.

As CBL and other developers expanded over the years, neighborhoods were bought out and replaced with commercial locations, setting up some of the growth-related challenges for city officials.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield recalled he was present at the mall's opening as the city's public works commissioner and never imagined the growth that has occurred.

"It's a great economic generator," he said. "Hamilton Place has enabled us, in a sense has required us, to pay attention to a growing part of the city."

Littlefield said that 25 years later, city officials are working to stay ahead of the growth curve in the area.

"We're trying to keep the economic verve moving up out there and not let it choke," he said.

Gunbarrel Road has become one of the most heavily used traffic corridors in the Chattanooga area, and the city is putting more money into expanding other roads.

John Bridger, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency's executive director, said the time is right to review that area's growth blueprint.

A lot has changed over the last 12 years, he said, citing the state of the current housing and commercial real estate markets.

"People's lifestyles change," Bridger added. "We're seeing more people desire to walk to places to go and shop."

He said the nearby neighborhoods also will be "very important stakeholders" as planners eye an updated growth blueprint.

"How do we make sure what happens in the commercial areas complements the livability of the surrounding neighborhoods?" he asked.

Lebovitz raised the term "densification" when talking about the mall's future. Before the recession, CBL had suggested a $100 million plan to add an outdoor shopping center, two parking garages, improved stormwater drainage and modification to the Interstate 75 exit at Shallowford Road.

"That's the type of thing that the malls which are successful and continue to be successful, that's what they're doing," he said. "They're densifying. They're adding structured parking. They're adding new related uses."

The proposal at the time sought to raise capital for infrastructure improvements through the creation of a business privilege tax. That levy would have added a half-percent to 1 percent fee onto purchases made at Hamilton Place and other CBL shopping centers within a one-mile radius.

As to the future, Lebovitz declined to say whether plans to continue to develop the mall area are on the drawing board.

"We've got to have something to talk about next time," he quipped.