How long will Bessemer’s once-thriving West Lake Mall sit vacant?

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This is a CBS 42 Your Voice Your Station report.

BESSEMER, Ala. (WIAT) — Throughout the state of Alabama, once-thriving malls are being decommissioned, torn down after years of abandonment.

Most recently, the old Century Plaza Mall in Jefferson County has met its end. Amazon is turning the vacant lot into a distribution center, creating thousands of jobs. But others, like the old West Lake Mall in Bessemer, are still standing with no plans for redevelopment.

Neighbors who live near by the abandoned property say it was the talk of the town for decades. Pauline Morrow, who lives right behind the lot, says she used to frequently walk to the mall.

“It was a busy place,” Morrow described. “It had families, family restaurants, stores, people.”

The mall was just as popular with out-of-towners, who flocked to its brand name stores like Sears, Grant’s, and Loveman’s.

“You know, up until the 90’s actually, it was fully leased,” Michael Warsaw Jr. with Shannon Waltchack Commercial Real Estate said. “You had good tenants in there, well-known tenants that you would still understand and know today,”

But for the past 20 years, Morrow says it’s been a blight in the area.

“I was in heaven when I moved here, and I moved down from Boston,” recounted. “And…with the mall right there, how close could I get? It’s a shame, really.”

Anthony Underwood purchased the property in 2011. Underwood has tried to bring retail back to the area, but he’s been successful. Over time, the lot has been used for semi-truck parking. Currently, there is one part-time tenant inside, according to Warsaw Jr.

Jeff Traywick with the Birmingham Business Alliance says not only are abandoned buildings eyesores, but they can affect property values.

“Whenever you do have any sort of abandon property in a neighborhood, it does affect property value,” Traywick said.

The Shannon Waltchack Commercial Real Estate group is helping Underwood sell the property. Warsaw Jr. tells CBS 42 there are several factors that have contributed to the mall’s decline.

“As the population decreased in Bessemer, those retailers were not getting supported like they needed to be, Warsaw Jr. explained. “Rents were still the same the way they had been as if it was a fully populated area.”

CBS 42’s Jake Chapman was permitted a peek at what’s left of West Lake Mall. Inside were old signs from Bruno’s Bearline, a salon, and the former Bessemer Police Department precinct. The trip down memory lane is what Warsaw Jr. says is a harsh reminder of the malls’ waning relevance.

“It’s a story you see all over the country to this day,” Warsaw Jr. lamented.

He says the best play for the property to sell is to go the industrial route, especially with companies like Amazon and Lowes building plants in the area.

“[They then have] the option to either build off that directly or to bring something new to the market and something totally new to where we are,” Warsaw Jr. said.

However, selling a property takes time, usually six to 18 months, according to Warsaw Jr. He’s seen abandoned malls sit for years before selling. Clearing out the property is also an expense to consider.

“Who know how old it is,” Traywick said. “It may have environmental issues that need to be taken care of before it’s demolished. And there is a cost there.”

However, once the property sells and companies take up residence, locals—and the local economy— benefit greatly.

“For cities that have these types of properties, it does provide them a good opportunity to redevelop the site to something new,” Traywick said.

Whatever the future holds for the property, Morrow hopes something is done soon.

“Do something that’s good for the people,” Morrow said.

CBS 42 has reached out to Bessemer Mayor Ken Gulley for his ideas for the property and is still waiting for a response.

Other “dead” malls in Central Alabama

Birmingham Metro Area:

Eastwood Mall, Birmingham — It was known as the largest mall in the South in the 1960s. Now, it has been wiped off the map. The Eastwood Mall was located near the U.S. Highway 78 and I-20 crossing. Over time, competition like the Century Plaza Mall around the corner, The Summit in Mountain Brook, The Riverchase Galleria in Hoover and others, quickly took over. The once-vibrant mall shut its doors in 2006 to make way for the Walmart Supercenter that stands in its place today.

Century Plaza, Birmingham — This mall held the title of Alabama’s largest for some time. But the center, once home to 100 stores, went under in 2009. Now, the massive property is being converted into a 200,000 square-foot Amazon Fulfillment Center.

The remains of Century Plaza, which has since been demolished to make way for an Amazon fulfillment center (CBS 42).

West Hills Mall, Fairfield — This Midfield neighborhood mall first opened its doors in 1969. Over the years, its major department stores that served as anchors for the mall (i.e. JCPenny, Burlington Coat Factory, Loveman’s, The Pizitz and others) eventually left, leading the mall onto a path toward eventual closure. This mall was the also scene of a deadly shooting in 2018.

Tuscaloosa area:

McFarland Mall, Tuscaloosa — This mall, built in 1968, used to be the largest in West Alabama. As of February 23, 2021, the property has been demolished. The owners, who bought the property following the 2008 economic collapse, plan to convert the property into a sports complex. They have hired a team of consultants to work on logistics for the project.

Tuscaloosa’s McFarland Mall was demolished on February 23, 2021. (CBS 42)

Meadowbrook Mall, Tuscaloosa — This strip-style indoor mall opened in 1977 and sat in West Alabama for many years under various names and owners. Due to the crosstown competition of the McFarland Mall and various other factors, the building was eventually demolished. An outdoor shopping center now stands in its place.

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