Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sun-Vet Mall; Holbrook (Long Island), New York

Since my [patient] brother lives on the [Long] Island south of Connecticut, or the sometimes considered orphaned annex of New York, it has for the past few years opened me to another wide land of retail excursion. A few months ago, The Caldor Rainbow visited a long ramshackled Caldor-Pergament site tipped off by our Ames Fan Club radar, amongst a few other interesting findings. In the few years of my good brother attending Stony Brook University and now living on the Island, I’ve come to terms that Long Island is quite the host for malls with lush histories not entirely decimated by the Westfield Group well known for lobotomizing many individually-flavored malls.

The Sun-Vet Mall is a surviving small one-level enclosed mall located in the suburb of Holbrook, located in Suffolk County. The namesake came through to me, but not as simply as it should’ve, after thinking a little about it: located not too far from the L.I.E./I-495 (Long Island Expressway, I-495), on the split between Veterans Memorial Highway (NY-454) and on Sunrise Highway intertwined with POW/MIA Memorial Highway (NY-27) and eureka; you’ve got Sun-Vet. Being on a high traffic split, commerce-wise Sun-Vet is by not particularly a dead mall as it capitalizes off the convenience it serves to patrons while living a dual identity like it‘s namesake suggest with a hybrid in-and-outdoor concept. In terms of décor and fashion, Sun-Vet reflects forgotten times in conjunction with a changed discount-molded market of the present ultimately saved by the high-traffic perk which neither shares notoriety nor dire fate for the mall as a whole.

Allow me to entertain my thesis for what the Sun-Vet hybrid symbolizes today. The Sun (refers to the vivacious dawn of new; the “lifestyle” or strip mall) and the Vet (or Veteran, refers to the outdated, indoor and old-style of these malls who are favoring “lifestyle” and outward-facing centers today). Sadly, the mall isn’t quite there yet, but attempts to faux a strip mall look while serving as a full-fledged indoor mall most relative to the Bristol Centre Mall in Connecticut with an alternate fate.

Being that, there is very little history regarding the mall around the net; even the basics of ownership, former anchors, and/or year of conception is but a mystery. Despite it’s odds, it seems to be doing alright with locals. The lack of prominence, without any doubt, is due to it’s eclipse by it’s own lack of evolution and and with no help by the domineering Westfield and SIMON market surrounding on all fours, the mall serves people with it’s indoor-strip style offerings with the usual shops to fill them.

The mall, inescapably a sub-mall in comparison to a few surrounding Westfield centers; Westfield Sunrise [Mall] in nearby Massapequa, which opened in 1973 and has seen it’s fair share of market changes anchored now by Wal-Mart in lieu of the departure and purge of once dominant fancy department clothiers. Westfield South Shore, a one-leveled younger brethren located in Bay Shore, a similar heir to the Sunrise, has the big guns as well which serves to the median mall market with the usual anchors JCPenney, Macy’s (an oldie with white caps!), and Sears to name a few. Along the northern parts, you’ve also got Smith Haven Mall, a veteran mall of Stony Brook (Lake Grove), which is changing it’s face to an upper-echelon market and the already upper class Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington Station, both owned by SIMON and built by the same developer, David Muss.

Sun-Vet, in it’s own respective socio-economic holding, doesn’t try to compete with the modern malls but mostly caters to essential and convenient parcels (rather than boutique or specialty shops), and discounters found in most strip or dried up malls with some exceptions; Blockbuster Video, Fashion Bug, Payless Shoe Source, Radio Shack, “Dollar King” (to go along with other silly Dollar store compounds). Sun-Vet has some attractions which keep the spaces filled; Pathmark, a local grocery chain on the Island, Toys ‘R’ Us, Mandee (one of the girlfriend’s favored fashionably and resonable discount clothing stores), FYE (which was most likely rebranded) and even a surprisingly still alive withering chain of Salvation Army-meets-TJ-Maxx style post-apocalyptic dawn discount close-out junksters; Tuesday Morning (preferably “Mourning“).

Odd thing about Sun-Vet is the current layout of entry to some shops including Pathmark, which oddly cannot be accessed outside the mall even though there’s vestige of the anchor before it allowing such outside access since walled off. This more or less requires patronage to actually trail inside, typical with “celebrity-status” anchors in suffering malls, including having to cart groceries through the mall‘s nearby corridor.

Sun-Vet Mall aerial view; Toys 'R' Us (left), Pathmark (right). (courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth).

While most likely a win-win for mall ownership allowing customers to see the mall and it’s tenants especially since Pathmark undeniably attracts the most traffic, but a bummer to have to associate with the mall to get there. The outermost other end cannot be accessed from the interior which includes primarily a newly faced Toys ‘R’ Us, which can only be described as smart for having little or no part in[side] Sun-Vet. Some shops can be accessed both out and indoor, which are obviously most service to customers.

Apart from the more widely-known national stores, there’s a handful of charming stores which are the make-up of more community-oriented malls they once were, and those long past. Local restaurants, comic book stores, tabacco and gift shops, cleaners, barbers and even a “Kid City”, discount store for those who might typically stray from department store or [Toys] “R” prices. There are a few shoe shops, and even a tuxedo store which used to be in a lot of now regional malls, including my own local ones. In comparison to the many other attractive malls on the Island, Sun-Vet is as forgettable to those who don’t depend on it’s local amenities as Google fails to mention it is.

This mall has it’s decorative history intact, and it shows. A basic “E“-shaped layout; basic one (wide) corridor with three mall entrances on left, middle (main), and right ends. Insipid and dated décor and other tales of void evolution on the stacked-stone walls via exterior; a staple of early 1970’s and throughout the decade. The generic speckled light brown and tan floors are certainly vestige of the earlier era, and for the rest of the interior which obviously never received any significant improvement(s) beyond some minor cosmetic changes at best halted in the early 80‘s. The original designers probably ever expected the mall to serve beyond an indoor-outdoor hybrid that it’s become and seems to have been molded by the times, originated by the 1970’s explosion of primarily one-level enclosed malls. The remaining exterior sees truer to the times, a no-frills red-striped façade, zestless, and masks mostly darker shades of brown underneath.

We ended up making it here around the Christmas season, on an late Sunday afternoon where the mall was surprisingly booming with people. Judging by the climate of these types of out-of-time malls, there would’ve been an elderly and strange vagrant population if not for the season. Of course, a lone security guard stationed in the mall’s fancied seasonal “center court” who looked trained to take down people with cameras. It seems to be a trend to have these smaller malls take a stance against shooters, luckily it didn’t happen today.

Here's some excellent shots of Sun-Vet and information from the ever-wonderful SiteRide, which reveals older facades (before Toys 'R' Us received their renovation) and tenants like The Gap, and Office Depot (beside Toys R Us, most likely a former Kids 'R' Us); all since departed Sun-Vet.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

After Christmas Sale!

Christmas at Taubman Center, Westfarms; West Hartford

Over these past few months, I’ve been increasingly poised to discover more Taubman Centers across America, mostly thanks to Milford’s Malls of America site. Specifically, those built around the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when their European-feel defined their complex, signature multi-layered hexagonal ceilings, and somewhat bizarre art sculptures and inviting seating areas, capture me. In my hometown, we have Connecticut’s star shopping mall, Westfarms. While I personally think Stamford Town Center is a tad more architecturally complex and pleasing, being seven-levels as well as having a Greek ampitheater-style central court, and plenty of carpeted ramps. Westfarms stays true to it’s distinct, simple, original look despite some of the disappointing changes over the years, specifically the removal of the center court fountain. Grievances aside…

Here’s some lasting tributes to Westfarms’ Christmas 2006 display which will be disassembled within a few more days. While the showcase isn’t as majestic, or Christmas-capturing as it was before over-the-top commercialism saturated the display itself (ironically, malls are bastions of them), they used to set an enormous tree right where that globe is now. Don't get me wrong; Happy Feet was a good movie but I don't think it encapsuled Christmas or the month of December.

Westfarms parking lot on Black Friday 2006.

(Former) Bradlees on Park Street; Hartford

After a grand number of years, The Caldor Rainbow has decided to investigate Connecticut’s last former Bradlees department store sight in Hartford. Located on the notorious Park Street, this former Bradlees store has been vacant for over a decade and sitting beside an otherwise thriving Save-A-Lot store, which molds to the limited offerings apart the socio-ecomoic plane of inner-city Hartford.

Save-A-Lot or Save Your Life; stay relatively car-side, doors locked!

A familiar site, the vacant store is seen easily off Interstate 84, heading East around the entry of the capitol area. My father, whose worked self-employed in Hartford’s West end [Capitol Avenue] since the early 1970’s has warned of the overall danger of Park Street along it’s inability to improve within a dilapidated urban setting. Ever since I was in my tender years, I would often be told of Park Street’s uninviting nature as well as this very plaza having historically been known as a stay-away zone.

Too many years of vacancy to notice any Bradlees label scar.

For years now, there has been a plan to revitalize the Park Street area and to revitalize this plaza which houses the long vacant former Bradlees store. Most recently, as in a few weeks ago, the store was opened from it's steel-shuttered trap to host a weekend long "Mega Liquidation Sale" similar to the many closeout/bargain-style "Sale of The Century" expositions Hartford typically hosts annually. In the end, it was a prime opportunity missed to see the inside of the store.

A familiar co-op behind the plaza, seen from the Interstate and it's beaten-down road pilon.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wolcott Street And Elsewhere; Waterbury

Over the month of December, I’ve kind of made a deal with myself: wait until at least a week or two after the new year to tackle some projects on the radar. Since it’s the single most heavy shopping season of the year, I’ve decided that my main focus, anything retail, is in focus by too many others this holiday shopping season. As a result, malls are decked; with people and decorations for Christmas, there are more obtrusives; cars, people, and importantly [mall] security counter-measures. It’s a bummer and I cannot wait until it’s over so we can resume progression on our regular projects here at The Caldor Rainbow.

Being the anxious one I am, I've violated my own tenant in deciding to deeper explore a retail strip I’ve been fascinated with for a while now; Wolcott Street in Waterbury.

While I’ve been cautioned and often preferred to stay away from the Brass Mill Centre, due it’s unsavory [crimey] area, or any of the dilapidated neighborhoods for that matter. But Wolcott Street, along CT-69, is a fascinating place to see a spotted retail evolution caused by those changing times caused by the Brass Mill Centre. Formerly home to the Naugatuck Valley Mall; a smaller enclosed mall which predates the Fall 1997-built Brass Mill Centre, essentially luring all it’s anchors (Sears and Filene's) and leaving it, like most one-level malls in a super-regional mall area, near dead. Needless to say, the mall closed it’s doors shortly after business moved a lot of Wolcott Street traffic to up the road to the new blossoming [2.5-level] mall.

Kmart plaza

Big Kmart of Waterbury

A visible Little Caesar's label scar. Little Caesars, a former companion to most Kmart stores, purged post Sears merger due to their own financial woes.

Jo-Ann Fabrics operating out of a former Kmart Foods; a now defunct grocery subsidiary of Kmart stores.

Once, they were a family. [Big] Kmart and it's grocery subsidiary sit beside each other, since widowed.

Wolcott Street has plenty of history, and it shows. Shortly after Waterbury proclaimed the Brass Mill Centre, life was indeed being slowly sucked from Wolcott Street. Over the past decade, the street has been under an evolution. When the Naugatuck Valley Mall was de-enclosed, Super Stop & Shop purchased the space and signed on a slew of anchors to take the place of the former enclosed mall with some usual big boxers; Bob’s Stores, Wal-Mart, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and the like.

A formerly brown-roofed, rainbow-striped Toys R Us store moved into a “concept 2000” store in a center beside Brass Mill Centre, easily visible from the Interstate, leaving it‘s former plaza and space in shambles. Along with the Naugatuck Valley Mall’s revitalization effort, the former Toys R Us plaza signed on a bevy of other big boxers as well as a supreme façade renovation thanks to Price Chopper Supermarket, who succeeded Toys R Us’ old space along with some other stores which survived from the fallout of Naugatuck Valley Mall.

Price Chopper plaza

A former Toys R Us road sign masked by now anchor Price Chopper advertisments.

The other plaza sign.

Remains of the Naugatuck Valley Mall

Satellite imagery of Naugatuck Valley Mall, circa 1990 (courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth).

Satellite imagery of Naugatuck Valley Shopping Center, circa Present (courtesy Google Maps).

Naugatuck Valley Shopping Center; formerly the one-level enclosed Mall displaced by Brass Mill Center now a discount, big box outdoor center.

As it stands today, there’s a lot of history to look for on the street. The Kmart plaza beside the Price Chopper one, remains reminiscent of the earlier eras; complete with a former Kmart Foods store sitting right beside it. When Jo-Ann Fabrics left their original, lesser visible and volume space on Sharon Road, in the “Mall View Plaza” behind the former Naugatuck Valley Mall, they succeeded the space left by Kmart grocery subsidiary. So far, this is one of the two lasting locations in Connecticut with the other in Cromwell, which had been anchored by an Xpect Discounts discount supermarket.

Mall View Plaza

Remains of the Mall era with Mall View Plaza.

An annexed strip of stores (to the left) added in the mall's later times, replacing once additional theater parking.

A vacant, former site of Jo-Ann Fabrics who moved to Wolcott Street, in the Kmart plaza.

The former outparceled [Mall] Holiday Cinemas.

As for the “Mall View Plaza”, a sorry little shopping center formerly eclipsed and behind the now Naugatuck Valley Shopping Center, lies vestige from the enclosed mall era not without it‘s outdated movie theater and usual vacancies.

Target, Chase Avenue

Just a few months back, Target opened it’s first Waterbury store, expanding on Chase Avenue a little ways off Wolcott Street and Lakewood Road on the former site of departed Bradlees. While we didn’t make it in time to capture the vacant store, we did see it’s last remains as well as it’s future as Target.

In lieu of Target, this plaza will be receiving a cosmetic makeover which might include renovating this old-styled Super Stop & Shop from a time when they owned former neighbor Bradlees.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

East Brook Mall; Willimantic-Mansfield, Connecticut

Of all of Connecticut’s major shopping malls, it’s easy for some of those harder-to-find smaller ones existing today to fall into a gap. East Brook Mall could be one of them, along with the rest of the slowly fading late 60‘s~70‘s boom of small indoor malls. Having never been to the virtually nestled-in-the-boons East Brook Mall in my 20-plus years, I decided to take the ride down the very same road the mall and I live off of; US Route 6 (though on the other side).

Image courtesy The Hartford Courant; April 23, 1975.

East Brook Mall opened bright and early on April 24, 1975 with anchors Caldor, Sage-Allen, A&P Supermarket and roughly 25 specialty shops and restaurants, some of which flooded the mall circuit around the time. Wasn't quite the humble, one-level shopping mall it's billed as today, with a shuffled discount-themed anchor set; Kohl's, TJ Maxx, JCPenney and a small movie theater.

Located in the undermalled regions of the more rural eastern tier of Connecticut, in northern parts of "Frog City" (and a lesser known "heroin town" reputation-earning) Willimantic, bordered with Mansfield, and Windham, somewhat disjointed along the on-and-off, broken highways and roadways of US-6 and CT-195. Apart from the nearby town patronage, the mall generates and depends on mostly it’s college-town traffic today with the Eastern Connecticut State University and University of Connecticut in neighboring Mansfield/Storrs; both within a few miles of the mall. Apart from some of Connecticut’s premiere colleges filling spaces and jobs here, neighboring towns favor East Brook Mall’s low-key, in-and-out atmosphere that fed a different fan to that of the grandiose Buckland Hills Mall; located well enough away to avoid eliminating all patronage to East Brook Mall. Let's just say the mall is located well into the outer-realms, making it enough of an out-of-the way trip for most of existing Connecticut to find it which might feed a local perk.

Given the mall’s demographic, it’s serviceability to the surrounding lifelines asks for not much more than the juggernaut Buckland Hills, which quickly absorbed Manchester’s retail market in conjunction with a squeeze in the retail market itself (closure of many of the 1990’s golden discounters; Bradlees, Caldor, Ames, etc.) leaving most of the city’s shopping parkades into degredation and/or vacancy (like Broad Street in Manchester). Sadly, the nearby Manchester has since adopted a notorious overmalled, lack of "small town charm" city motto leaving some rich, historic shopping areas (the wonderful, vintage, and richly-preserved but adapted Downtown) to become overshadowed by immense, gaudy sprawl in the outskirts of the city (laughably to which I've heard locals call it "Buckland, Connecticut"). I digress.

In 1975, Caldor. Today, its Kohl's.

Back in ‘75, the mall was an answer or alternative for those among Windham County, who were offered something different, closer-to-home alternative to West Hartford’s generally upscale Westfarms or even further for Meriden Square. Merging to the times, indoor malls were becoming the modern sprawl in the hip consumer market. About 15 years later, the juggernaut The Shoppes at Buckland Hills (commonly referred to as simply Buckland Hills Mall) opened and continues to serve the entire region.

For any brighter purpose, East Brook Mall survives solely on it’s discount shopping mall concept that it and most other indoor malls seemed to be fated with at birth in today‘s big box retail scape, still standing as a modest single-leveled, mainly indoor shopping plaza-mall hybrid it exists as today. East Brook Mall, originally a strip shaped center, had a good fifteen years to show itself beyond the local market, dodging any relevant expansion efforts, and staying easily comparable to the Norwichtown Mall in Norwich. Seeing as the original owners of the mall, a group of foreign investors, were apathetic about the mall’s future, seeing just one minute expansion effort in 1986 annexing a corridor which gives the mall it’s [stubby] “T-shape” today, any dream of grandiosity differed.

Papa Gino's still hanging in there 32 years later, since the mall's grand opening in 1975 is the eldest store remaining in Connecticut.

At one time, the fate of East Brook Mall shared that very same dose of forlorn of the since redeveloped but heavily vacant Norwichtown Mall when it’s prime lifeline retailer, Caldor, in lieu of it’s closure, drove out many smaller businesses due to lack of anchor traffic. In 1999, both malls were struck by the closure of premiere discounter which anchored this mall along with the Norwichtown Mall; at best keeping both lively and parking spaces filled. Like Norwichtown Mall, East Brook Mall faced a harbinger of doom before Ames quickly purchased the former Caldor space, hardly wasting anytime to keep that same consumer base active at the mall. Around the time of Ames’ arrival, the mall went through a metamorphosis, quickly rebounding from a dying breed into a well-commissioned revitalization effort.

The pivotal renovation, which ensued shortly after the demise of Caldor, had given the mall a richly Aspen “woodland” appeal with spiffy Rocky Mountain creek-style stonework, glass-instilled tower atrium entrances, cosmetic enhancements, and a newly-built accent wooden canopy scaffold stretching along the sidewalk out front to promote a more airy, outdoor feel the mall theme is coupled with. The courtesy doesn’t quite extend to the interior and most of the backsides of the mall; which is many ways fight for a need for more space inside the cramped setting. The interior remodel is at best adequate, no-frills, getting the job done of masking the mall from earlier eras, living in a generic, white-painted modern setting while the backside exterior of the center reveals a minimalist paint job over grid-façade walls, and a genuine walled-off former mall entrance, shrouded in landscaping.

Anchored today by TJ Maxx; operating in a former A&P, detached from the interior portion of the mall, JCPenney, formerly the Sage-Allen; the right-sided anchor store, and now Kohl’s; who adopted the Ames’ space when the store went the way of Caldor in 2003.

Kohl’s poured the effort into the mall refacing and painting the somewhat dilapidated property, as well as (upon observation) cutting off a good 25% of the former space, adding a left-end driveway to the to the newly-instilled rear entrance directly into the store apart from it’s primary mall-only entrance.
Unfortunately, this effort wiped out a falling apart, graffiti-laden former receiving area and ultimately a near thirty-year, blocky orange Caldor label scar, which was later overlapped by the 1990's "accent" style left on their long-tenanted building in switch of a long-needed rear entrance for Kohl's. Thanks to Chris Fontaine of the Ames Fan Club and his wonderful photo set of Ames before Kohl's overhauled the building, you can get a taste of what the former retailers looked like here.

Kohl's rear entrance; once scarred with a blocky, formerly orange Caldor label scar.

Along the interior, the mall follows a common strip-mall, mirrored with shops, clothiers, restaurants all oriented for the demographics of the area. It wouldn’t be a modern mall without various kiosks along the way relative to those seen in malls thrice it’s size. A few things charm the mall, making it distinct from other malls but ever parallel to Norwichtown Mall; namely a long-lost Westies Shoes, Cutting Crew; which are still active from the 80’s era in these smaller malls and plazas, as well as a [never-before sighted by myself] interior Papa Ginos; a slowly dwindling (underrated) Mass.-based pizza chain in Connecticut. Apart from the inside, an Applebee’s sits outside the mall, along with a fellow outparcel Sovereign Bank.

A former mall entrance from an earlier era, hidden in the back of the mall.

There are also some more common ones; EB Games, mostly for the college kids, which opened a former K-B Toys (a chain which boomed in the 1980’s, since 2000 slowly disappearing), Fashion Bug; a mainly discount strip-mall clothier, Payless Shoe Source and Famous Footwear; which have slightly larger parcels over at the Buckland Hills. Most of East Brook Mall’s shops are found in strides today in strip malls due to a changing market for malls and a preference for those malls, again like Buckland Hills, to favor upper-echelon boutiques.

Luckily for East Brook Mall, it’s once uncertain fate turned in contrast to the struggling, nearby lasting smaller enclosed Norwichtown Mall which faces a more difficult uphill battle with the odds stacked against it and an alarming vacancy rate. East Brook also faces similar challenges, Norwichtown being all too close to adjacent two-leveled absorbing Crystal Mall, and a mega-sized Buckland Hills nearby East Brook, not quite close enough to declare it too threatening (again, thanks to a undermalled surroundings and nearby colleges).

I must applaud the efforts put fourth at East Brook Mall. Smaller indoor centers that haven't faced dramatic, ho-hum, and largely corporate-looking revitalization efforts like big box/power center converts can also be billed as a vestigial, indoor strip mall at best today. It's odds are still heavy in today's outdoor, open-air centric retail landscape, and we applaud the mall's management for keeping the mall within its roots especially being that its still one-level (and never quite built to suit two, town pending), eclipsed stature due to it's lack of volume and notoriety and still surviving. While the mall is generally successful, and impressively filled for a Monday morning (nonetheless weeks before Christmas), is a little flat and could surely use some further amenities. I was thinking maybe a Dunkin' Donuts cafe-style idea, who knows.

The original "sunset-wave" East Brook Mall logo from 1975 (image courtesy Hartford Courant).

Unfortunately, the crowded atmosphere of the place makes shopping a little unsettling as it also made me cool it with indoor photography with patrolling mall security (being one of their proclaimed rules condemning cameras for fear of expulsion from premises!). The mall has a unique, admirable exterior flair who banks on being a cozy mall in an age of super-sized shopping malls. It's not quite a gem, but an interesting, outliar relic mall of Connecticut.

Our pictures were taken on a crisp and very brisk December morning, so please enjoy the outdoor shots you see here. We would like to additionally thank Dayville81 and the insight of a few others of the Ames Fan Club forums for additional background and history information (with pictures).

UPDATE: NOVEMBER 28, 2007. Corrections on mall opening, details and newspaper advertisements added.