Alton, Illinois is a small Mississippi River city located 15 miles north of St. Louis. With a population of about 34,000, Alton anchors the northern extent of the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, which is the 18th largest metropolitan area in the country with almost 3 million residents.
Alton’s history reads pretty much the same as all the other older Mississippi River towns, with a large, visible presence of core manufacturing industries which once made Alton a hub city and, for a time, even larger than St. Louis. Much of the city, situated on steep bluffs overlooking the river, reads more like a Mark Twain novel than anything from modern-day America. As the manufacturing industry has slowly left the Mississippi valley, the city has sort of become frozen in time. In addition, during the mid-20th century, Alton was bypassed by the interstate highway system and lacked a freeway-grade connection to the rest of the St. Louis area until very recently, further hampering the modern economic growth other St. Louis suburbs like St. Charles and Chesterfield in Missouri have enjoyed. Despite this, however, Alton’s economy has remained somewhat viable due to Casino gambling, antiquing, and Mississippi River tourism, and is nothing like the economic despair seen in East St. Louis and other parts of inner Metro East.
As an anchor city for the northern-most tier of St. Louis suburbs, Alton has always been a draw for retailers and a significant suburban retail strip has developed along Illinois Route 3, the circumfrential highway which bypasses Alton on its outskirts, and US 67 north. In 1978, a two-level regional mall was constructed near the intersection of IL 3 and US 67 on the northern edge of the city. Alton Square Mall, which turns 30 years old in 2008, is a 630,000 square-foot regional center anchored by Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney, and 60 other shops and restaurants. With an approximate 75 percent occupancy rate, Alton Square has had some trouble in recent years attracting coveted, popular national retailers for several reasons.
First, as mentioned above, Alton’s economy isn’t as sound as other areas in the metro and its location is inconvenient for those who are a considerable distance from the mall. Thus, Alton Square never developed as a super-regional center like St. Clair Square, with its central location in Metro East and easy access from I-64. Access to Alton from the rest of the metro area is improving, though. Despite being on the Illinois side, Alton is actually farther from many of the other Illinois-side suburbs than they are to St. Louis, and only recently did ILDOT connect Alton with the St. Louis expressway system by extending IL 255 north of I-270. In addition, MoDOT is expanding MO 367 north of I-270 toward Alton to freeway grade, giving Alton a better connection to St. Louis and the Missouri-side suburbs. Still, Alton will probably never become destinational for St. Louis nor Metro East residents due to being up in the corner, and will probably remain regional in nature rather than super-regional.
This kind of brings us to our next point. Competition from other St. Louis area malls and nearby retail strips, specifically in north St. Louis County, has also had an impact here at Alton Square. The nearby Jamestown Mall, although a shell of its former self and not doing well at all today, and the retail strip along US 67 in north St. Louis County are signifcant enough to draw shoppers away from Alton. In addition, large super-regional malls like West County Center and Saint Louis Galleria are only 30-45 minutes from Alton.
Third, Alton Square is extremely dated. If you looked at the pictures, you’ll see immediately that the decor, signage, and all visual aspects of the mall are from the late 1970s era. Dark, cavernous spaces with dark, muted colors and use of dull materials like wood and tile. Shoppers today demand the opposite of this: bright, open spaces, whitewashed shiny appearance, and sterile, sterile, sterile. Add some clusters of bland carpeting and comfy chairs with some cherry furniture and you’re golden. And that’s kind of what Alton Square is up to, which brings us to our third point.
Alton Square, until 2007, was owned and operated by Simon, a behemoth company which owns many malls. Due to this, several have inevitably fallen through the cracks before they were ultimately divested by Simon, and by then it’s usually too late. See our entry on Machesney Park Mall for a great example of this. And we’re not just picking on Simon here. It seems like most of the behemoth companies with very large portfolios take care of the best ones, and aren’t as proactive about upkeep at these mid-tier regionals. So in 2007, Simon finally gave up on Alton Square and sold it to a small group of investers, which couldn’t be a better thing for the mall. Almost immediately, the new owners began embarking on aggressive plans to update the mall so that it’s palatable for the retailers people want. If keeping a facility viable is a chicken-and-egg situation, the question is not which comes first in order to resolve viability (ie. modernize the mall, then retailers come vs. get a few retailers to come, then modernize) but who will get the egg rolling. These new owners, being local, have a vested interest in keeping the mall from dying and becoming a blighted eyesore and being forced to replace it anyway, so they’re doing what they can to keep it viable in its current state. In early 2008, the new owners took these plans with them to the ICSC convention in Las Vegas, and in May 2008 they began the renovations in earnest. We wish them all the best in preserving the mall while increasing its potential to serve the community and surrounding area, rather than tearing it down and starting all over again.
The photos here were taken in January 2002. However, until the renovations which are occurring presently (Summer 2008) most of the mall has remained unchanged with a few exceptions. In September 2006 Famous-Barr became Macy’s, and we all know that story, and in June 2008 the original, old-school B. Dalton is finally shutting their doors. Let us know what you think about Alton Square, or how the renovations are going.