As mentioned in my last post, I’m going to write about Burlington’s two enclosed malls in a row to sort of illustrate the entire retail “scene” in this picturesque northern city. Yesterday, I blogged about University Mall, Vermont’s largest mall and a relatively standard suburban-style center. Today I’ll be talking about both the Burlington Town Center, which is located right in the middle of downtown, and the Church Street Mall, which is a large outdoor pedestrian mall that forms the center of downtown Burlington.
Burlington Town Center is a long, skinny, two level enclosed mall constructed during the mall-building boom of the ’70s and early ’80s, though I don’t know the exact year. While Burlington is a small city, it’s very cosmopolitan for its size, with a large and young population living right downtown, in part because of the proximity of the University of Vermont. It’s also the biggest city and center of commerce for Vermont, which is a state that never stopped loving its downtowns. As such, it’s really always made sense for one of Burlington’s malls to be located right downtown, and Burlington Town Center has a lot of synergy with the neighborhood. It hinges off of the pedestrian mall, forming a kind of “T” and stretching from Church Street for several blocks towards the shorefront of Lake Champlain.
Unfortunately, like many malls of its size and vintage, it fell on hard times a few years ago, and when I last visited in March of 2000 it was nearly empty. Even then, though, there were some signs of life: a brand new Filene’s had just opened at the end of the mall furthest from the street.
Fast forward six years, and a lot has changed. The center has gotten an extensive facelift inside and out, and the mall’s other anchor (which was an old Woolworths–and later Foot Locker–located on the Church Street Mall and which the mall was originally built off of) has been filled by Old Navy. Except for the long-struggling food court, the mall is now mostly filled with upmarket national tenants. Interestingly, this Filene’s store was still bannered as such on Memorial Day, 2006, when these pictures were taken. I got these just in time because it will be converted to Macy’s soon, if it hasn’t already. As these pictures show, the Church Street mall and the Burlington Town Center mall fit together harmoniously in the downtown retail district, with each both the mall and the downtown hosting different stores and fitting together to form what is by far the largest and best shopping district in all of Vermont.
The problem? It does seem that downtown Burlington has experienced a major burst of prosperity in the past six years, not that it was ever lacking. But something seems a bit wrong this time, and I think it’s the fact that downtown is doing so well that it’s become overrun by national chain stores. This was not the case previously: Burlington Town Center held most of the chains while Church Street was home to hundreds of funky local retailers. It’s true that Chruch Street does still have lots of local character, and is an amazingly pleasant (and distinctly Vermont) place to hang out, but I worry that some of the businesses that lent it character may have been pushed out.
We champion planned (suburban, usually) shopping center developments on this blog, but the truth is that we’re plenty conflicted about what these centers truly mean for our communities. My stance has always been that, with enclosed shopping malls, we’re documenting and discussing a phenomenon that simply exists, and is itself in decline and need of the kind of saving (or at the very least, documentation) that was owed the downtowns initially harmed by malls. The truth is that there’s far more to celebrate about more unique places, but I have always felt that malls themselves provided far more of a place for being than the big box behemoths that are replacing them. Basicaly, I can see reasons why we’d want to try and save our downtowns and our malls.
Pictures of the Burlington Town Center Mall:
Pictures of the Church Street Mall: