James Paresi's Commentary

Posted January 28, 2006 (user submitted)

Lafayette Plaza, and later known as Hi-Ho Center was the centerpiece of a major urban renewal effort in downtown Bridgeport Connecticut, a (now very depressed) former industrial city located along Long Island Sound, in the mostly affluent area of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Part of the State Street redevelopment project, the mall was planned in the early 1960's as a conventional suburban style mall project, built at the edge of the existing downtown shopping and office district near the interchange of I-95 and Route 25. The only difference in its suburban-like dumbell plan shape. is that its parking was contained in a long linear garage on one side. The plans from that period basically remade the street grid in this section of Bridgeport and created a superblock to fit the mall onto. By comparison, the Chapel Square Mall in nearby New Haven, designed and built by the same team as Lafayette Plaza, fit the mall there onto a much smaller block, with rather large office and hotel towers placed on top of the mall and two below grade parking levels as well.

Lafayette Plaza opened in 1968 with Sears at its southern end, closest to I-95, and a small, narrow four story office builidng at its northern end. In 1970, a large enclosed and merchandised brige was built from the mall/office building end to attach to a freestanding Gimbel's store across the street. The mall was about 700k sf, not small for its time, and did well for a few years until the economy of the city started declining in the late 70's. Basically, from a design and merchandising standpoint, Lafayette Plaza never really achieved the noteriety of Chapel Square in New Haven. First of all, it had immediate commpetition in the nearby suburban Trumbull Shopping Park, now known as Westfield Shoppingtown Trumbull, that had a Read's department store (the main store was still in downtown Bridgeport until the mid 80's) and a Korvette's discount store that was later remade into a branch of the much more upscale G.Fox & Co from Hartford in 1979.

The mall had a good collection of middle class stores you found in malls of that time, like Chess King, Marriane, Spencers Gifts....not all that different than most nearby other malls, but with Gimbel's and Sears being very middle class stores, upscale merchants were few if any. It did have good convenience stores that catered to the downtown business crowd better than a typical suburban mall would have, such as newsstands, photo shops, hair salons, and I think there was a McCrory too.

The mall's design was actually a drawback. It really wasnt well integrated into downtown, and actually sat about two blocks too far the west of Main Street to actually do any good for the exisitng shopping area. Its entrances were small and somewhat hidden, with people preferring to enter from inside the parking garage and through the department stores. The Garage was a long and narrow five level split ramp that had none of the character of the Temple Street Garage in New Haven, just a concrete block grille that cut the sunlight coming in, and actually made the garage dark and little unpleasant to be in. The decline of Bridgeport economically contributed to a rash of muggings, thefts, and burgularies in the garage, particulary in its later years, that spilled over into the perception of the mall as a ghetto mall.

The inside was a long two level interior with typical metal rails and oddly placed stairs and escalators. It also sported a raised ceiling with some linear skylights. Although it was lighter inside than Chapel Square, being a narrower mall made it feel less open. The mall corridor shifted at the center court from one end to the other, and although there was evidence of a fountain, from the three times I remember being there, I dont remember it ever being more than a planter and some benches around it. It had the feel of a cheaper mall with a lot more drywall sides from the wall above the merchants up to the ceiling, in-laid ceiling tiles, a cracked terrazo floor and a lot of bad paper signs. Again, it never had pretentions to be more than a middle class mall, and it showed in how it was built.

The mall declined at first, slowly, right along with Bridgeport itself. Since it had the only Sears for miles around, it actually got a fair amount of traffic from that anchor. The Gimbel's was a different story. Gimbels, although always thought of historically as Macy's big rival, the truth was it was never really as upscale, since it did not carry a lot of the more high quality name brands that Macy's did, so although it was a nice store, that seemed clean and well stocked, it just wasnt the draw that I think the developers really were looking for. The Gimbel's chain went out of business in 1986, and in 1987 the nearby Read's, which was Bridgeport's hometown department store, was persuaded to give up its old flagship building and move into the Gimbel's space. This actually added some better quality to the mall in terms of draw, but the better merchandise that Read's carried was really out at the Trumbull Shopping Park branch. The end comes quickly for urban malls in dicey towns with image problems.....first, Trumbull Shopping Park expanded to include a large JCPenney and about another 40 stores in 1988, and then the economy of the northeast, and in particular, Connecticut, crashed in the early 90's.

As a gesture to their hometown, the high profile Daddario family, who was headed by a well-regarded local businessman that primarily ran a heating oil company and I think a real estate firm as well, bought Lafayette Plaza, around 1988 and remaimed it Hi-Ho Center, a brand naming idea borrowed from their own 'Hi-Ho Daddario' tag-line from their family business. From what I remember, they did clean up the mall somewhat, repairing long-leglected improvements, some new paint and tiles and better security. Someone told me that they even restored the fountain for a while. Although I remember being inside there then, I don't recall seeing it operating. I think that about a year or two after that, the main family member died, either in some accident or mishap. I do recall reading about it in the news. With no one spearheading the revitalization of the mall, its end was almost certain. First, Read's parent corporate frim, Allied Department Stores, was taken over in a hostile bid by Robert Campeau from Canada and then merged with Federated Department Stores. As a result of all the junk bond debt, the entire chain went bankrupt almost immediately. (For merger junkies....if you want to know why almost every department store is now either Macy's or Dillard's, start with studying this merger...the trail starts here!) Read's was merged into Boston's Jordan Marsh division, which they renamed its Hi-Ho Center store in 1989. With declining sales, the bankruptcy and the economy in shambles, and Bridgeport now almost in a depression, Federated-Allied closed the Jordan Marsh store in 1991. At this point, the Hi-Ho Center stores were not renewing leases, or converting to urban format stores catering to the local population. The bottom fell out in 1993, when Sears closed its store, basically sealing the mall's demise. About a year after this, the mall was permanemtly closed, and altough there were several ideas for converting it to other uses, the city quietly tore most of the mall itself down in 1997-98. The old Gimbel's/ Read's building has been converted into a courthouse and office facility, and the parking garage remains, although it has a newer metal panel facade. The small office builing remains as well, although I don't know if it has any tenants left. Sadly, the Sears building, its big, white brick box, still sits vacant, almost twelve years later. A big eyesore right up against the highway in downtown. Sometime soon, they'll need to tear it down as well, since I am sure it is now a ruin.

Sad as all this is, what is more concerning is that the entire city of Bridgeport seems to have taken body blows over all its problems....from being esentially abandoned by its businesses and middle class, it is an island of mostly very poor and impoverished people who are struggling to get by, in the middle of what is referred to as Connecticut's 'Gold Coast', home to some of the most affluent places in America. If someone needed to study the multiple ways a city can die, the city of Bridgeport is a real test case, and the story of Lafayette Plaza/Hi-Ho Center is a good part of that story.

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