Robert Sandreth's Commentary

Posted February 26, 2008 (user submitted)

Peabody Place is mixed-use urban redevelopment center spanning eight city blocks in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Opened in 2001, it is considered to be the focal point of the downtown Memphis renaissance, linking the Union Avenue hotel cluster (as well as Autozone Park, the cityís sparkling downtown minor league ballpark which opened in 2000) with Beale Street entertainment district.

It includes the historic, luxurious Peabody Hotel, as well three office buildings, an apartment building, a Hampton Inn hotel, and two parking garages (with street-level retail outlets). The centerpiece is the Peabody Place Retail and Entertainment Center, a multilevel indoor shopping mall designed to resemble a town square. It is designed as a giant atrium with what is said to be the largest skylight in Tennessee, through which the lighting gives the center distinctly different appearance during day or night.

Peabody Placeís developer, Belz Enterprises, marketed the Retail Center as a shopping/entertainment destination with stores, theme restaurants, and entertainment attractions similar to what youíd find at Mills shopping center, which were at their peak of popularity when Peabody Place opened. The idea was to provide shopping, dining, and entertainment options for out-of-town tourist staying in downtown hotels, locals coming downtown for sporting events, and area residents looking for family entertainment.

The original plans included a NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway (which was scrapped in favor of a scaled-down racing simulator which didnít last long). National retail anchors were promised, but none ever came. Peabody Place ended up being anchored by a 22-seat Muvico movie theater, a three-level Jillianís restaurant/arcade/bowling center, and a giant Tower Records store (which seemed to make sense, given Memphisí music heritage and music-related tourism draw). Fashion apparel stores such as GAP and Ann Taylor Loft also signed on.

When the mall opened, about 2/3ís of it was occupied. The first level featured the fashion stores, Tower Records, a Starbucks, and a local television studio. The second level had the Muvico, specialty shops, and a nightclub/restaurant bearing the name of Memphis R&B legend Isaac Hayes, as a cooking store bearing Isaac Hayes-branded products.

Memphis area residents never really embraced the mall, as it offered little that couldnít be found at regional malls and retail centers closer to where they lived. There a were a few crime incidents that generated publicity, and a well-publicized dress code that was meant to discourage gang-types from congregating there seemed to do more to highlight the problems of the mall than to reassure would-be customers.

Tower Records was the first anchor store to go, due largely to the chainís bankruptcy. The prime store location (including both mall and street entrances) has not been filled. The Isaac Hayes club/restaurant closed once, reopened with an altered concept, and failed again. The Ann Taylor store departed, and Muvico downsized in 2006 to 14 screens and was forced to lower ticket prices.

At the beginning of 2008, it was announced that most of the remaining second-floor shops would be closing, as well as the Muvico theaters. Reportedly, Belz wants to replace most the second level with a new hotel.

The irony of the Peabody Place development is that most of the retailing outlets with exterior streetside frontage are doing well. The Texas de Brazil steakhouse situated between the Peabody Hotel and the shopping center is among the most popular downtown restaurants. The same can be said for the Hooters restaurant/bar, situated on the ground-level of one of the parking garages. Jillianís (which opens to both the street and the mall) seems to doing well, even while the national chain is struggling.

While no changes have been announced for the ground level of the mall, one can only wonder how long it will soldier on in the current configuration. Making an urban retail work is always a challenge, as it is difficult to cater to tourists, local suburban residents, and downtown residents with one concept. Given the prime location of Peabody Place, I doubt it will languish for long.

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