Jarrod Long's Commentary:

April 23, 2004 (user submitted)

University Mall in Little Rock is one of the oldest enclosed malls in central Arkansas. There is a interesting history to this mall. My first recollection of the mall is in the early 1980's. It was a one level mall anchored by J.C. Penny (2-levels), Montgomery Ward's, and a local department store called M.M. Cohn (2-levels). During this time the mall had approximately 40 stores.

The mall did have a rival just across the street called Park Plaza Mall. Park Plaza was a 2 level outdoor mall anchored by a Dillard's (2-level) on one end of the mall. The other end of the mall had a waterfall wall that flowed into a pool on the first floor. Being that the mall was a outdoor mall, I never remember seeing that many people there at one time. It was interesting to remember Park Plaza the way it was due to I have never been to a mall since that was like this one. All the stores exited onto a walkway and from the 2nd level and you could walk up to the rail and look down just like in many of today's malls only this one had no roof.

University Mall was always filled with stores during the early 1980's. As the late 1980's came, a challenge from Park Plaza caused a major construction effort of University Mall. In 1988, Park Plaza shut down completely with the exception of their Dillard's store. The mall area was reconstructed to be a 3-level interior mall with a glass roof. With this transformation happening, University Mall chose to add a level to their mall with a food court. I still remember the construction of the new level. All of the stores on the first level remained open for most if not all of the construction of the new level. The walkways to get to the stores were narrow with boarded up walls that prevented you from seeing the construction.

Well Park Plaza re-opened with alarming crowds swarming the mall. It was a first of it's kind in our area and everyone loved it. All of the more upper class stores moved into it along with a 2nd Dillard's store at one end. University Mall completed their work and also competed with the crowds of Park Plaza. University Mall thrived with good business for several years.

As time went on, Park Plaza still kept the crowds. University Mall started to suffer with the crowds leaving for Park Plaza. Also the clientele of the mall turned into a much lower class causing crime to escalate inside the mall area. Stores would come and go and many secondary stores would replace the lost stores. In early 2000's the mall suffered a loss with the closings of Montgomery Ward's.

I visited both mall in April of 2004. Park Plaza still booming with business and University Mall suffering a depression. The food court had a Sbarro's and a Chinese's place. All of the other 8 spaces were boarded up. The mall was about 40 percent filled with stores and of the stores remaining, most were secondary local stores. The M.M. Cohn store had most of their merchandise on the first level. It seems as if they are going to close the 2nd level soon. The J.C. Penny store seems to still be surviving due to it being the only J.C. Penny in the metro area of Little Rock.

Plans are underway for a much larger mall several miles away from this location. If and when the new mall is built, then University Mall will probably fade in the dust.

Matthew Thompson's Commentary:

April 23, 2004 (user submitted)

University Mall was built as a fully enclosed mall probably in the late 60's or early 70's. It was just what you would expect, a straight line, concrete, dark, ugly, and relatively successful. The main anchor then was JC Penny's. At some point, possibly when built, the mall acquired an M M Cohns and Wards.

Located literally across the street was an open shopping center called Park Plaza. I remember this center growing up because there were small water falls and lots of goldfish. The main store was Dillards.

In the mid 80's University Mall underwent a massive remolding. This was really more of a complete rebuild. The original mall was one story with a lower level section for mall offices. Somehow they were able to do the rebuild while remaining open most of the time. I remember shopping there and the entire common areas were replaced with narrow plywood enclosures along the store fronts. The reopening was very successful. The advanced feature was the roof of the new food court/common area. The roof was a two point canvas-like material (like what was used for Denvers' airport). Very advanced for Little Rock at the time.

Within a very short amount of time, Park Plaza was performing a demo of the shopping center and started building the mall that exists today. I believe the new mall opened around 1986 or 87. You will find this interesting. Dillards (based in Little Rock) who was one of the backers of the new mall and also I believe owned the property their store sat on remained the only anchor of the new mall. On each end of the mall is a full size Dillards. This location is about 4 miles from the Dillards corp. office. One side houses Womens and Housewares including Furniture. The other side houses Mens and Childrens. It sounds strange, but it really is a remarkable idea. Almost everyone needing to visit Dillards is forced to walk the length of the mall.

The new mall is two stories of shopping with a bottom level (total of 3 stories in the center) that houses a food court and space for a 7 screen theatre. The entire roof of the common area is glass with aluminum framework. While there is nothing architecturally special about the mall, the glass really made all the difference. The theatre closed a couple of years ago as part of the financial trouble United Artists is in. They literally closed on a Sunday and never reopened. UA has had to walk away from many marginal to non-profitable locations.

Both malls co-existed together (with no store overlap including the food court) for a while. It was always apparent that Park Plaza was the superior building and could attract new tenants when necessary. In the early 90's University began going downhill fast. As tenants began moving out, new tenants were not moving in. The major chains began leaving the food court (McDonalds, Taco Bell, Chik Fil a) and are either empty or were replaced with mom and pop type food venues. While Penny's and Cohns remains, very few major chains are still in the mall. Wards closed when the chain shut down. Many of the stores remaining could not even be called B level. Several branches of the armed forces have opened recruitment storefronts.

The big change coming is the new Summit Mall being planned further west (about 6 to 8 miles) of both malls. This is to be a very large regional mall and is being built by the group who owns Park Plaza. I should mention that I really like Park Plaza mall and am looking forward to the new Summit Mall. As you can imagine, there are several groups fighting the new mall including the residents of the area around the existing malls. If you start looking into this you are going to hear a lot of propaganda surrounding what is going to happen to the current mall area if the new mall opens. As you have probably guessed, the new mall isn't going to kill University because it's already dead. It just doesn't know it yet. Simon has stated that they will not let the new mall harm the University location. I don't think anyone believes it could remain totally a mall, but it might make a great office/shopping complex. Park Plaza may be a different story. I have no idea what will become of PP. The first casualty was the Disney store which pulled out instead of signing a new long-term lease. Disney wants to be in the new mall and would not be able to have a store in both. Instead of being stuck in PP they decided to pull out entirely. This was always a busy location. Dillards has already said they would build in the new location, but I find it hard to believe they would pull out of PP.

I hope you find some of this interesting. I know there are a lot of gaps and holes in my info, but this could be a good case study of how a mall dies and what happens to it afterwards.

Mike Thompson
Little Rock, AR

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