Miguel Santos' Commentary

Posted July 9, 2007 (user submitted)

The Bon Marche Mall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was the oldest of the four malls which have historically existed in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area. Opened in 1960 as an open-air center, the mall was located on the city’s burgeoning retail strip of the era ­ Florida Boulevard. This portion of Florida from Foster Drive to Airline Highway, today considered part of “Mid-City” Baton Rouge, was at the time a part of the growing urban fringe. The original anchors were Montgomery Ward, DH Holmes, Maison Blanche, and JC Penney. Other major original tenants included Woolworth and Piccadilly Cafeteria. Baton Rouge Little Theatre (a small community live theatre) also occupied a part of the site on the west side next to the mall, and is still there today.

Bon Marche thrived as Baton Rouge’s only shopping mall until plans were announced for the Cortana Mall (now Mall at Cortana) about one mile further east on Florida (at the interchange with Airline) in 1972. To stay competitive, in 1974 the mall was enclosed and expanded to its ultimate size of 892,880 sq. ft. on a 65-acre site. A subdivision called Mall City, comprised entirely of multi-family dwellings, was developed to the north of (“behind”) the mall around this time; the units were marketed to young professionals in an era when apartment construction was booming due to demographic factors (baby boomers in their 20s).

The Cortana Mall’s opening in August 1976 had an immediate effect on Bon Marche. The JC Penney closed on July 31, 1976, moving down the road to anchor the new mall where it remains today. The vacant JC Penney space was later converted into a movie theater.

The mall’s slide began around this time. If Cortana Mall had not been in such close proximity, perhaps both malls could have coexisted, but Baton Rouge was a small city at the time and a more distant location for a new mall may have been untenable from a market perspective. Urban expansion in the Baton Rouge area was shifting even then (and continues to do so) into the eastern and southern reaches of East Baton Rouge Parish, spilling over into Ascension and Livingston Parishes; because of these population shifts, Bon Marche’s location became increasingly undesirable from a market standpoint, evolving from once-suburban to now inner-city shopping mall (something which the Mall at Cortana, ironically, is now having to deal with to a degree).

Thus over the next two decades Bon Marche gradually lost the majority of its business to the Cortana Mall; big box shopping centers further out in the suburbs; and another competitor, the Mall of Louisiana, which opened in 1997 on Baton Rouge’s booming southeast side. There was a $3 million renovation in 1991 but it apparently didn’t help things much.

As the mall evolved into an urban shopping center, of course crime became an issue. The Mall City neighborhood, now known as Melrose East, became home (and is still home) to many of the minority poor and working class, and their nearby presence served to scare more affluent shoppers away. In the last years, the mall’s stores apparently began to reflect these demographics, with discount stores taking the place of traditional mall shops.

The major tenants left over a period of years. As mentioned before, the Bon Marche JC Penney closed in 1976 in favor of a new store at Cortana Mall. The Maison Blanche, at three stories the largest of the anchors (as opposed to the mall’s single story), closed sometime in the 1980s. The lower floors of the vacant store were then subdivided into Solo Serve (a discount store), a furniture outlet, and local government offices on a portion of the second floor, while the third floor remained entirely vacant. The DH Holmes was replaced by Dillards in 1989 with that chain’s buyout of Holmes; the second floor of the Dillards store was closed in 1990 and the store became a clearance outlet, finally shuttering for good on February 25, 1999. Woolworth closed in 1995. Piccadilly’s had already moved to a freestanding location further down Florida before then. The UA Theatre (Bon Marche 15) also closed in 1999. Wards, the last major tenant to close, lasted until 2000 when the entire chain folded.

By 1998 occupancy was at 30%, shoplifting was a major concern, the owners had been looking to sell the mall for four years without success, and the mall was generally reckoned as a community eyesore.

Though Bon Marche as a shopping mall is no more, the mall’s fate after death was of a very positive nature. In 1998, Sentinel Real Estate Corp., the mall’s owner since 1985, sold the mall property to a local consortium. The new owners converted the mall, now rechristened Bon Carré Business Center, into a technology center and start-up business incubator. Through fits and starts, the mall was slowly converted through a period of years, with call centers, offices, and technology-related businesses taking the place of stores. The building itself was renovated extensively, with a very attractive exterior stucco treatment and landscaping helping to transform the mall from an eyesore to a community asset. However, the basic mall structure and footprint remains, which is especially evident when looking at an aerial photo. One commercial business, a Regions Bank, remains as an outparcel. The old Wards department store is now the regional headquarters for Cox Communications.

The old Florida retail strip has been making a small comeback in recent years: besides Bon Carré, Kornmeyer’s Furniture (locally owned and operated), just across Lobdell from the former mall, recently completed an expansion to its store there; auto dealerships abound with no intention of leaving anytime soon; a long-abandoned freestanding Sears at Florida and Ardenwood is being renovated as the new headquarters for the parish parks and recreation commission; and retail occupancy is hovering around 75% but with Katrina-induced growth should hold steady.

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