James P's Commentary

Posted March 29, 2006 (user submitted)

Bristol Centre Mall was a small two anchor mall that was part of a downtown urban renewal project from the mid 1960's. This one level mall was about 450,000 sf and was opened in 1969-1970, and it contained two original anchor stores. One was a two level store called 'The Grand', a failed discount similar to Ames or Caldor (both also now gone!) and the other was a branch of Raphael's, a small family department store located in nearby New Britain, CT. In addition, there was a small outparcel supermarket of 20,000 sf for (I believe) Food Fair and later someone else I don't recall.

The mall was located on the southern end of North Main Street and was set back into a steep hillside that defined the eastern border of the property. The parking was all one sided and faced North Main, and the overall site must have taken up what were, at one time, about five city blocks. The sad item about this mall, including its rather boring nondescrept archtitectural style, was the fact that it pretty much obliterated the original downtown streescape and from what I've seen in historic photographs, some pretty significant buildings that today would be prime candidates for rehab and renovation. The mall was never a huge success and I suspect that one of the things that made Bristol Centre Mall struggle for customers was the fact that downtown is not connected to any freeway. CT state Route 72 was supposed to be built from a long spur exit from Interstate 84 at the eastern end of the city into a 'new Route 72' connector to the downtown area. A small brook, some serious wetland issues and some highly vocal environmental groups has made building this roadway a minor impossibility. Without that connection, this mall would never have the ability to draw regionally. I think more than anything, this is what doomed Bristol Centre Mall from the beginning.

Although Bristol is a mostly blue collar town (although it is the orignal birthplace and home of ESPN!) it is nearby to Hartford and its western suburbs and has a strong middle class that commutes nearby and has always had a siginifcant employment base. Depsite losing its anchor stores early on, with Raphael's closing in either 1973 or '74 and the Grand even earlier than that, the in-line stores were actually well tenanted. A flea market opened in the mid 70's in "The Grand' anchor space on its first level, and I remember going there with my parents several times on weekends. At that time, the mall itself was closed (Sunday 'blue laws' were still in effect then, but they didn't cover 'flea markets'...go figure) and we could walk into the closed mall then. From what I rememeber, the interior was not much to write home about....some terrazzo floors, a few skylights running from one (dead) anchor to the other, and drywall soffits with drop-in celing tiles between the skylights. Lighting also wasnt bad and the most of tenant space was filled with stores like McCrory (or Newberry?), some women's clothing stores, record shop, book stores, furniture and local, a men's store, jean stores, decent quality local jewelery stores and at least five shoe stores. Again, it was the mid 70's, so my take on what was quality then might be suspect now! Lining up replacement anchors proved to be tough and I think the mall struggled significantly with the opening in 1974 of the behemoth Westfarms Mall in nearby Farmington/West Hartford with full line branches of G.Fox & Co, and Sage-Allen from Hartford and a huge J.C. Penney store and about 130 shops.

The mall plodded along until the early 80's, and as the Connecticut economy started coming back from the 79-81 recession, a new management or ownership group came in a breathed some life into the center. Among some of their succeses, they got a branch of the Sage-Allen department store from Hartford to open in the old Raphael's space and the first level of 'The Grand'/flea market building became a Sears outlet store. For a time it seemed that Bristol Centre Mall was making a comeback, with an emphasis on local chains and appeal. I remember going in there with an early client of mine who lived in Bristol and was very proud of the changes that were taking place there.

Unfortunately, the economy in the Northeast was hit by a very serious downturn in the early 90's, with Connecticut almost going into a depression. First, the Sage-Allen chain was struggling to survive, and as a result one of the first stores it closed was the Bristol Centre Mall store, which from what I understand did OK business, but wasn't great...I think this was around 1991 or 1992. (Sage-Allen closed their downtown Hartford store in the summer of 1990, and as a result of looking for a way to save the company, Sage-Allen was merged with another struggling chain, the Dey Bros. Co of Syracuse, N.Y, after that group was 'spun off' following the Allied/Campeau hostile takeover. The strategy ultimately did not work, and the resulting Sage-Dey Co finally went out of business in 1994.) With the local economy in shambles and with Sears struggling with its various businesses, it closed the Sears outlet store sometime in the mid or late 90's. I haven't been back in Bristol in many years, although curiously in the fall of 1999 and 2000, a developer at a shopping center convention was touting a new "Bristol Town Center" master plan on the site of the old mall. The plan showcased some elegant streetscape new-traditonal designs with street level retail shops, new parking garages, office space and residential, located on a site plan that looks to replace some of the vanished street grid the mall erased. I haven't heard if any of this has come to pass, and I haven't seen any promotion for this project. I doubt it saw the light of day. Also, the nearby Westfarms Mall has been expanded again with a Nordstrom and about 50 other stores, so any new mall plans are probably going to be a struggle for this location.

Bristol Centre Mall was probably not the right design or location, but considering the time and place that it came from, it was state-of-the-art then and will always be the development that completely changed the character of downtown Bristol, Connecticut. One day, somthing better will replace it, but maybe long after many other malls suffer the same fate.

Marc's Commentary

Posted June 3, 2006 (user submitted)

The City of Bristol purchased the Bristol Centre Mall aka The Mall at Bristol Centre for $5 million in the summer of 2005. Remaining tenants were told their leases were null and void and they had to vacate the mall by December 31, 2005. The city agreed to help pay for moving expenses and finding new locations for the businesses.

Mayor Gerard Couture was not re-elected in November 2005. (Mostly due to the fact he had the city purchaset he mall without putting it to a public vote). Newly elected mayor Bill Stortz gave tenants until March 31, 2006 to move out.

By April 1, 2006 all the tenants had moved out except for Centre Mall Pizza, Discount Retailer Ocean State Job Lot, and Choices Unique Botique. The owner of Centre Mall Pizza filed a lawsuit against the city of Bristol. Job Lot filed their lawsuit last summer.

As of May 1st only Centre Mall Pizza and Job were left. Choices moved into their new location. The owner of the pizza house dropped their lawsuit and decided to move across the street. They were planning on buying Erika's Restuanrant or buying an abandoned video store. They chose to buy Erika's. Job Lot is still there because that matter is still tied up in the courts. (This despite the fact that they opened a second Bristol Location in the former Super Stop & Shop Location on Black Friday 2005) Centre Mall Pizza hopes to be open in their new location by July 1.

The City of Bristol is now trying to determine whether or not it's physically possible to demolish the mall and leave Job Lot there. There are no concrete plans for the mall property at this time, but the city says once the mall is demolished they will put the 17 acre property up for sale. At this time the future of the tenants located in the out parcel buildings are unknown. They are McDonald's, Sherwin Williams, Rent-A-Center, and Discount Food Outlet.

(Personal Notes: If I owned this property I would demolish the mall building along with all the out parcels. I would then build a shopping plaza much like the one that was built on New Britain Avenue in Plainville where The Plainville Drive-In and Plainville Stadium were once located.)

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