The rise and fall of Grande Boulevard Mall

The story of Jacksonville’s Grande Boulevard Mall is one that can be described as a retail dream gone horribly wrong, yet the end result achieving the original vision of Victor Gruen, the architect of the first modern mall.

Southdale Center, the first modern mall in the world, Edina, Minnesota. (Courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri at Wikipedia)

In 1956, Southdale Mall in Edina, MN opened its doors as the first enclosed modern shopping mall in the United States. Designed by architect and urbanist Victor David Gruen, the enclosed mall concept was intended serve as a centralized mixed-use epicenter of pedestrian scale activity for autocentric suburbia. While the shopping mall concept was a success, the retail only focus stimulated sprawl and sucked life out of central cities, leading to Gruen disavowing the concept altogether in the 1970s.

While Gruen refused to pay alimony to what he called bastard developments, Nathan Rosenfield had a vision for a bastardized development of his own in Jacksonville. During the mid-1970s, the dream for Grande Boulevard Mall originated in the mid-1970s with the then chief executive of Jacobson’s department store, desiring to cash in on the maturation of the city’s Southside into a viable upscale suburban retail market. Founded in 1838 by Abram Jacobson in Reed City, MI, Jacobson’s was a 25-store chain specializing in high-quality clothing, gifts and other merchandise. Unlike traditional mall-based department stores, Jacobson’s preferred smaller shopping centers, where they could serve as the dominate anchor.

Photograph of Victor Gruen lighting his pipe. University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center, Victor Gruen Papers, Collection #5809, Box 56. (Courtesy of the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center)

In 1982, two years after the death of Gruen, Clearwater-based National Capital Investments officially announced for the construction of a $16 million enclosed mall at the intersection of Baymeadows Road and Southside Boulevard. Situated adjacent to the affluent, up and coming Deerwood area, Jacobson’s and the developer felt the location would attract shoppers from St. Johns County, Orange Park, Mandarin and the Beaches that were used to flying to upscale centers in Dallas, New York and Atlanta for their consumer needs.

The Haskell Company, Grande Boulevard’s architect, designed the center to be unlike the typical enclosed regional shopping mall. According to Haskell’s Kennon G. Holmes, the mall would be very unique from an architectural perspective. “It’s not going to be the size of a major mall - it will be 20 to 40 percent of an Orange Park Mall.”

Grande Boulevard Mall’s Jacobson’s department store has been retrofited to contain a college bookstore, classrooms and labs, fitness center/gym,free speech zone, performance theatre, student life & engagement center, library and Learning Commons.

Instead, Grande Boulevard was designed as a two-story, 289,000-square foot structure featuring 65 retailers with glass-enclosed escalators wrapped around an 80,000-square foot Jacobson’s department store. Opening its doors on November 17, 1983, it was expected that retail sales would average between $225 and $250 per square foot in sales or twice the national average.

High end retailers like Michael Winston, Lyon’s Pebbles, La Tierra, Deerwood Bootery and La Casa Ropa once occupied spaces inside this enclosed shopping mall wrapping Jacobson’s department store.

Grande Bouelvard Mall’s former Baymeadows Road entrance.

The vision for Grande Boulevard quickly morphed into the reality that it was too ritzy for Jacksonville. Initial marketing campaigns using terms such as “elitist”, “expensive”, “exclusive” and “the mall that’s not for everyone” proved to be true.

At Grande Boulevard, if you wanted a coffee table identical to the one on the soap opera Dynasty, it could be had for $2,500, along with $789 “torch” lamps from Italy and $1,300 purses designed by Judith Leiber. Of the 64 retail spaces, 45 were leased to high end retailers, such as Michael Winston, Lyon’s Pebbles, La Tierra, Deerwood Bootery and La Casa Ropa, where men’s suits were priced as high as $3,000.

Viewed as too expensive, consumers stayed away, opting for other shopping malls like Regency Square Mall. Limiting its availability to working people by closing its doors at 6pm, didn’t do the shopping center any favors either.

The commons area was once Grande Boulevard Mall’s central court.

Less than three years after its opening, the number of retailers declined to 24 and the First National Bank of Boston had taken over in lieu of foreclosing on the original owners. Initially, anticipating as much as $250 per square foot in sales, the center struggled to hover around $188 per square foot. “It’s sad, this is such a beautiful mall,” Hind Metri of Chez Paris women’s clothing, told the Times-Union in 1986, in regards to its ability to attract shoppers. Things would only get worse as the years went on. By 1988, more than half of the mall’s leasable retail space had gone dark. In addition, lawsuits had been filed against former tenants seeking $500,000 in unpaid rent.

Former mall common area and retail spaces converted into classrooms and study areas.

Despite its troubles, mall management felt Grande Boulevard would be ready to compete with malls proposed for the Southside. In an October 1988 Times-Union interview, mall manager Rob Belue stated “when one eventually is built, we’ll be ready for it”. Needless to say, time would solidify Belue’s prediction to be highly inaccurate. Grande Boulevard never caught on with residents as the 1990 opening of The Avenues became the final nail in its coffin. In 1994, ownership sold the mall to Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ) for $4 million. However, Jacobson’s survived as a stand-alone department store until the entire chain filed for bankruptcy in 2002. FCCJ would go on to convert the dead mall into its Deerwood Center campus.

The Library Learning Commons

While Grande Boulevard died the death that most enclosed malls around the country are currently facing, its ending should be viewed as a successful adaptive reuse outcome for owners of today’s dead and dying malls.

The former mall entrance of Jacobson’s department store

Two decades have passed since the transition of dead retail spaces into classrooms, common study areas, community space and food court eateries operating to support a critical mass enclosed mass of educational facilities. However, the transition into an educational center surrounding by thousands of multi-family housing units has resulted in “bastardized” version of the shopping mall concept evolving into what Gruen originally invented: the enclosed mall serving as the kernel of a full-fledged community.

A Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSJC) Deerwood Center directory. The FSCJ Deerwood Center campus was originally built as the Grande Boulevard Mall

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro and — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at