Pictured above, Regency Square Mall opened in 1967 as a competitor to Gateway. To not be outdone, Gateway expanded to include its own enclosed mall. (State Archives of Florida)

Gateway Shopping Center’s enclosed mall opened in 1967, with JCPenney and Montgomery Ward, along with a Morrison’s Cafeteria, as its anchors. The new mall was connected to the outdoor center with a pedestrian bridge between JCPenney and Pantry Pride (formerly Food Fair). The combined outdoor/indoor shopping center was over 650,000 square feet and had over 80 stores, making it the largest in the city again. Its size would increase in 1977 by an additional 40,000 square feet of space in the shopping center’s parking lot. In 1978, May-Cohens opened a new department store in the space formerly occupied by W.T. Grant. The W.T. Grant Company story ended in 1976 when the company succumbed in the then second biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. With this expansion, Gateway would reach its peak as a Jacksonville retail destination. However, the environment around Gateway had begun to change. When the mall originally opened, it was located on the edge of Jacksonville. It served as a major catalyst for mid-20th century suburban development during its first decade in existence. Over time Norwood Avenue and Lem Turner Road had been transformed from small country roads into heavily commercialized corridors dominated with smaller strip centers, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. By the 1980s, the residential subdivisions and commercial corridors that the mall helped spur to life were in decline. At the same time, Orange Park Mall had become the new kid on the block and Regency Square Mall doubled its size, now making it the largest in the city, and one of the most profitable retail centers in the nation.

Gateway Mall during the 1980s (MetroJacksonville.com)

With Gateway generating $74.6 million in annual sales, Toronto-based Bramalea Limited acquired the mall from Swire Florida, Inc., who themselves had purchased the mall during the mid-1970’s, for $17 million in 1984. At the time, Bramalea was one of North America’s largest development firms with total assets in excess of $2 billion, and a portfolio featuring 41 shopping centers in nine states and Canada. In an effort to enhance the mall, Bramalea changed the name to Gateway Center and invested $2 million in cosmetic improvements. Completed in 1985, the facelift included redesigned storefronts and brighter parking lots to deter crime. Several new retailers were added, including Gussini Shoes, Strawberry Fields, World Bazaar, Foot Locker, Wok King, and Balloon Factory, increasing the total amount of stores at Gateway to 100. 1985 would also see the closure of Jefferson Ward, a discount version of Montgomery Ward, which was quickly replaced with a Zarye department store in 1986.

The renewed success and popularity generated by Bramalea would be short lived, due to economic and demographic factors beyond the mall’s control. Although Service Merchandise would expand its Gateway store in 1988, Goudchaux/Maison-Blanche decided to shutter its Gateway location. Formerly a May-Cohen’s , New Orleans-based Goudchaux/Maison Blanche acquired the Jacksonville chain earlier that year and made a quick decision that Gateway didn’t fit the company’s desired demographics. According to James W. Lowe, Goudchaux/Maison Blanche’s vice president of the Jacksonville/Daytona Beach Region at the time, “the Gateway store was a marginally profitable store at best.” Less than a year later, Gateway’s G.C. Murphy closed its doors. The decision was made by McCrory Stores, who had recently purchased the five-and-dime chain from Ames Department Stores, Inc. The enclosed mall would lose its first major anchor in 1990 with the departure of Ames, which had joined Gateway’s tenant mix by acquiring the Zarye chain in 1988.

A Sanborn map plan of Gateway Mall during the 1960s. (City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office)

Struggling to fill several recently departed anchors lost to company-wide bankruptcies and mergers, Gateway Center’s deathblow came in 1992 with back-to-back closings of its remaining anchors, Service Merchandise and JCPenney. Service Merchandise would close, as the company struggled to keep up with newer competitors in the market, such as Walmart and Circuit City. In an attempt to keep its largest and last major anchor, a rent free deal was offered to JCPenney. After sales had fallen 15% annually since 1987, JCPenney declined, choosing instead to relocate the store to the Jacksonville Regional Shopping Center at the intersection of Lem Turner Road and Dunn Avenue. According to Dan Unger, JCPenney’s district manager in 1992, “the lease was not the determining factor. The fact was, Gateway was no longer a viable shopping center.”

In 1995, Bramalea defaulted on the mall’s mortgage, resulting in its falling into receivership. In 1997, the mall was purchased by the Gateway Center Economic Development Partnership for $2.4 million. The partnership of three companies, led by former state Rep. John Lewis and developer Carlton Jones, planned to transform the 23%-occupied complex into a neighborhood-oriented retail center.

Redevelopment got off to a good start, with the addition of a 27,880-square-foot Publix, a Jacksonville Transportation Authority bus terminal, and the demolition of 80,000 square feet to improve the center’s visibility from I-95. By the beginning of the century, Gateway’s occupancy had increased to 87%. In 2001, Home Depot, Walmart and U.S. Factory Outlets considered opening stores at Gateway. However, negotiations with these retailers never finalized, and by 2008 the mall’s occupancy rate had fallen to 60%. A poor economy, demographics, and the opening of River City Marketplace put the center back into decline.

Hoping for a third lease on life, plans were made to convert the empty, enclosed mall into a medical center and attract supporting retail businesses to the strip mall component. In summer 2011, 100,000 square feet of the former JCPenney store was rebranded as the Elizabeth G. Means Medical Pavilion. This plan ultimately failed with the owners filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and losing the property in foreclosure in 2012. With only 40% occupied, the interior of the mall was then closed to cut expenses until future ownership could decide what to do with it. In early 2017, Miami Lakes-based Gator Investments Acquired Gateway Town Center $4.3 million, or approximately $12 per square foot.

Today, while Gateway is not completely abandoned or vacant, it remains a shell of its former self. The mall that once bustled with shoppers is now silent in hope of former retail spaces one day being transitioned into medical uses. Despite its failure to regain the glory it once had as being a Jacksonville retail landmark for three decades, its strategic location along I-95 and the S-Line rail corridor suggests that a third lease on life is not out of the question.

Photos: Vintage Jacksonville - Gateway Mall

Photos: Present day Gateway Town Center

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com