Huntsville, Ala.’s $350 million MidCity is the country’s fourth-largest real estate project

Huntsville (Ala.) MidCity is putting that city back on the map. This mixed-use project, which research firm CoStar ranked the fourth-largest U.S. commercial real estate development under way last year, will offer retail, entertainment, homes, hotels, offices and wide-open spaces when it is fully completed, sometime within the next two years. Meanwhile, Huntsville MidCity is already a powerfully dramatic model of how the flagging fortunes of older retail properties can be reversed.

Madison Square Mall, as the site’s retail predecessor was called, was the brightest retail light in its region. The 930,000-square-foot shopping center opened in 1984 in grand fashion, with five anchor tenants and a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured a beaming Miss America. And for the decades following, this largest enclosed shopping center in the northern part of the state poured millions in annual sales-tax revenue into the city’s coffers. By the time some 30 years had elapsed, however, the center was a mere shadow of its former self, and only two struggling anchors were left: Sears and JCPenney. In its final year, woefully far from those millions in annual revenues it had yielded before, the mall dribbled out a mere $157,000, according to city officials. Thankfully, the story did not end there.

In 2015 locally based RCP Cos. paid $5.7 million for the 100-acre property, and two years later the firm leveled the mall to make way for MidCity, a 140-acre, $350 million, mixed-use redevelopment. The site is adjacent to Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research-and-development park in the country, and near the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

MidCity’s multiuse entertainment and residential complex dovetails into Huntsville’s master plan for the area’s major commercial corridor — also a high-tech hot spot — known locally as Research Park Boulevard and University Drive, according to Max Grelier, co-founder and executive vice president of RCP. “We were looking to institute a more innovative, diverse balance of uses on the site,” Grelier said.

Madison Square Mall, at 930,000 square feet, opens with five anchor tenants

2014  Only Sears and JCPenney remain

2015  RCP Cos. pays $5.7 million for the 100-acre property

2017  Mall razed to make way for MidCity, a 140-acre, $350 million mixed-use redevelopment comprising retail, entertainment, homes, hotels and offices

In December Topgolf, the Dallas-based golfing entertainment concept, opened a $20 million, 53,000-square-foot, three-level venue on the site.

Next up is the 26,000-square-foot MidCity Adrenaline Zone, whose construction begins this year and which will offer a 45-foot climbing wall. Meanwhile, the Camp at MidCity, an outdoor venue for diversified leisure, entertainment and food offerings, opened last August.

Among other projects planned for the site: space for tech company startups, about 900 residences, two hotels and a 38-acre park that will feature an 8,500-seat amphitheater for concerts, a lake for kayaking and trails for biking and running.

“MidCity is one of the most exciting developments in the Southeast,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. That is saying something, given some of the other announcements he has made of late: In January Toyota and Mazda chose Huntsville for a $1.6 billion manufacturing plant.

Battle and Shane Davis, the city’s director of urban and economic development, were instrumental in laying the groundwork for MidCity. “We didn’t want to see that parking lot just grow tumbleweeds,” Davis said. “You can’t let it become a cancer — there’s too much at stake.”

Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates drew up the project’s master plan. Urban Design Associates Chairman Rob Robinson credits Huntsville’s municipal leadership for keeping the project on track. Indeed, public-private partnership was imperative from the word go, he says.  “It’s just too heavy a lift to go from a regional mall into a very fine-grained, high-quality, mixed-use environment without partnering,” Robinson said.

To date, Huntsville has put in about $40 million worth of infrastructure, with “probably another $15 million to finish it out,” according to Davis. “Early on we said, ‘Hey, we want it to be: live, work and play, with a focus on entertainment and ancillary shopping mixed in,’ ” Davis said. “It appears that the retailers we’re talking to really like that too.”

“Huntsville, Ala.’s $350 million MidCity is the country’s fourth-Largest real estate project.” Huntsville, Ala.’s $350 million MidCity is the country’s fourth-Largest real estate project | ICSC: International Council of Shopping Centers,