Joe Henderson: Your holiday reminder that in Brandon, mall rhymes with sprawl

Peak shopping season is peak traffic gridlock season around Westfield Brandon mall.
Published December 6

Ah, Christmas.

What joy! What memories!

Sleigh bells. Happy children.

Exhaust fumes.

Brake lights.

Yes, it must be Christmas shopping time at the Westfield Brandon mall.

I remember driving by when that super-sized shopping space ark was being readied for opening about 23 years ago and thinking, um … how are people going to get in and out of that place?

It turned out people could get in. Getting out was the problem.

A little history lesson is in order.

Brandon in 1995 wasn’t the quaint collection of strip malls, chain restaurants, planned communities and big-box stores that it is today. It was just on its way to becoming the standard by which urban sprawl is judged when the mall came along.

Brandon folks identify themselves into two tribes — pre-mall, and post-mall.

The newcomers have no idea what it was like.

Back then, the nearest mall for the locals was either East Lake Square or University Square out by USF. Having our own mall was a sign that Brandon was becoming a real, well … something.

The Brandon Town Center, as it was known then, was built on land that used to be the Carrey Cattle Company. That wasn’t the name for an upscale steak house, by the way. There were actual cows grazing on land that would become JC Penney’s, Sears, the food court, and all the other stores we see today.

About a million mall visitors showed up during its first 17 days of operation. Some of them might be still be there, either searching for their cars in the vast parking lots or waiting for an opening in the conga line of cars that might, eventually, lead to an escape route.

It was easy to see why the mall is a financial success. After several hours of inching forward but never quite reaching the out-bound road, shoppers would eventually give up, return inside for food, and spend more money.

I won’t say it was designed that way, but I won’t say it wasn’t.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but traffic in Brandon can get bad on a good day — especially around the mall, and especially at Christmas.

Besides building a behemoth mall right off the Interstate 75 exit and adjacent to State Road 60, one of the most congested thoroughfares in Hillsborough County, planners saw fit to green light — wait for it — MORE SHOPPING OPTIONS in that confined space.

There is a collection of stores along the narrow mall entrance road from SR 60, and that doesn’t count the shopping and restaurant complex across SR 60 from the mall. It’s also along a major commuter intersection with the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

There have been efforts to deal with the mall traffic as it has mushroomed. A relatively new extension of Gornto Lake Road — pronounced GornTOE (well, it is Brandon) — now runs along the mall’s east side, and that helps a little. But at peak times like we see now, not enough.

A couple of years ago, my sainted wife made a mall journey on a late Friday afternoon about a week before Christmas. Poor child. She gave me a play-by-play account of how the three-mile journey toward our house was going after she finished shopping.

A couple of inches here. Five minutes without movement there. Just advancing a full car length was a major victory.

It took nearly an hour — and I’m not kidding — just to maneuver her car out of the mall area.

There was no wreck, mind you. No police action.

But I guess there was a big sale at J. C. Penney’s, so that might explain it.

It really is a great mall, so long as shoppers can time their visits to off-peak hours. Let me know if you find one. However, it should get at least a little credit for spurring an important innovation.

It’s called online shopping.

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