Chris Edwards's Commentary

Posted January 28, 2006 (user submitted)

Richland Mall, once expected to be the Lenox Square of Columbia, South Carolina, has reached the end of its life. Wrecking balls will hopefully save it from its current sad state and transform it into a mixed-use property.

My first visit to what was then called Richland Fashion Mall was in 1995. The mall's former star attraction, Bonwit Teller, had high-tailed it out of the mall shortly after the mall's opening in 1989, only to be replaced by a Dillard's. There was also a Parisian and a JB White, part of the Mercantile chain. There were only a few stores in the mall, but the ones there were relatively mid-market to upper mid-market national chains, such as TGI Friday's, a movie theater and others. To save the mall from a college dorm-room look due to the omnipresent drywall covering vacant retail spaces, pictures of enthusiastic shoppers spouting positive slogans were throughout the mall. Unfortunately the photos of shoppers far outnumbered the actual ones.

Since then, Richland Mall has spiraled downhill. The mall's owners have apparently given up on running it as a traditional enclosed mall. Rather than continuing futile efforts to fully lease the mall, they turned much of its space over to Verizon for use as a call center, leading to even more white drywall blocking off the call center space. They also sold the mall to dead mall king Heyward Whichard, surely the sign of its demise.

The mall's department stores, except one, have also apparently given up. After the Bonwit Teller closed, the Dillard's that had filled its space in the early 1990s closed about ten years later, only to be replaced by Blacklion, a local chain of furniture and gift stores, and a local department store called a very creative name: "The Department Store". "The Department Store" didn't last long; perhaps its clearance center-type look failed to attract enough business. Even worse, Belk, which bought the JB White store and which has a store in nearly every successful Southern shopping center, has apparently even given up, subleasing part of its space to a semi-anchor that is a sure sign of a dead mall: a fitness center. Of the mall's department stores, only Parisian remains unscathed. Oddly enough, a Parisian at Columbia's dominant mall, Columbiana Centre, is closing, leaving the aging Richland location alive.

Efforts to revive the mall have flopped. About a year and a half ago, investors planned to bring numerous new locally-owned stores to the mall, such as one of the USA's only Anna Nicole Smith stores. None of them lasted. Richland is down to only a few stores left and even lacks a Chick-fil-A, without which many Southern shoppers such as myself refuse to visit a mall.

Richland's mall competitors have shown little sympathy for its struggles. Columbiana Center placed a large billboard outside the exit from Richland's parking garage, flaunting Columbiana's wide selection of stores and convenient location and seeking to attract shoppers disappointed by Richland's dying state. This seemed about as unfair as a football player kicking another one who he had already tackled.

While Richland's life as an enclosed mall is nearly through, developers are trying again by demolishing much of the enclosed part and resurrecting the center as "Midtown at Forest Acres", named after the mall's neighborhood, with housing and limited retail space. Given the mall's location in an affluent neighborhood, this appears to be a wise plan destined for success.

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