|Over the years, Richland Mall has morphed into a mixed-use facility. Well-known retailers like Belk, LensCrafters, GNC and Barnes & Noble are now neighbors to a children’s theater, Pilates studio, fine arts center and beauty salon, to a new a few. (Photo/Provided)|
By Chuck Crumbo
Published Aug. 17, 2012
David Martin grew up in Forest Acres and knew what Richland Mall meant to the community.
So when the opportunity came up for Martin, owner of Tronco’s Catering and Special Events, to move his business into the mall, he “jumped at the chance.”
Local ownership of the mall at the corner of Forest Drive and Beltline Boulevard was key to his decision to open Sadie’s American Cafeteria in May and co-locate his catering business, Martin said.
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“They’re really all about the mall and the community,” Martin said of the mall’s owner, Century Capital Group. “This is a family business, and we’re joining another family at Richland Mall. It just feels good. It feels right.”
It’s the local connection Richland Mall general manager Joe Walker sees as one of the mall’s strengths when he talks to prospective tenants and visits with community groups.
“Richland Mall sits right in the heart of Forest Acres,” Walker said. “It’s always been an integral part of this community.
“So integral that some now call the approximately 900,000-square-foot facility the “Main Street of Forest Acres,” he said.
Once, the mall was primarily a retail center, but over the years it has morphed into a mixed-use facility.
It still has well-known retailers like Belk, LensCrafters, GNC and Barnes & Noble.
But, their neighbors now include a children’s theater, Pilates studio, fine arts center, beauty salon, several business offices, an IT and data center, a table tennis plaza and a cross-fit center for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
Future uses for space in the mall might include a library, medical offices and a charter school, Walker said.
The sheriff’s department cross-fit gym, which occupies about 8,400 square feet of space on the upper level of the mall, was moved from the Harbison area.
Sheriff Leon Lott said the partnership with Richland Mall offers a more central location for deputies to drive in and work out.
“Obviously, you couldn’t ask for a better neighbor,” Walker said of the cross-fit facility.
Evolution of a mall
When Richland Mall opened in 1961, it was a conventional open-air facility that offered the area its first complete retail center. As larger malls were built to capture customers moving to the suburbs, Richland Mall was redeveloped and emerged as a two-story, enclosed mall that aimed for higher-end clientele. To bank on its upscale appeal, the center was renamed Richland Fashion Mall.
With suburban growth booming in northeast Richland during the 1990s, big-box retailers and shopping center developers passed over established communities like Forest Acres.
In 2005, the mall’s owners at the time announced a $300 million redevelopment plan that would include apartments, condominiums, a retirement center and additional professional offices.
“It was going to be a little Mayberry on these 33 acres right here,” Walker said. “It was a great plan.”
To make the plan work, the owners reduced tenants by buying back or not renewing leases, Walker said. Occupancy of retail space dropped to 50% from around 80%.
By the time the owners put their plan together and got the necessary approval from local government to move forward, it was 2007. Then, the economy tanked and the owners wound up with a half-empty mall.
In February 2010, the shopping center was sold for the third time in five years. It went to Century Capital, a local group of business people and investors, for $4.4 million — far less than $28.5 million asked for when the property was listed in February 2009.
Two months later — in April 2010 — Kahn Development took over management and leasing at the mall.
Walker still has sketches of the redevelopment plan in the mall’s conference room. It might come in handy if the economy ever bounces back to where it was a decade ago.
“We still want this to be a mixed-use facility,” Walker said. “It will take time before there’s money back in the system to do that type of plan.”
On a comeback
Century Capital owns 690,000 square feet of retail space in the mall. Another 162,800 square feet on the upper level, which once served as a Verizon call center, is owned by another company. About half of that space — 74,000 square feet — houses an IT, data processing and administration center of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Another 20,000 square feet is expected to be occupied by a local law firm’s research center.
Walker said he continues to market the facility to retailers, noting the strong demographics of nearby Forest Acres and Columbia neighborhoods.
For example, the average household income within three miles of the mall is $60,162, or 42% higher than the statewide average of $42,442.
This fall, Whole Foods, which caters to higher-end clientele, will be opening its first Columbia-area store about a mile away near the intersection of Fort Jackson Boulevard and Devine Street. Trader Joe’s, another food retailer that appeals to upscale tastes, plans to open a store in early 2013 about 1.5 miles away at Forest Drive and Trenholm Road.
“That’s a great sign of the recognition of this area,” Walker said of the arrival of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. “And, the truth of the matter is we don’t mind riding their coattails one bit.”
Walker thinks Richland Mall might be able to capture some of the businesses that want to be in the same neighborhood with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
“We know what their rates are,” he said of retail centers near the future sites of the food stores. “We can beat those rates.”
Walker also believes retailers are moving back into urban neighborhoods after spending the past couple of decades expanding to the suburbs.
As an example, he points to reports that Walmart may open a store in a shopping center expected to be built on the site of Capital City Stadium near downtown Columbia.
Some retailers are beginning to realize that as they’ve chased the rooftops they have passed over a lot of customers, Walker said.
“We know that it will grow in to us, and we welcome that opportunity,” he said.
Walker believes Richland Mall is in position to succeed as a mixed-use facility. The occupancy rate has risen to 65% and the mall has strong anchor tenants in Belk, Regal Cinema, Barnes & Noble, and TGI Friday’s restaurant.
Other pluses include Sadie’s, hundreds of office workers who work at the mall, 4,000 parking spaces — most of them covered — and an average daily traffic count of 48,000 vehicles that flow through the intersection of Beltline and Forest.
Forest Acres officials also have worked with the mall’s owner to allow more signage to let passers-by know what’s inside the mall.
The town has approved having signs posted on the parking deck — a 42.5-foot high monument sign that will list tenants and feature a 10x15-foot digital screen. The sign, estimated to cost $250,000, will go up when there are enough tenants to pay for it, Walker said.
“The good news is that we have all local investors who have a strong interest in the mall and the community,” Walker said. “Being local, we can take our time and be able to work and see the mall come back.”
Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.