Opinion: Closing time for big malls

 In October 2019

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Charlotte’s Eastland Mall was the state’s largest when it opened in 1975 with anchors Belk, J.C. Penney, Ivey’s, and a popular ice rink. It closed in 2010 and was torn down in 2013. Other N.C. malls have met a similar fate. Photo By Pat Richardson

By Dan Barkin

I was driving up Interstate 40. Out of habit, I glanced left to check the massive Amazon distribution center going up in Garner. From the interstate, it looks like the back of one of those shopping malls you glimpse through the pines from the highway. But it’s not.

I was headed up to the northern arc of Raleigh’s beltline to see a relic of a real mall, the J.C. Penney Co. store at North Hills. Once it was J.C. Penney’s best store in North Carolina, ranking second in the entire chain in sales of women’s dresses 20 years ago. But J.C. Penney has eliminated 20% of its stores in the last five years and, next spring, this one is closing. The building will make way for more offices, residential units — maybe a hotel.

That will eliminate all traces of North Hills Mall, most of which was demolished in the early 2000s, replaced by an upscale retail district in Raleigh’s modern Midtown neighborhood.

For a half-century, suburban malls like North Hills dominated retail in North Carolina, drawing department stores from cities and tearing the hearts out of downtowns. North Hills was originally a strip center, enclosed in 1967. More than 50 enclosed malls operated throughout the state, totaling more than 33 million square feet. Two dozen malls opened in the 1970s alone, including Hanes in Winston-Salem, SouthPark in Charlotte, and Crabtree Valley in Raleigh.

From the 1980s until 2005, another 15 went up, including two in the Raleigh-Durham suburbs and three outside Charlotte. And then, no more. When Carolina Place opened in Pineville, just south of Charlotte, in ’91, a Charlotte Observer reporter asked Belk executive David Stovall Jr. how long it would be before the store would be overtaken by the next new trend in retailing.

Probably not long, Stovall answered. “In our business, everything’s always changing.”

Little urgency

He was right. Carolina Place was 2 years old when an investment banker decided to sell books online. Jeff Bezos discovered he could sell other things, too. By the end of the ’90s, the internet was a threat to Belk and J.C. Penney and, especially, Sears. But they weren’t showing much urgency. J.C. Penney had $31 billion in revenue in 1999, barely $100 million from web sales.

By the middle of the 2000s, despite renovations, malls were losing anchors as online competition grew exponentially. Some failed, like Eastland Mall in Charlotte. It wasn’t just the internet. The last malls — such as Durham’s Streets at Southpoint that opened in 2002 — doomed old locations like South Square.

In some cases, a visionary developer like Raleigh’s John Kane took a failing site and turned it into a retail powerhouse: the reborn, open-air North Hills. In other cases, the ending has yet to be written. Wilmington is waiting to see if Independence Mall will be similarly transformed.

Located in an affluent western Wake County town, the 40-year-old Cary Towne Center has lost Sears, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Dillard’s. Belk remains. The mall’s new owners are talking about a North Hills-like mixed-use development, after Ikea backed away from plans to add a store.

Remnants of signs

After I rode up and down the J.C. Penney escalator one last time at North Hills, I drove around the beltline to see Cary Towne Center, maybe one last time as well. For years, this was a destination for folks like me who were from the west side of Johnston County. I hadn’t been there for a while, and therein lies the problem. I left after a few minutes of peeking into the shuttered J.C. Penney. From the parking lot, I could barely make out the names on anchor stores where the signs had been pried off.

On my way back down I-40, I thought about the laminated map on the newsroom wall at The News & Observer in the ’90s where I worked. I used to point to the future route of N.C. 540 — the Outer Loop — where it would eventually swoop south around Raleigh and intersect with I-40, exactly where I was driving home in the twilight, right at the Wake-Johnston county line.

Here — I predicted 20 years ago to anyone within earshot — is where a big regional mall will be built, once they finish 540 to 40.

I was wrong. There’s not going to be a big mall when this interchange opens in 2023. Some stores, sure, but not the enclosed glorious mall of my imagination. Another retail giant, Amazon, is already going up nearby, in that 2.6 million-square-foot distribution center that backs up to the interstate. It will open soon. Maybe before, maybe after the North Hills J.C. Penney closes.

Dan can be reached at dbarkin53@gmail.com.

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