An employee loads shelving from Belk into a moving truck at Richland Mall on Sept. 6. Belk was one of the last two businesses to move out of the mall. (Photo by Sydney Dunlap/Carolina News and Reporter)

As malls are being replaced with multi-purpose spaces, Richland Mall’s redevelopment represents a shift in how customers shop and how developers accommodate them.

The new retail locations, commonly referred to as mixed-use spaces, have an open-air concept that focuses on making space for housing and groceries. This leaves stores with less square footage but more versatile space than a traditional mall, according to Mike Watson, the undergraduate director and an instructor in USC’s Department of Retail.

In their prime, malls served as a place where customers could access a variety of items at once, Watson said. However, as properties continued to expand, the number of stores sometimes outnumbered customers, forcing smaller businesses to move and leave behind the anchor stores, such as Belk’s and Macy’s.

“You had kind of a perfect storm of scenarios of over-expansion and rise in technology for customization and personalization, and then a pandemic that counteracted any kind of community or desire to be with other people,” Watson said. “Richland Mall is a perfect example.”

The shopping center once held a variety of clothing stores and restaurants as well as a movie theater, but by 2022, the inside of the building was closed to the public. 

Richland Mall’s last department store, Belk, closed its doors on Wednesday. Barnes & Noble is on track to relocate to Garners Ferry Road, leaving behind a deteriorating, empty concrete mass.

“Malls were always known as being kind of like these large, dark cavernous places,” Watson said. “City planners are being much more intentional about (choosing) what types of stores, what they do, the types of design that is worked into the community that it serves.”

Southeastern Development bought the property in November 2022, announced plans to demolish it and redevelop the area into a mixed-use space. The project is the largest investment in Forest Acres in more than 35 years, according to the city of Forest Acres.

The first phase of the project is expected to include a grocery store, brewery and new park. The second phase will bring in apartments and more retail aspects.

Forest Acres Mayor Thomas Andrews said he hopes the location will be a “thriving sort of community center.”  

“People are going to come there, and it’s going to generate economically a lot for both the county and the city, but also just be a place that provides services and goods and restaurants that our residents want,” Andrews said.

Andrews has lived in the Columbia area since 1995. He said in his trips to Richland Mall, he would often see senior citizens walking around the property or families out eating.

“A lot of people remember Richland Mall fondly as a place, both where they went shopping, but also where they met friends,” Andrews said. “I think they understood where it was in terms of sort of the national climate of malls and how retail has scaled back. I think people are excited that there’s something that’s going to happen now.” 

John Wyndham, 83, often visits Richland Mall. He remembers when it was open air before being covered in the 1980s.

He said he sees the property’s renovations as a way for the city to adapt to changing preferences.

“I think it’s an evolution in retailing,” Wyndham said. “I don’t think the large regional malls are as attractive to people in their shopping habits as they used to be.”

The advancement of technology also allowed people to explore a wide variety of options without having to leave their homes, Watson said, which decreased the need for a mall.

Still, he said, the desire for a central shopping center will not completely go away. 

In 2023, malls accounted for less of the country’s total gross leasable retail area than they did in 2014, according to Coresight Research, a site focused on retail and technology trends.

But the traffic at the often more expensive top-tier malls has increased by 12% since 2019. 

Jason Long, a vice president at Southeastern Development, said the Richland Mall project is one of several the company is taking on in South Carolina.

He said the redevelopment will allow the area to become a successful space again for the Forest Acres community. 

“When we are able to have a mixture of uses – that’s people that are living on site, that’s retail shops and restaurants, and also public outdoor space – we think they each all benefit each other,” Long said. “It makes it a nicer place to live.”

Discussions regarding the design of the property are still ongoing at the company, Long said.

After plans are finalized, Long said the team will begin tearing down the existing building. 

Andrews said he thinks the redevelopment will help draw people to more businesses, furthering the city’s economy.

As for the new park, he said he hopes it will become a space where the city can put on events that can unite the community.

“That kind of creates an opportunity for people and for residents to come and appreciate this sort of amenity that we’ve created,” Andrews said. “But then also that allows an opportunity for them to connect with one another and sort of build that sense of community and neighborliness.”

A deteriorating walkway at Richland Mall connects an empty parking garage to the shopping center.  The mall is being redeveloped into a mixed-use property. (Photo by Sydney Dunlap/Carolina News and Reporter)

A sign telling customers that Belk has closed is posted on a window at the department store on Sept. 6. (Photo by Sydney Dunlap/Carolina News and Reporter)

Signage from stores in Richland Mall remains visible through Barnes & Noble, the last remaining store on the property. The bookstore plans to move to Garners Ferry Road next year. (Photo by Sydney Dunlap/Carolina News and Reporter)


Kate Robins

Kate Robins

Robins is a junior journalism student in the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. She is a co-managing editor for USC’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Gamecock. She spent the summer working for her hometown newspaper in High Point, North Carolina, where she enjoyed reporting on crime, technology and healthcare.

Sydney Dunlap

Sydney Dunlap

Dunlap is a junior Honors College student at the University of South Carolina. She is editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Gamecock and has won local and national awards for writing and photography. She worked this summer at The State newspaper on everything from historically Black schools to S.C. peach crop woes.