Richland Mall: Pioneering Retail in the Heart of Columbia, SC

The Birth of Richland Mall

The Dawn of a Shopping Era in Columbia

In the heart of Forest Acres, South Carolina, Richland Mall opened its doors in 1961, marking a new chapter in Columbia‘s retail landscape.

As the first shopping mall in the city, it stood as a pioneer of its time, showcasing an open-air design typical for mid-twentieth-century shopping centers.

J.B. White, a prominent department store from Augusta, Georgia, stood as one of the key anchor stores at the mall.

The mall also featured a diverse mix of retailers, including Winn-Dixie, Eckerd, and Woolworth, alongside a movie theater on its southeastern outlot.

This collection of stores and entertainment options positioned Richland Mall as a key destination for shopping and leisure in Columbia.

Transitioning to Modern Times

By the 1980s, the open-air concept of Richland Mall began to feel outdated, especially with the emergence of newer indoor malls like Dutch Square and Columbia Mall.

These modern competitors brought a wave of change in the retail industry, pressing Richland Mall to adapt.

In a bold move to reinvent itself, the mall was acquired by LJ Hooker in the late 1980s, who envisioned transforming it into a high-end, indoor shopping destination.

This vision led to the termination of leases for most stores in the original structure in 1987, except for J.B. White.

Winn-Dixie, one of the last holdouts, closed its doors on December 23, 1987, paving the way for a grand redevelopment project.

An Era Comes to an End

The closure of Winn-Dixie marked a significant turning point for Richland Mall. The plans for its transformation into an enclosed, upscale shopping center signaled the end of the original mall’s era.

This period saw the mall transitioning from an open-air center, a symbol of mid-century retail, to an enclosed structure that aimed to meet shoppers’ evolving demands.

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It was a time of excitement and uncertainty as the community awaited the mall’s next chapter.

In retrospect, Richland Mall’s inception and early years reflect a significant moment in the history of retail and community life in Columbia, SC, as a testament to the city’s growth and changing consumer trends.

Richland Fashion Mall

A New Chapter with Richland Fashion Mall

In 1988, Richland Mall embarked on a bold transformation, reinventing itself as the Richland Fashion Mall.

This new phase began with the opening a two-level wing extending from J.B. White to a new anchor store, Bonwit Teller, marking its debut in October 1988.

The expansion continued with the opening of another two-level wing in November 1989, terminating at a new anchor, Parisian.

These additions were significant for the mall and South Carolina, as both Bonwit Teller and Parisian were new to the state.

The mall also introduced innovative features, such as a large four-level parking garage and an aviation-themed food court, enhancing the shopping experience.

Challenges and Management Struggles

Despite its ambitious redevelopment, Richland Fashion Mall faced challenges from the start. The mall’s developer, LJ Hooker, was grappling with serious debt, leading to bankruptcy in 1989.

This financial turmoil had a ripple effect, impacting the mall’s anchor stores. Bonwit Teller, one of the mall’s new anchors, closed in August 1990, leaving a significant void in the still-new mall.

The departure of Bonwit Teller was a blow to the mall’s status as a high-end shopping destination.

Meanwhile, Parisian, after being bought back from LJ Hooker by its original owners, continued to operate, but the mall struggled to attract consistent customer traffic and maintain full occupancy.

The End of the Fashion Era

By the mid-1990s, the struggles of Richland Fashion Mall became more pronounced. Bonwit Teller’s closure and the mall’s underperformance led to significant changes.

In 1993, Dillard’s took over the former Bonwit Teller space, expanding its store footprint. Despite this, the mall faced difficulties, with nearly half of its space vacant.

The transition of the Litchfield Theater into a Regal Cinemas in 1995 was one of the few positive developments.

However, these efforts were not enough to revive the mall’s fortunes, and by 1996, the era of Richland Fashion Mall drew to a close, marking the end of an ambitious but troubled chapter in the mall’s history.

Transition and Renovation

Returning to Richland Mall Roots

1996, a significant shift occurred as the mall reverted to its original name, Richland Mall. This change symbolized a return to its roots and was marked by renovations.

The grand entrance, once proudly named “Richland Fashion Mall,” was demolished and replaced with a fresh facade. This revamp brought a new sense of identity and hope for revitalization.

Alongside this change, 1997 saw the opening of a Barnes & Noble bookstore adjacent to the new main entrance, infusing new life into the mall’s retail mix.

Store Shifts and Strategic Moves

The late 1990s were a period of strategic shifts for Richland Mall. TGI Fridays, a popular restaurant in the mall, relocated from the Parisian wing to the Dillard’s wing, complementing the new mall entrance.

In a major retail shuffle, J.B. White’s parent company, Mercantile Stores, was acquired by Dillard’s in 1998.

This acquisition led to the transformation of J.B. White into a Belk department store in September of the same year, a significant move in the mall’s retail lineup. These changes aimed to enhance the shopping experience and draw more visitors to the mall.

End of a Transitional Era

As the 1990s drew to a close, Richland Mall continued to adapt to the evolving retail landscape. Once a unique feature of the mall, the large, aviation-themed food court was closed and relocated to the lower level near the Parisian end.

The original food court space transformed into a call center, a move reflecting the changing utility of mall spaces.

This transition period set the stage for the new millennium, with Richland Mall poised to face the challenges of an ever-changing retail environment.

Decline in the 2000s

The Millennium Brings Challenges

As the new millennium unfolded, Richland Mall faced a steady decline. The departure of Dillard’s in 2003 marked a significant loss, leaving a void in the mall’s retail offering.

The space formerly occupied by Dillard’s saw a variety of temporary uses, including a furniture store named Blacklion and a short-lived stint as a ping-pong club.

These transitory solutions highlighted the mall’s struggle to maintain relevance and attract permanent tenants.

Ownership Changes and Unfulfilled Plans

The 2000s also saw a series of ownership changes for Richland Mall. In 2005, the mall was purchased by Peerless Development Group, which announced ambitious plans for extensive renovations.

They envisioned a transformation of the mall into “Midtown at Forest Acres.” However, these plans never materialized, and the mall’s loan defaulted, leading to it being put up for sale again in 2007.

This period of uncertainty further impacted the mall’s stability and appeal to retailers and shoppers.

Departures and Diminishing Presence

The departure of Parisian in February 2007 was another blow to the mall, further reducing its appeal to shoppers.

Despite these challenges, the Columbia Children’s Theatre brought a glimmer of hope when it relocated to Richland Mall in April 2009. However, this addition was not enough to counter the overall downward trend.

By the end of the decade, Richland Mall had become a shadow of its former self, with vacant spaces and a diminishing presence in Columbia’s retail scene.

Richland Mall Columbia
Richland Mall Columbia, SC” by MikeKalasnik is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Attempts at Revival (2010-Present)

New Ownership and Renaming Efforts

In 2010, a new chapter began for Richland Mall with its acquisition by Century Capitol Group. In partnership with Kahn Development Company, the new owners sought to revitalize the mall.

One of their first actions was to revert the name from “Midtown at Forest Acres” to “Richland Mall,” aiming to reconnect with the mall’s history and legacy.

This renaming was a strategic move to reestablish the mall’s community identity and attract retailers and shoppers.

Transitory Tenants and Fleeting Success

Throughout the early 2010s, Richland Mall saw a series of tenant changes. In 2011, S&S Cafeteria was replaced by Sadie’s American Cafeteria, which later gave way to Jackson Family Cafeteria.

However, these culinary ventures were short-lived, with Jackson Family Cafeteria closing in 2016. The mall also bid farewell to TGI Fridays in 2013, replaced by The Seafood Academy, which closed in 2016.

These departures and changes reflected the ongoing struggle to maintain a stable and appealing tenant mix.

The Current State of the Mall

Despite these efforts, Richland Mall continued to face challenges. Gymboree, a long-standing tenant, closed its doors in 2018 after 20 years.

In 2019, CivvieSupply, a brand offering military-inspired clothing, opened a fulfillment center in the mall, introducing a new type of use for the mall’s space. Yet, these changes were not sufficient to reverse the mall’s fortunes.

In February 2022, the Regal Columbia 7, a Regal Cinemas theater on the mall’s rooftop, shut down. Following this closure, the mall’s interior was also closed off to the public shortly afterward.

The Future of Richland Mall

Redevelopment Plans Unveiled

In a significant development, Richland Mall’s future took a new turn in late 2022 when Augusta-based Southeastern Development announced its plans to demolish and redevelop the site.

The ambitious project, expected to span over a decade, includes constructing new apartments, a grocery store, a variety of businesses, and a brewery.

This comprehensive redevelopment plan aims to transform the aging mall into a vibrant, mixed-use space, breathing new life into the area and marking a departure from the traditional mall format.

A Community and Economic Catalyst

The redevelopment of Richland Mall is poised to become a key driver of economic growth in Forest Acres.

With the involvement of both Richland County and the City of Forest Acres, the project highlights a strong public-private partnership.

The plans also include a 6-acre park, converting a vacant parking lot into a community event space with an amphitheater.

This addition is expected to create a much-needed communal area for large events, aligning with the city’s long-term economic and social growth vision.

A New Chapter Begins

As the redevelopment progresses, the mall will witness the closure of its remaining anchor stores, including Belk and Barnes & Noble.

However, these closures are part of a larger plan that sees the mall transitioning into a residential, retail, and recreational hub.

This transformation represents the end of an era for Richland Mall and the beginning of a new chapter in the area’s development, promising a dynamic and revitalized space for future generations.

Conclusion: Richland Mall – An Evolving Legacy

Richland Mall’s history is a transformation narrative, reflecting Columbia’s evolving dynamics of retail and community spaces.

From its inception as Columbia’s first shopping mall to its current state awaiting redevelopment, the mall has mirrored the changing preferences and challenges of the retail industry.

Throughout its existence, Richland Mall has played a significant role in shaping the retail landscape of Columbia.

It has been a landmark of shopping, social gatherings, and economic activity, adapting to the shifts in consumer behavior and retail trends.

As Richland Mall stands on the brink of a major redevelopment, it is set to embark on a new phase. The planned transformation into a mixed-use space signals a move towards more integrated and community-focused developments.

The legacy of Richland Mall continues, evolving with the times and promising to remain a significant part of Columbia’s urban tapestry.

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Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of

    Thugs move in businesses move out! It happens at every mall.

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      Despite occasional incidents, the mall has provided residents with a vibrant and dynamic retail and entertainment hub for many years.

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