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south square mall


There are several large green highway signs along US 15/501 north from Interstate 40 announcing the site of South Square Mall in Durham, North Carolina.  At that site, located near the intersection of the 15/501 bypass around the city and the business route, there are a couple more.  But there is no mall.  There are remnants of the former complex: an Office Depot that was once a supermarket and even some old parking lot lighting, but nothing else.  In its place stands a shiny new Sam’s Club, a Super Target store and Ross Dress for Less.  The new shopping center, still called South Square, is impressive and well-trafficked, but pales in comparison to what stood on the site a few short years earlier.  That site, surrounded today by office towers, fast food restaurants and a couple of Michael Jordan’s new car dealerships, is where South Square Mall opened in the summer of 1975.  


The American enclosed mall boom was well underway in the mid-1970s, and the Raleigh-Durham area was no exception to the trend.  South Square was not the first enclosed mall in the area, or the first in its neighborhood.  It was, however, the largest mall in Durham when it opened, and signaled the decisive shift of commerce away from downtown.  Anchored at first by JCPenney, Belk-Leggett, Montgomery Ward and Miller & Rhoads, this was a middle market mall with upscale aspirations and the demographics to prove it.  It was large and fancy enough to attract shoppers from both nearby Chapel Hill, which saw its own enclosed mall, built two years earlier, take a direct sales and prestige hit from South Square, and from the growing Research Triangle Park, with its high-income employees, many of which had come from larger cites already very familiar with suburban shopping.


For the first twenty years or so, South Square was able to rest on its laurels with no threats to its existence.  The anchors were largely stable.  JCPenney and Belk-Leggett remained at the mall through its entire existence.  Montgomery Ward closed due to poor sales in 1983, only to be replaced by a splashy new Ivey’s a year later (which became Dillard’s in 1990).  About the same time as Ivey’s arrived, Miller & Rhoads closed due to a retrenchment by its parent company and the space was taken over by a spacious new food court.  The mall was remodeled in the mid 1980s and the tenant roster changed from Seventies stalwarts like Kinney Shoes, Radio Shack and Orange Julius to up-market chains like Abercrombie & Fitch and White House/Black Market.  There was even talk of expanding the mall to accommodate a new Hecht’s store in the early ‘90s.   Things, it seemed, couldn’t be better.


A single word changed the game for South Square and forever altered the Raleigh-Durham area’s retail balance:  Southpoint.


At first conceived as a small, possibly open-air shopping center to capture more of the Research Triangle Park’s retail wealth in Durham County at a site along Interstate 40, eight miles to the east of South Square, Southpoint’s early developers, Urban Retail Properties, was able to get the attention of May Department Stores’ Hecht’s division, which was the first anchor signed.  Hecht’s had no nearby locations and negotiations had broken off with South Square’s developers, Faison Associates.  Soon, Sears committed to the project as well.  At first, South Square and Southpoint were to be seen as friendly rivals, complimenting each other much like South Square complimented the offerings at University Mall in Chapel Hill and Northgate Mall across town.  But Urban picked up more interest in its project as conditions at South Square began to deteriorate.


South Square Mall had been coasting for many years, as was stated earlier.  The area around it remained prosperous and there were few alternative venues for chain stores in the immediate area.  Faison began using the mall as a “cash cow,’ taking more money out of the property than it was investing into it.  As a result, the mall began to look and feel tired.  Maintenance began to drop off, crimes went up.  Sales stagnated, especially as cross-town formerly friendly rival Northgate Mall completed a major expansion and renovation in 1995.  The 1980s renovation at South Square was wearing thin, and many of the chain stores stopped remodeling or simply closed.  The retail market was evolving from traditional mall tenants to big-box retailers and discounters, spearheaded in the Durham area by New Hope Commons, two miles west of the mall at Interstate 40 and US 15/501.  To be sure, the mall was getting squeezed. Faison began to promise renovations for South Square starting around the same time that Northgate remodeled, but nothing ever happened. 


Belk-Leggett (which became Hudson Belk in 1997) and JCPenney were officially committed to staying at South Square as late as 1999, but Urban Retail, sensing its project could become a major regional destination, began to woo Nordstrom.  Nordstrom had no local stores but plenty of local fans and had broken off negotiations at two other nearby shopping centers.  Southpoint had many advantages: it was a new site, close to a high concentration of wealth and already had a lot of retailer interest to boot.  So, after some trepidation, North Carolina’s first Nordstrom store was set to open at Southpoint.  Nordstrom turned Southpoint from a pipe dream to a contender for the area’s retail supremecy.  With the threat of an upscale mega-mall harnessing a majority of South Square’s customers, JCPenney and Hudson Belk made the decision to move to Southpoint, thereby signaling the imminent death of South Square Mall.


The Streets at Southpoint (as it came to be called) opened on March 11, 2002 to an enthusiastic public response.  That same day, South Square Mall was emptied of two of its anchors and nearly all of its small shops.  Dillard’s was the largest store in a “ghost mall” where the remaining stores planned to leave as soon as their leases would let them.  Most of the last stores were either traditional retailers that were discouraged from leasing at the new mall (athletic shoe stores, Radio Shack, Piccadilly Cafeteria) or mom or pop stores that couldn’t afford the substantial rents elsewhere. By August, Dillard’s pulled the plug on its store and the city of Durham, citing falling sales. South Square Mall was closed for good by Christmas of that year.


The flattening of South Square Mall was one the largest demolitions in the history of Durham and was carried out in the spring of 2003.  Many ideas for the site were offered in public forums around the area, but ultimately retail won out.  Construction started on the “new” South Square in summer 2003 and continues to this day, with its first new store, Super Target, opened in March 2004.