south square mall
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.
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
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
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.
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.
(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.
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.