In April 2010, Bill Walkup and Don Taylor, principals in Century Capital Group, announced their purchase of the property formerly known as Richland Fashion Mall and Midtown at Forest Acres. As their first move in restoring it to its former glory, the men gave the place back its old name: Richland Mall. What’s more, they have brought on board longtime Columbia developer Alan Kahn, whose brainchild is the wildly successful retail and mixed-use venture Village at Sandhill.
The men are working on a master plan for the property. Bill says it’s unrealistic to expect to fill the vast amount of space – 875,000 square feet, to be exact – solely with retail.
“We’re getting interest from people looking at office space and also a medical facility. I’m certain we’ll wind up with a mixed-use property,” he says.
At the corner of Forest Drive and Beltline Boulevard, it’s once again an exciting time.
“What we want to emphasize most is that we are all local,” Bill says. Now, also understand we’re not magicians. We can’t get the mall revitalized overnight. Retailers are methodical in their decision-making. Retail sales are slow. This is the environment we’re working in.”
Still, the men are actively seeking suggestions on what people around Columbia would like to see in a revitalized Richland Mall. They’ve even set up a Facebook page specifically for the effort.
Built in the early 1980s, Richland Mall in Forest Acres replaced the original open air mall that many long-time Columbians remember as the original. The new structure carried high expectations. It was billed as the Lenox Square of the Midlands. Through the years, it has hosted its fair share of national chains. Bonwit Teller, Parisian, J. B. White, Dillard’s, Berry’s, The Bombay Company, and the remaining stalwart, Belk, are just a few of the national upscale brands that have been tenants. It has also served as home to some iconic Forest Acres’ businesses like BeBeep Toys and The Happy Bookseller.
Michelle Riley, a Columbia native, grew up visiting the mall: “It used to have this great open-air feel. There was a grocery store, and the movie theaters used to be out front,” she says. The grocery store was a Winn-Dixie, and before Litchfield opened its seven-screen cinema in 1990 on the mall’s rooftop (long before popcorn cost $12.50 per bucket) movie-goers got to experience a large, two-screen theater, with rocking, overstuffed comfortable seats—the 90s version of a multiplex.
The mall has seen some better days with Bonwit Teller adding 80,000 square feet of retail shopping space and J.B. White constructing a third floor in 1988, bringing another 64,000 square feet of clothing and house wares for sale. Baskin Robbins sold its 31 flavors nearby, and the mall became a happening place to be.
No one can deny that Richland Mall has suffered its fair share of growing pains and setbacks, too. Original developer L.J. Hooker encountered financial problems and applied for provisional liquidator status as early as 1989. Some tenants sued the developer over alleged contract breaches. Forest Acres residents opposed zoning changes, especially the clear cutting of a stand of trees for the mall’s parking lot and the widening of Beltline Boulevard, which, they complained, would lead to traffic congestion.
But there was still great hope. In 1988, Richland Mall’s $150 million expansion represented the largest industrial investment in the county to date. The mall, then and now, has always been a significant contributor to the community, especially when it comes to charitable events. Among others, it has hosted a number of fashion shows to benefit the Columbia City Ballet, silent auctions to assist the American Heart Association and events to benefit the March of Dimes.
In 1990 after its physical expansion, mall owners rechristened the facility Richland Fashion Mall. In addition to its upscale retailers, the building’s makeover included new decorative fountains that sprayed intermittent plumes of water and the new staple for malls in the South: a food court. The emphasis on fashion, however, severely limited the mall’s focus, leading to a dearth of product diversity.
In the early 2000s, the mall shifted its focus again and concentrated on pulling in small boutique-type stores like the Columbia Museum of Art Gift Shop. In 2005, a North Carolina firm bought the property for $19 million, announced plans to develop the space as mixed-use retail and residential, and gave it yet another new name: Midtown at Forest Acres. While the City of Forest Acres hosts a largely upper-middle-class to wildly wealthy demographic, Manhattan it is not, and the concept withered on the vine.
While Barnes & Noble Booksellers, S&S Cafeteria, TGI Fridays, Belk and Regal Cinema continued to hold down the fort, the property’s largest tenant became a Verizon call center, which owns separate property sold off by mall developers.
The mall’s new owners are actively seeking suggestions on what people around Columbia would like to see in a revitalized Richland Mall. Says Bill Walkup, “We’re local. We get it. And we care.”
But all this is old news, hardly worth a rehash, except that it provides a history and also a backdrop with which to contrast the eager hopes of Bill Walkup, Don Taylor and Alan Kahn.
“We have three or four small tenants already signed up, and we’re going to continue the farmer’s market,” Bill says.
The rooftop farmer’s market, barely a year old, has been wildly popular. Shoppers can get bedding plants and local produce fresh from the garden at a significant savings over surrounding grocery stores.
“We also have a vendor selling South Carolina shrimp that he picks up from the docks in Charleston and brings straight to the market. At $9.25 a pound, it’s also about 25 percent cheaper than the stores. It just goes to show you how competitive it’s going to be. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our shoppers,” Bill says.
Competitive is the operative word for the new owners. They offer what Bill says are remarkably competitive lease rates compared to the other malls in town. Again, because the owners are local, they have their fingers on the pulse of the Columbia markets. But neither Alan nor Bill see Richland Mall and the Village as direct competitors.
“There’s a significant distance between the two locations,” Bill says. “We may see some overlap, but not to the extent that one will take business away from the other.”
Ironically, Alan joined the project after Bill and Don bought the mall and began interviewing national retail consultants.
“As a matter of fact,” Bill says, “I’ve got a 50-page report that told us a lot of things we already knew: that we were surrounded by a lot of neighborhoods with high incomes, and we aren’t really in the same marketing areas as Columbia Mall or the Village at Sandhill. I’ve known Alan since junior high school and concluded he was not a competitor, so we asked him to help us.”
As a result, the trio is looking for a combination of national chains to be drawing cards for businesses from other sectors.
“We’re looking for a lot of variety, but the highest quality,” Bill says. While the men don’t look to replicate the Village at Sandhill — given the limited space, it would be impossible anyway — they do want to mirror its community involvement, such as the Village’s 4th of July celebration and Halloween festival.
They plan to build on what already exists, according to Bill: “You may not know it, but the City of Forest Acres started the rooftop bands festival. It has a real carnival atmosphere and has been going on for the past two or three years.”
They will continue with the popular singing animated Christmas bears inside the mall, Halloween events and the farmer’s market.
Of the benefit of having the only mall parking garage in Columbia, Bill says, “I was walking through one of the stores one day and one of the cashiers who didn’t know who I was said, ‘If it’s raining, you can stay dry. If it’s a hundred degrees outside, you can return to a cool car in the shade. And we have the safest mall in Columbia.’ It warmed my heart to hear her say that.”
When Bill and his partners established their mall Facebook page, they received 1,520 postings in the first two weeks. In response, he reassures, “We’re local. We get it. And we care.”