South Carolina mall evolving into town center
The Peerless Development Group has begun converting a 40 percent vacant shopping mall in Forest Acres, South Carolina, into the core of a development that may eventually contain a network of streets and sidewalks, street-oriented retail, a restored creek corridor, and varied housing, including a retirement community. Peerless intends to transform the 1.5 million sq. ft. Richland Mall into a mixed-use development called Midtown at Forest Acres, using ideas laid out in a charrette conducted by Opticos Design of Berkeley, California, with Allison Ramsey Architects of Asheville, North Carolina.
“We’re following the CNU publication Greyfields into Goldfields,” says John Perry, vice president for governmental affairs of the development company based in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Perry is familiar with New Urbanism, having previously been town manager of Port Royal, South Carolina, where he worked with Miami architect Victor Dover on a master plan that culminated in the adoption of a traditional town code.
The February 2005 charrette produced a plan that was estimated to take five to eight years to carry out. The first phase called for running streets through parts of the mall; creating new main street frontage along an inner street; developing housing in a street and block pattern atop an existing parking garage; constructing a mixed-use residential block; forming a district containing a hotel, additional retail, and a neighborhood square; and building a civic center that would include a city hall and an arts facility.
starting with the dead zones
Retailers with leases allowing them to continue operating in the 18-year-old mall have limited Peerless’s ability to implement some of those ideas as fast as the company would like. Consequently, Perry has shifted toward concentrating his initial construction on the mall’s “dead” sections, such as a department store vacated by Dillard’s. This summer Peerless will begin building a three-story, 120-unit condominium hotel in the Dillard’s space. The developer also expects to start construction of two buildings containing about 100 residential units in all.
Perry has discovered that the existing four-story garage cannot support much of the housing that the charrette envisioned. Thus, some of Midtown’s housing will consist of a pair of residential towers attached to the garage but not dependent upon it for structural support.
Perry expects the $300 million endeavor to include a retirement community seamlessly integrated into the neighborhood. A neglected creek corridor is to be restored, becoming the focal point of a new five-acre park. This should provide an appealing creekside setting for residential and commercial frontage.
It is unclear whether Peerless will be able to implement one of the charrette’s key planning recommendations: construction of a city hall and arts facility at a prominent intersection now occupied by a gas station. “That corner was seen as an important gateway to the site,” says Stefan Pellegrini, senior designer at Opticos. Peerless has acquired the 40-acre mall site, in a suburb of Columbia, the state capital, but has not yet been able to purchase the station. Further complicating the situation, the government of the 10,600-person municipality has not committed to moving there. Nonetheless, Perry thinks that if the station property can be acquired, eventually a “public-purpose building,” possibly including government offices and a performing arts center, will be constructed there.
Opticos worked on a master plan, a phasing plan, and a form-based code, which the municipality adopted. As a result, Pellegrini says, local officials have the legal power to insist that the developer carry out crucial parts of the concept. The architect now assigned to the project is CJMW in Lexington, South Carolina.
If completed, Midtown would be one of the largest US mall conversions of its kind. Similar projects include Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, and Eastgate mall near Chattanooga. In the late 1990s, Dover, Kohl & Partners drew up a plan for turning Eastgate into a mixed-use town center. But only part of the plan — converting some buildings to offices and building a “town square” — was carried out. Within the past year Freedman, Tung & Bottomley of San Francisco has also worked on a promising mall plan — one that would introduce mixed-use, transit-oriented development around a flourishing mall in Tukwila, Washington.
One of the most successful projects that reuses parts of an existing mall and adds housing and public spaces is Paseo Colorado in downtown Pasadena, California. More commonly, failed malls have simply been demolished, and new developments have been built from scratch on their sites. That was how Boca Raton, Florida, got Mizner Park, a thriving mixed-use center that has inspired a number of town center projects across the nation.