When Citadel Mall opened in July 1981, mall officials hailed the arrival of "a new era in retailing" for Charleston.
What: Mayor Joe Riley, city planner Tim Keane and six Charleston City Council members will present plans for the West Ashley Economic Development Strategy next week at a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce event.
When: 7:30 a.m. Feb. 26
Where: Jason's Deli, 975 Savannah Highway
Cost: $15 for chamber members; $25 for others
More information: Call 577-2510
The 1.1-million-square-foot retail center was the largest enclosed mall in the region, and one of the largest in the state, promising a sales tax bounty for its host community.
When the city of Charleston snatched the 100-acre property from the St. Andrews Public Service District in a hotly contested annexation, it was the single most valuable addition to the city's tax base in history.
More than three decades later, however, the struggling Citadel Mall has fallen on hard times, plagued by near-empty parking lots, dwindling tenants and a battered image.
Once a thriving retail center with 135 stores and restaurants now has nearly half the number of merchants, a fact emphasized by its cavernous hallways and shuttered storefronts.
The Limited and Wet Seal recently closed their stores, as did RadioShack. Amy's Hallmark, a greeting card and gift shop, plans to close Feb. 24.
City officials are busy brainstorming ways to rejuvenate the former retail jewel after the mall's most recent owners lost the property in a foreclosure auction.
But the troubles the West Ashley mall has faced in the past few years go far beyond financial neglect. Enclosed shopping malls have been failing across the country in the past decade due to a whole range of factors, from the boom of online retailing to shoppers' safety concerns following multiple mall shootings around the nation. Andrew McKee of Malone, N.Y., shopped in Citadel Mall on Thursday while in town with his wife, Mary Beth McKee. He said the mall wasn't so different from the malls they're used to shopping in.
"We're seeing the same trends up North. The malls up there have empty stores as well. It's a national trend for malls today," McKee said.
However, Citadel Mall could have the opportunity to beat the odds. The recent foreclosure revealed a grim side of the once-great retail center, but it also may have provided a much-needed change in direction.
"The problem with Citadel Mall was that the company who owned it was not attending to it. And you can see that," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. "That's why we were very excited about the foreclosure."
Riley has put together a task force of city officials, mall managers and retail analysts to develop a concept that would re-energize the mall and other aspects of West Ashley's lagging retail climate.
The plan, called the "West Ashley Economic Development Strategy," could involve any number of changes at the retail center and surrounding areas.
One option the city has suggested involves building apartment complexes or office spaces on the 100-acre site with Citadel Mall. It could mean the shopping center is partially razed and redesigned. City planner Tim Keane has even suggested a reconfiguration of the streets in the area near Interstate 526.
"I think everything is on the table at this point," Keane said. "We're analyzing the market right now to really update our regional idea about retail. Because now we've got the Tanger Outlet in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant Towne Centre. We've got to calibrate here."
Diana Permar, who owns a national real estate consulting firm in Charleston, has been hired by the city to conduct a market analysis of West Ashley.
"I remember Citadel Mall opening and what a great thing that was, but over that period of time of 30 years, there has been a lot of growth in this region, but for the most part the growth has been east of the Cooper and north following I-26," Permar said.
A majority of West Ashley's retail landscape has been in place since the mid-1980s, if not longer. Meanwhile, other parts of town have been rapidly developing. New residential projects in places such as Summerville and Mount Pleasant brought along retail centers that looked vastly different from those in West Ashley, especially Citadel Mall.
"Everything has moved to these lifestyle centers and outdoor environments like Towne Centre," Keane said.
Greg Maloney has helped redevelop hundreds of struggling shopping centers across the country as the president and CEO of the retail sector of Jones Lang LaSalle, an international commercial real estate firm. In many cases, shopping centers lose their footing in the market when "something bigger and better has been built close by," Maloney said.
Unlike Northwoods Mall, which has a consumer base that stretches across Berkeley County, Citadel Mall now has to vie for attention in a market that includes downtown's King Street and the Tanger Outlet Center a few miles east on I-526.
"If the shopper now has all they need at a different location, there's really no chance of reviving it back to what it used to be. It's going to need to change to an outlet or a specialty center, or possibly something that's not even a retail use," Maloney said.
Several malls across the country have essentially turned "inside out," transforming hallways into sidewalks and adding new uses such as apartment complexes. One example is the Factoria Mall outside Seattle, which is being redeveloped as the Marketplace at Factoria, an outdoor mixed-use community center.
Mayor Riley said there's no "direct plan for that here."
"But if you look at the big picture over time, you see that type of redevelopment in areas across the country. I think that's an option to look at," Riley said.
Although the property at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and I-526 could be prime real estate for a brand new development, it's unlikely Citadel Mall will abandon its retail roots.
The large tenants - Target, Sears, Dillard's, J.C. Penney and Belk - own their parcels, and they're not likely to sell their properties anytime soon, according to the city.
"The anchor tenants are doing well, and their presence is of great value to the West Ashley residents because of convenience," Riley said.
In other words, if the mall is reconfigured, the anchors would have to be involved in and incorporated into the new design.
New York-based Spinoso Real Estate Group, which is managing the mall until it's sold, is focusing on attracting new tenants and short-term improvements, such as structural updates and better signs, according to Keane.
So far, the company has launched a more aggressive marketing campaign and a new website, www.citadelmall.net. New lease agreements have not yet been announced. Spinoso declined to comment.
It's unclear what the Citadel Mall of the future will look like, but city officials such as planner Keane are confident it can make a comeback.
"We are just now kicking off this West Ashley Economic Development Strategy ... so we can start implementing with the owner a plan for rejuvenation and a rethinking of Citadel Mall in a way that's updated to today's market and that creates a place in West Ashley where people will say, 'That's where we go,' " Keane said.
In a sense, Riley has come full-circle. The Citadel Mall annexation was one of the city's biggest projects during his first term in office. Now, in his final term, the West Ashley Economic Development Strategy is perhaps one of Riley's final marks on the city's retail landscape.
"The day I leave office I'll be working on this," he said. "There is revitalization that is going on west of the Ashley. And we are optimistic about the future because West Ashley is very strong economically."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail
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