When it opened on Sept. 17, 1959, Pinehaven Shopping Center was billed as the largest retail complex in South Carolina.

On Tuesday, almost 52 years after the day it opened, the shopping center that once served thousands met its demise.

Spreading across 18 acres at the juncture of Rivers and McMillan avenues in North Charleston, the U-shaped retail hub once prospered off the thousands of sailors and contract workers at the nearby bustling Navy base, as well as the thousands of people who lived on the city's southern end.

Anchored by Winn-Dixie and Belk and peppered with a slew of other stores, it was the place to shop.

"In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, I used to shop here very often," Mayor Keith Summey said Tuesday. "I brought my wife here to shop."

Then, in the 1970s and early 1980s, indoor malls became all the rage as they catered to the exploding suburban populations of metro Charleston. Northwoods Mall opened in 1972, and Citadel Mall flung open its doors nine years later. Renamed Shipwatch Square in 1985, it was no longer the go-to place.

The final blow came when the Navy pulled out of North Charleston in 1996. Winn-Dixie held on until 2005, but its departure spelled doom for the

once prominent shopping center as boarded-up windows soon replaced sale signs for goods.

Summey on Tuesday donned a hard hat and crawled into the cab of a track hoe to knock down a piece of North Charleston history.

Clawing into the mostly abandoned shopping center, Summey ripped the brick facade off a section of what was once a Western Auto years ago before tearing through a metal and glass bay door.

The city bought the property in 2010 to transform it into a retail zone and housing for people with assisted-living needs, seniors and people with Alzheimer's disease.

The mayor called the shopping center's demolition, which will take place over the next four months, a new beginning for the city's blighted southern end.

"Our goal is to make it a viable asset for the community where people want to shop," Summey said after idling the track hoe. "Folks in this area deserve a good place to shop."

Walgreens has committed to build a pharmacy store on the corner of Rivers and McMillan avenues where an abandoned Wachovia Bank stands.

An undisclosed bank is under contract for the Rivers Avenue side of the tract where a Chinese restaurant once stood, and Summey said the city is in discussions with two grocery chains to anchor the redevelopment project, though none has committed yet.

Under terms of the agreement for Walgreens, the city purchased the defunct bank site for $675,000. After the building is razed, developers will erect the pharmacy store. The city will lease the land to the developers for $1 a year for three years. At the end of the term, the operators will buy the site for $675,000.

"It will be a wash," Summey said of the incentive strategy.

Asbestos has been removed from the former bank and the wing that housed Western Auto and other shops near McMillan Avenue. They will be demolished first.

The rest of the shopping center will come down as asbestos abatement is completed and the last shop to operate there, urban clothing store Citi Trends, moves to a shopping area on Rivers Avenue at Aviation Avenue in October.

The city also is considering acquiring the nearby Charleston County Sheriff's Office property after the office moves to Leeds Avenue, and the city wants to relocate the nearby library to the site to update the building and bring more traffic to the area, Summey said.

In addition, the mayor wants the new shopping center to be designed with intersecting streets, much like Mount Pleasant Towne Centre, to give stores plenty of visibility and accessibility for walk-in traffic.

Extra security will be added to the shopping center to alleviate concerns over crime, Summey said.

"It's something that's going to add value to the neighborhood around it," the mayor said. "It will give the community a sense of hope."

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Shane Niles, operator of the nearby family-owned import/export business Tri-State Warehouse, welcomed the destruction of the eyesore Tuesday.

"It's going to stimulate some kind of activity," Niles said.

"We have been waiting a long time for this," said his mother, Ramona Niles.

Key dates

Sept. 17, 1959: North Charleston's first major retail complex, the $3.3 million Pinehaven Shopping Center, opens at Rivers and McMillan avenues.

1985: Property is renamed Shipwatch Square.

2004: A private developer buys the troubled retail center with plans to transform it into shops and condominiums.

2005: Anchor tenant Winn-Dixie closes its supermarket at Shipwatch Square.

2010: City of North Charleston acquires the all-but-vacant Shipwatch Square for $2.5 million after a private redevelopment plan falls victim to the recession and real estate downturn.

July 2011: The city said Walgreens will build a pharmacy on a former bank site at Rivers and McMillan avenues.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.