Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Columbia Place Mall: Columbia/Dentsville, SC

The very first two-level shopping mall in South Carolina was Columbia Place Mall, opening on the northeast side of the city in 1977 near the convergence of then-incomplete I-77, I-20 and the newly constructed SC 277 freeway.  It is an ideal location geographically, and it was uniquely large for the city and its time.  With all it had positive, it appeared it would eventually become dominant.  The past year, however, was not a good year for the mall and it is clear that this mall was not what it once was.  After all, Columbia Place is a fairly large mall in a city that is absolutely over-malled, and the scene today presents many challenges for the 33 year old center.

When looking at the mall around 2000, the anchor line-up looked solid for the mall with Rich's, Dillard's, Sears and JCPenney.  The Rich's location, South Carolina's first location of the iconic Atlanta institution, was the only such store in the city.  It arrived along with three mini-malls scattered across the city anchored by their discount division Richway, so Columbia Place was at the time a very ambitious arrival.  It was also undoubtably worrisome for older and smaller Dutch Square Mall.  People in the city were obviously impressed, because the mall stayed largely successful for over 25 years.  The only problem was that something was not being considered: none of those stores were Columbia's stores.  Regardless, that did not seem to matter since Columbia in that period was increasingly resembling a junior Atlanta retail-wise.

Looking from the former Dillard's wing toward Macy's.  The first photo is of the center court, decked out on Decker Blvd.

Walking towards the former JCPenney along the main mall concourse.

Mall map, which shows a very basic two-level mall.  It is at least up-to-date.

In layout, Columbia Place is also ironically similar to Cumberland Mall in Atlanta.  Sears was the south anchor, JCPenney the north anchor and Rich's the west anchor on the back side.  A food court opened on the upper level near Sears.  The mall was also always a two level mall, catering to a similar super regional demographic like Cumberland Mall.  The only difference was that the east anchor opened as Belk instead of Davison's.  In fact, Belk's position there was strange when considering that there actually was a Davison's operating downtown when the mall opened that suprisingly did not join the mall.  Belk did not have any other mall-based locations in the city when it opened, either.  Over time, the mall became somewhat of a run-of-the-mill mall, but it was one of only two two-level malls in the entire state up until the time that Richland Mall was built on the site of a much smaller open-air mall.

While the mall has vacancies throughout, no part of the mall seems to be having more trouble than the former JCPenney wing.  Piccadilly Cafeteria and other shops hang on, but it is quite empty.  To the left was a two-story built-in Old Navy, which recently closed along with many other inline stores.  While this mall failed to impress me, that does not mean that I like seeing this happen.


JCPenney was split in two after they left at the peak of the lifestyle center craze.  The upper level functioned as Steve & Barry's until early 2009 while the bottom level continues to operate as a Burlington Coat Factory.

View of the court area in front of the former JCPenney.  These Christmas lights tend to make the mall more festive, but are a bit frustrating for photo purposes.  I say that as if they were planning on me coming and taking photos.

Columbia Place was a retail rock up until the turn of the century.  By that time, the mall was beginning to see changing demographics as the prosperity began to move further out in the county.  The first change occurred in 1998 when Belk was replaced by Dillard's, which initially looked to be an upscaling of the center.  However, nearby Decker Mall, housing Kroger Sav-On and Target, emptied out in 1999 with both stores moving further up Two Notch Road.  Nevertheless, the mall received a complete renovation in 2002 that was meant to keep the mall competitive.  Nevertheless, the retail scene had changed dramatically since it opened.  What was two malls in the city in 1977 became four malls with Columbiana becoming the dominant regional draw and Richland Mall diluting the customer base of Columbia Place.  The sucker punch, though, came in 2005 when a shiny new lifestyle center opened at the intersection of Two Notch Road (US 1) & Clemson Road known as Village at Sandhill.  Not only did this draw retail from the periphery, but it also stole away JCPenney.  The mall did manage to fill the void, however, bringing in Steve & Barry's on the upper level and Burlington Coat Factory on the lower level.  2005 also saw the transition of original anchor Rich's into Macy's, the first time the Macy's name had returned to the city since the downtown store closed more than a decade before.

 Moving now into the Sears wing, the mall's escalators tend to drop down in non-descript central locales away from center court.  The little girl is actually an advertisement by the mall encouraging advertisers to buy a banner.  These banners are one of the ugliest things to happen to malls as of late, but I guess they're needed to pay for the enormous heating and air-conditioning bills.

Standing in front of Sears.  The food court is off to the left.

Now back to Macy's.  Note the staircase has not been fully renovated unlike the rest of the upstairs walkway judging by the very 70's corduroy concrete.  Macy's mall entrance, which still carries the Rich's design, was a bit of a disappointment.  As one of only two Macy's and formerly Rich's in South Carolina, indeed such detail was probably not given as much priority.

A closer look at Macy's.  While the sign is backed by black reflective glass, it is also cut into the diagonal shapes so popular in that period that were commonly used for cedar-sided buildings.

Looking up to the ceiling from downstairs in the center court.  These octagonal skylights are definitely from another time.  What I do not like, though, is the ceiling includes the introduction of the industrial ceiling treatment, which made an unfortunate debut in the late 70's and exploded in popularity in the 90's.  Why cant it go out of style like now?

Since the 1990's, medium-sized cities with multiple malls like Columbia have discovered multiple malls found it more difficult to compete due to store consolidation, retail saturation and declining demand.  This caused weaker players to fall behind with one mall emerging as the strong, leading mall.  Columbia Place is in that awkward position right now with Columbiana clearly emerging as the superstar of the city to the west and Village at Sandhill poised for eventual dominance in the east.  Beginning in 2009, the situation went from bad to worse when Dillard's decided to bail out from the mall, leaving only one location in the city at Columbiana.  Old Navy, a large two-story junior anchor, also left on the same wing where JCPenney was.   On top of that, Steve & Barry's also left when the chain went bankrupt early in 2009.  The mall now only retains Sears and the only Macy's location in the city, though Burlington Coat Factory keeps the old JCPenney half-occupied.  The survival of the mall completely depends on the retention of Macy's, which is bound to make management nervous considering the available anchor pad at Columbiana, space intended for Dillard's at Village at Sandhill and the empty anchors at Richland, which despite Richland's dying state has still maintained a semi-upscale status.

Approaching the former Dillard's, which opened as Belk.  Dillard's renovated the interior but made no such attempts on the exterior.  It is likely the only instance I know of where a Dillard's took over a Belk.  It lasted there 12 years and thoroughly employed those Belk arches.

Here is a closer look.  Any ideas on who might like this store?

A look inside from the lower level.  Seeing this ominously reminds me of when I was able to look straight into the closed Belk/McRae's at Century Plaza. 

A view of the Sears mall entrance from the lower level.  Nothing special here, unfortunately.  Sears and Macy's seem to have a special place in their heart for older malls who lost most of their other anchors.  If they didn't, there would be quite a few more abandoned malls.

The mall itself is also not a very enjoyable shopping experience.  The parking lot at the mall was noticeably empty compared to other malls, and most national chain stores have left the mall.  Not only was the mall lacking in selection, but mainly it was boring.  The departure of Dillard's could not have happened at a worse time.  If they had left back in 2005, the mall could have possibly retrofitted with a lifestyle addition, which would be difficult to finance today.  It is possible the mall has some solid plan to turn around, but the prognosis is not good.  However, Belk may be interested in taking its former store location back, so who knows?


Macy's from the outside.  Because the lower level is actually buried, the west entrance is open with a catwalk connecting the upper level entrance.  Inside is an atrium with stairs on the left, an elevator on the right and a strange nook showcase room next to it.  Inside that room are mature trees which scrape against the glass on the elevator.  The metal trellis is also showing some signs of deterioration with significant rusting on part of it.

A view of the showcase room, which was being used as the Christmas shop.  Someone took a video of the elevator looking into this room, which can be found on You Tube.

A look at the former JCPenney, now Burlington Coat Factory on the lower level, and the Columbia Place mall entrance.

I only hope that somehow if Columbia Place does completely die that it will be for the gain of Richland or Dutch Square.  With three troubled malls and one dominant, I believe that one of the three troubled malls might emerge rejuvinated provided what Macy's decides to do.  Macy's holds the key to save any of three malls.  If Macy's jumps across town and joins Columbiana, all three will eventually fail.  If instead Macy's holds on or joins the two weaker malls, then two malls will survive, giving multiple shopping options to the growing city.  Only time will tell how this will end when the dust settles, because the retraction of Dillard's and exit of Parisian from the market prior to the Belk buyout has been difficult for the malls in the city.  It would help if a dark horse entered such as Nordstrom considering a location at Richland, for instance.  Columbia Place has served the city well, but I only wish that it had been made a bit more appealing.  While this is only one factor, I tend to think that if it was more interesting, it would be more competitive.


Former Dillard's/Belk. This is one of the worst Belk designs.

A not-so-good shot of the Sears from the parking lot.  Lighting was poor around the mall in many areas.

I took this while leaving Columbia Place.  If I don't make it back for two or more years, will this mall be here when I get back?

For more views of Columbia Place, check out this You Tube video.


  1. As far as Dillard's taking over Belks, there are a few examples, this being one, Hamilton Place in Chattanooga being another (of course, Belk came back there with the Proffitt's buyout). Belk and Dillard's swapped a few stores on a couple of occasions, including as a part of the Mercantile buyout.

  2. This Rich's is the most "70s" of the ones I ever went in. When I visited in 2002 or 2003, the escalator well was out of this world, with mirrors everwhere and the up and down escalators at right angles to each other (definiately at some sort of angle -- perhaps not 90 degrees). And that whole trellis/nook/catwalk thing...very interesting. When I was there the mall was doing fine. I'm rather sad to see that it's not faring as well as it used to, no thanks to Sandhill. If Macy's does decide to leave, my money is on Columbiana. Richland wouldn't be a bad choice, and I'm all for filling empty space, but Richland just seems to much of a niche place for a replacement of the Cola Place store.

    Happy new year, JT! Glad to see you still going strong. Should you ever decide to come up and cover Charlotte, let me know...

  3. I drove by Columbia Place about 6 years ago and was frightened off by the area and the exterior, but then I went to it about 5 years ago (after JC Penney left, but while Dillard's was still there) and I thought that it was a pretty decent mall; the interior was attractive, but it had some Eastland Mall (Charlotte- ghetto mall) stores that were starting to seep in. I don't see the mall closing anytime soon, although having 2.5 anchors out of 4 isn't good. Richland is still limping along with just 1 anchor out of 3, which provides hope.

  4. This place seems like a smaller version of Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, N.C., another mall developed by Jacobs, Visconsi & Jacobs in the same era. CBL took over both malls when the Jacobs Group divested its retail holdings, and gave both malls similar remodels. Columbia Place's remodel is a little classier, but Hanes Mall is much more successful.

  5. JT,

    Great post.

    I grew up about an hour east of Columbia Place and fondly remember (in the late 80's and early 90's) making the BIG shopping trip twice a year to the mall. Magnolia and Florence Malls in Florence couldn't hold a candle to the big mall.

    I didn't go to the mall for about 12 years until the summer of 2008. I remembered a thriving mall with mid and upper market national stores replaced by an out of place Macys, local government, regional stores, and military recruitment centers.

    I see Columbia Place as a foreshadow of Gwinett Place. Both malls are in the NE part of the metro region, near busy interstate interchanges, and initially drew crowds far beyond the metro area. Both malls unfortunately had anchor shifts and departures, crowd troubles, decline in public perception, and shiny new mall and lifestyle center competition. Both face uncertain futures, but I think Gwinnett Place has a chance to become an international store focused mall.

    What happens when the Macy's lease at Columbia Place expires? As the previous poster said, Macy's will either move to Columbiana or Richland. Frankly, I see Macy's moving to Richland; great lease deals, unique draw and an empty two-story store. That leaves Sears in a mall pretty much itself. Sears doesn't fit at Richland (particularly because of auto and auto repair access) and Sandhill's got its own problems. Could you see Sears moving into Dutch Square? I can't see Columbia without two Sears.

    Thanks again and great post.

  6. That industrial ceiling treatment is probably not original. It probably originally had a very Taubman-esque skylight setup typical to most Jacobs Group Malls (see Hanes Mall for a good example.) Some CBL renovations do a good job.... but the one in Columbia Place... not so much.

  7. Of all the malls I have been to in Columbia. Columbia Place Mall takes the cake.

    Most people enjoy the inside mall experience so much more than just a one store stop that is usually what the outside malls offer. Fix up a little. Get some real attraction on the outside and it will become the shopping destination rather than the closed pocketbook summer stroll in the so called lifestyle centers. Columbia Place you have a great location and a great structure. Get creative,get upscale entertainment and you will be the Place!

  8. The Village at Sandhill is cute and fun but I wish Columbia Place was more alive and well and would have enjoyed it in its heyday. It's so nice inside and with Columbia's only Macy's too. On the flip side the mall has more local and run down stores there's no chains not even Aeropostale, American Eagle etc. Both which are at Sandhill. It's just strange to me that this nice big two level mall is subpar. I will say the outside of the mall is hideous, I was a little scared and laughing when the first time I pulled into the Sears parking lot.

  9. Columbia Place is stuck in a similar rut to Dutch Square: a bigger, newer development drained out its life and the neighborhood its in is in decline. Once Macy's pulls out, this mall is sadly history. It is right now in roughly the same position that Eastland Mall in Charlotte was a couple years before, though the mall is clearly better maintained and more updated.

  10. It started out as Columbia Mall. In it's day, it was one of the most impressive malls in a tri state area. Rich's had 3 levels, a lower middle and upper. It stocked everything from mattress' to cook ware to underwear. The anchor stores were impressive, but the specialty shops boasted every major chain that existed in the 70's and 80's. Visiting this mall at Christmas took one's breath away. I still remember the beautiful tree Belk had in front of their elevator. It covered the two full stories of the store. Looking at Columbia Place Mall leaves one with a very sad feeling. Half empty with less than stellar retail shops.

    1. You summed it all up here. I remember going to this mall during Christmas and it for sure took your breath away. You mention the tree at Belk, yes, it was beautiful and I remember it well. Yes, the mall is very sad to look at today. I don't go there anymore, its almost too painful to look at. I like to think of it as a reminder to me how things can turn so sour so fast.

  11. This mall was called Columbia Mall until around 2002 when it celebrated its 25 birthday. I believe that was when the name was changed to Columbia Place.

  12. Columbia Place's owners CBL & Associates Properties quit making mortgage payments on the property and as a result the lender has foreclosed. The property is currently in receivership and is being operated by Spinoso Real Estate Group of N. Syracuse, NY. CBL & Associates also defaulted on payments on Citadel Mall in Charleston, SC and it was also placed into receivership. The foreclosure proceedings recently concluded with the lender bidding on the property at auction and winning it. Spinoso Real Estate Group is also managing Citadel Mall and formulating a plan for its revitalization and renovation. Unlike Columbia Place, while Citadel Mall has a high "in-line" tenant vacancy, it has six successful anchor tenants and a new 16-screen IMAX.