DeKalb County decidedly has an enormous amount of malls. Five are operating today with six briefly in 2001 before the county's first mall closed for good. Because of this, South DeKalb is generally overshadowed today by enormous upscale Perimeter Mall and sprawling, contemporary Stonecrest. South DeKalb first opened in 1970, built by Rouse Co. and originally anchored by a three-level Rich's, two-level JCPenney and Morrison's Cafeteria. In addition, like Greenbriar a line of shops also front the mall that otherwise have no mall access. This seems to have been typical up to 1970. It was also originally very similar in layout to Greenbriar Mall with the notable exception that Greenbriar had a subterranean level mid-mall. Both still hold true today. When the mall opened, it was the third in the county behind Columbia/Avondale (1964) and North DeKalb (1965). Of those first three it was the biggest and the best, but that changed within only one year when Northlake and Perimeter opened.
This image from AJC shows the mall on opening day in April 1970. The mall will turn 40 next month.
Scenes along the main mall do not change much. On bottom is the marble floor and on top, it looks like upside down dominoes. I imagine this scene had much more appeal and presence when the mall included trees and fountains. The first image shows the most detailed view of center court, which is nothing but elevated panels and a crossroads with the front and rear entrance wings.
The first six years of the mall were still enormous for the mall. A new retail strip surfaced on Candler Road (GA 155) to accompany the new mall. However, the honeymoon was over quickly was when the mall was greeted with enormous competition far too close. South of Atlanta, Southlake Mall eroded the customer base, primarily white shoppers, that left for the newer, much larger mall. Worse than that, as white flight progressed from the late 70's into the early 80's, the income levels around the mall dropped substantially. In fact, the decline was substantial enough that it also adversely affected nearby Belvedere Shopping Center and Columbia (Avondale) Mall far more than South DeKalb. By the late 1980's, South DeKalb emerged as mall catering predominately to an African-American clientele.
The food court is found along the front entrance wing. While small and roughly built in, it did decent business. This was probably added in the 1997 renovation.
Across from the front entrance/food court wing is this very narrow back entrance wing which originally served only as a back entrance. Today, there is still an entrance there but straight ahead are the theaters that were added to the mall in 2006. This was undoubtedly a boost to the mall and definitely the wing. I do not like the kiosks there much, though: they make this look cluttered.
Through the 80's and 90's, South DeKalb was far from dying, but unlike other area malls it received no new anchors, upgrades or improvements whatsoever. In fact, in the late 1980's the mall was struggling and people feared its demise. While shoppers remained loyal, the owners and mall developers saw no interest in such modifications, making the mall roughly a cash cow. Something happened during this time that was not expected, however. What that was is that the area did not exactly turn into a ghetto. In fact, it remained a mostly middle-class area that began to be recognized in the early 1990's for the reason that it was was curiously void of many white residents. Owners Rouse Co. recognized this and began gearing stores to the market by 1993. In fact, the local population is today the second most affluent African-American population in the entire United States. Moreso, in 1998 it was discovered that the Rich's at the mall was the most profitable location in the entire chain. Even with these kinds of demographics, the mall continued to get more and more run down.
Views of the northwest entrance (rear). This is probably the most vintage part of the mall. If it still had the linoleum faux brick tiles it would be impossible to distinguish whether this was 1970 or 2010. While the floors look nice, I sure with they had not stripped out so much of what was nice from that time.
South DeKalb has a very basic layout, so it is not likely that the mall would ever have broad mass appeal even if the area was otherwise still the same as it was in 1970. The mall tried for years to add a third anchor, but they pretty much had to settle on a theater. The mall still maintained both of its original anchors for 30 years.
In 1996, the mall was sold and changed hands several times before finally landing in the hands of Thor Equities in 2003. When it was first sold, the mall finally received a renovation a year later. While nearly every other mall in the city had a new look by that point, it took 27 years for the mall to escape some of its early 70's trappings including the faux brick linoleum tiles and poor lighting. All of that was replaced with new skylights, marble tiles and all dark woods removed. South DeKalb Mall also gained a new name, "Gallery at South DeKalb", though that name has never caught on. With renovations complete and the mall filling up again, the mall was finally getting some respect. However, trouble was brewing for the once insulated community jewel with a brand new mall. In other words, the rise in prosperity in the area led to demands for a better mall than South DeKalb had ever offered.
A store like this is not helping much if they are hoping to shake a ghetto image. This store, which obviously came as a compromise since Burlington Coat Factory fell through, only takes up 25% of the original JCPenney space. In contrast, Greenbriar has 100% of the old JCPenney occupied by Burlington Coat Factory. Of course, Greenbriar also never had Stonecrest to worry about. "Amazing Rooms" also took up this anchor for a couple years, and mall owners hoped to put something like Lifetime Fitness on the second level.
Macy's, however, has remained the true strength of the mall. Without it, the mall would have died years ago. However, the store is among the most popular in the region and maintained much of its customer base even after Stonecrest opened. It was previously Rich's, which opened with the mall.
Another angle of the Macy's mall entrance with the court and northeast mall entrance wing to the right. This once was full of trees with a fountain approximately where the circle is.
Flashback to day after Christmas 2004 with the original Rich's mall sign. They sure made it look bland repainting that solid white. The store inside, however, still looks straight up Rich's with flooring like the old Cobb Center store. It has been renovated, but I am so glad they kept some of old Rich's intact in there. I wasn't exactly enthused about the "renovations" of the other stores.
A look at the outside of Rich's from the east entrance. They could do a better job maintaining this. Water was dripping through a corroded light fixture under the canopy at the door. For a high volume store, they could invest in it a little better. Rich's made a beautiful courtyard on this store, though!
I am not sure who to credit this low resolution photo to, but I believe this is from the mall's own website. This shows the Rich's mall entrance when the mall still had trees and fountains. When were these removed? It is a terrible shame that this is gone.
After completely reviving from the dark times the mall faced in the late 1980's, people in the area were once again fearful that the mall would die with Stonecrest opening. Owners desperately tried to lure Magic Johnson Theaters to boost the dwarfed mall. The new mall featured five anchors, two levels, a lifestyle wing, large food court and two of the anchors were the same as those operating at South DeKalb. Unsurprisingly, this would have an effect, but the owners of Rich's did not forget how successful their store had been. While JCPenney ultimately decided to leave as soon as the new store opened, Rich's stayed and continues to operate a three-level store. Nevertheless, mall owners have had enormous difficulty filling the old JCPenney. Burlington Coat Factory committed to the store, but it is not clear that they ever opened there. When I visited in 2004, the store looked to have been closed for quite some time. The store sat vacant for around five years before "Amazing Rooms" took over part of the store. Amazing Rooms ultimately failed, and was replaced in 2009 with Conway, which only takes up 25% of the old JCPenney space. Rich's also changed names in this period, becoming Macy's in early 2005. Mall owners also added a 14-screen theater in 2006 on the back of the mall, effectively adding a third anchor tenant. In addition, very aggressive marketing and direct community input have resulted in a mall geared very specifically for the community. For this reason, the mall has remained extremely popular locally despite the presence of substantial competition and a less than ideal retail corridor surrounding the mall.
The theater opened in 2006, offering a boost to the one of the oldest malls in the region. I am impressed on how they made the theater blend in architecturally with the rest of the mall!
Close-up of the outside entrance to the theater.
Outside of the former JCPenney in 2010. A small off-center Conway sign marks the one tenant making use of the hulking brutalist monolith. I would have loved to have seen this store before it moved to Stonecrest. I bet like the Rich's it still looked vintage.
The front of the store as it looked day after Christmas 2004. This has to be the most outlandish JCPenney ever.
A view of the south side of the JCPenney also in 2004. At that point, it looked like it had been abandoned longer than it actually had. I'm guessing this was a customer pick-up area?
Now for the outside of Rich's. Yes, that is the classic green sign. Those Rich's green signs were a thing of beauty for me. I wish they had put them on all their stores to the end.
West entrance, big caddy and handsome green sign.
Closer view of Rich's than the photo above. I believe this was the pic I once put on Wikipedia. I wasn't sure if I removed it or someone else did.
The front of Rich's on a Sunday morning on January 9, 2005.
Night shots of the west and east entrance. This would be the last time I ever saw this store as Rich's. Photo taken January 14, 2005.
As the mall prepares to celebrate 40 years, I can say that whatever they did, it obviously worked. Considering the mall could have died on two separate occasions, it proves that the success of a mall is just as much local support and management as it is location and competition. However, I can honestly say that this was also the most vintage mall I have come across. Despite its renovations, the mall itself still maintained many vintage trappings, especially along entrance corridors. The domino-like hanging white panels from the ceiling which have been there since the mall opened. The Macy's as well seems to be the last store to hold onto its true original design elements, which is actually quite pleasing to me since little remains today of the Rich's stores I knew. While I do not expect to see any massive changes in the near future, I hope the mall remains just as successful when it reaches its 50 year anniversary. It would be not just a victory for the mall itself, but it would be symbolic on many other levels as well.
South DeKalb Mall's road sign appears to have been there from day one. I hope it stays there forever. 70's mall signs were simple, yet classy. I think Rouse did all their mall signs in this style. However, they do need to repair this sign a bit. It is looking a little rough.
Both JCPenney and Rich's had auto centers at the mall originally. While Rich's Auto Center is now Macy's Auto Center, the JCPenney ones were, of course, sold off in the 70's to Firestone.
View of the front entrance and somewhat of the outside shops. The entrance is the most up-to-date part of the mall and sports its newer, though unpopular, name. Only the local news stations call it "Gallery at South DeKalb".
Lengthwise view of the front of the mall.