Forest City was quietly concealing a real surprise and rarity with Tri-City Mall. This small open-air mall is highly unusual to find today, especially in the South, and it held enough retro aspects to make it a fascinating stop on the way to Charlotte. Situated on the old route of US 74 (now US 74A), the mall once capitalized on travelers headed between Charlotte and Asheville. Today, the mall is a local matter that keeps just enough business to survive largely due to its anchors. About the only thing that kept it from being an amazing museum piece of retail architecture was the atrocious stucco remodeling that was placed on the sign canopies. Otherwise, it is a tiny mall that appeared to open around 1970 with some real charm.
The original Tri-City Mall held three major anchors and at least one junior anchor. Belk looks to have opened at the mall and inside looks like it has been renovated very little from when it first opened. Rose's is even more dated with brown carpet and a threadbare appearance inside that was not enough to scare away the largely blue collar shoppers. JCPenney was the third anchor, which joined in along the back of the mall. It was an awkwardly laid out store, and it looks to have been closed awhile: most likely with the huge round of closings that took place in 2000 when the company was restructuring. Apparently a Sears hard line store once operated in the mall as well, and Moore's Department Store also held a junior anchor position in the mall. At least one of those junior anchors was likely a five-and-dime such as Woolworth's or McCrory's previously. Most of the original inline tenants were unclear, however, with Merle Norman (closed) being the only recognizable one.
The two photos above are along the front entrance wing. The trees and seating areas show how appealing an open-air mall can be. The photo above shows the former JCPenney entrance in the background. The lead photo shows part of the main mall walking toward Rose's.
Rose's mall entrance. This store is original, too.
The actual amount of stores in the mall itself is very small, which is probably why it has otherwise failed as a retail destination. It is not clear what caused the mall to fade, however, though I am sure Wal-Mart next door did not help. I am assuming that either its industrial sector retracted or that the closing of JCPenney was a major blow to the mall. This was made worse when Moore's sold out to Stage Stores in 2006 with the mall location not reopening under the Peeble's banner. Today, very little actually operates in the mall with "Cafe at the Mall" being the only real draw to the mall aside from the anchors and the furniture liquidation store that now occupies the old JCPenney. In reality, the mall would actually be much worse off if it wasn't for how few shop spaces actually do occupy the mall.
Looking out the side of Rose's to the rear outside mall entrance. Note the crazy door!
Detail of planter in front of Rose's with overhead canopies makes this almost feel like a 90's-style enclosed mall.
The brickwork, however, is a dead giveaway that this place is far older than that.
Lots of things are quirky about the mall design wise. One of those is the fact that the mall entrance actually features a door despite the fact you are outside on both sides. Second, it appears the mall may not have actually been covered at all originally with rather cheap looking metal awnings covering the walkways angled up toward an imaginary skylight. Perhaps there were more boxy covers over the walkways in the past, but this is uncertain. Third, finding a mall there was tricky enough. From the road, it looks like a regular strip mall built on the cheap. Instead of a mall entrance, the name of the furniture liquidation store is posted where "JCPenney" used to be. The only thing that suggests that this is actually a mall is the dominant Belk store on the southeast end and the name on the street. It seems this place is not shown much love.
The main feature in center court, however, is....the sun! It looked nice here, but it was considerably hot and humid that day with big storms on the way.
Here I am walking along the Belk wing. The table and chairs are for Cafe at the Mall restaurant.
Looking back from Belk with Cafe at the Mall somewhere on the right.
Outside the mall, the early 1970's are even more poignant. Next door to the mall is a building that looks somewhat like an old IHOP capturing the Bavarian theme so popular in the early 70's. That building today is Fireside Books & Gifts. Next to that is a theater that is firmly trapped in the era yet still shows first run movies. It was ironic to see "Karate Kid" on the outside since the theater also likely hosted the first one in 1984, and it probably looked no different. The mall itself does not seem to be very well maintained either with the sign on US 74A showing substantial mildew and deterioration. In fact, the mall would most likely have been closed had it actually been an enclosed mall but with low overhead combined with two anchors that appear to be going nowhere the mall is resilient.
Belk mall entrance, which looks quite attractive upon approach.
Closer inspection, however, reveals this is very old-school with narrow doors and octagon-shaped brown tiles. It is apparent that in the 70's that overweight and disabled people weren't considered in the design of this entrance, but it still looks cool.
Belk once expanded into the mall creating a home store in the tenant right next to it on the right side. I am assuming this was originally the Sears hard lines store or an old five-and-dime.
Here is how I believe the mall was laid out around 1995. Please correct me if I am wrong on any of this.
It seems to me, though, that a renovation to a more classic look and expansion could possibly bring back the spark Tri-City lost to Cleveland Mall in Shelby. I am not talking about enclosing the existing mall, either. First, the mall entrance as well should be much more obvious. If there is a mall there, people should know how to get into it. The old part of the mall could also be renovated to incorporate a classic 1960's look with some post-modern trappings hopefully with a less bland look. It is ironic I say this, though, since the original mall probably just had the dark aluminum siding outside, which was so typical in the day and probably looked a bit creepy by 1990.
From these two angles, the old JCPenney looks closed but it does in fact have a tenant. They just failed to indicate that from within the mall.
Empty storefronts abound in the mall. Though it is hard to tell here, this was formerly a Merle Norman.
Former Moore's complete with labelscar. I wonder when this closed exactly.
As for an expansion, I would first expand the mall through the old JCPenney. This expansion of the mall would be enclosed unlike the main mall offering a reprieve from the elements and variety. Probably the best potential for expansion, though, would be to demolish the old Ryan's Steakhouse on the southeast side, expanding the mall through Belk and adding a new anchor: possibly another JCPenney, Kohl's, Peeble's or non-traditional tenant such as Lowe's or Best Buy. In the mall itself, put in a Books-A-Million either in the old Moore's or in the new part. All of this is fantasy, of course, but I always wonder if a few interesting changes could bring back the life to malls like this that most likely died primarily because they were too small and too awkwardly laid out in the first place.
It is possible to get shelter from the rain in parts of the mall...provided it is not a severe storm then you're out of luck. You're still better off here than a lifestyle center.
A look back along the front entrance wing to the main entrance.
There is that front door, which is a bit dirty from weather. One of the doors appears to either be open or removed from this angle, and this may very well be original.
Rose's mall entrance from a different angle showing the west court area.
What the future holds for Tri-City Mall is anybody's guess. It looks to have been somewhat derelict for quite some time, but its open-air configuration makes it far easier to keep as is. It probably would have died years ago, but Belk for some reason maintains two stores in the area including this mall. The rest of the mall is fairly cheap to maintain as well with no roof or climate control. With Rose's also doing a decent business, there is probably a minimal demand to fill the spaces in the rest of the mall, and even the old JCPenney managed to find new life after closing. I do wish some imagination could go into this place, however, but the horrible economy combined with the generally more blue collar populace observed in the area means that the mall will probably remain this way for awhile. Of course, that will be the case as long Belk or Rose's does not decide to call it quits. Whatever happens, I was glad to find this gem among the many tiny, peculiar small town malls that dot the Piedmont of North Carolina.
Casper's Costume Closet looks to have taken over the back side of the former Belk Home store.
Here is the furniture store in the old JCPenney combined with the rear mall entrance. Would you know a mall entrance was there on the left if I did not tell you?
Rose's from the front of the mall.
Overview of front of the mall from Rose's.
Belk renovated away its classic arches suggesting they are still committed to this store.
Main mall entrance and former B.C. Moore's beside it. Note the mall entrance says "Furniture" so you expect to walk in and find Montgomery Flea Market, not a mall. It is, though, a mini mall. Hey hey.
1984 or 2010? You decide. This is the Cinema 4 theater beside the mall.
More of the "retro theater". I wish someone would have parked a 1978 Buick Regal there for added effect.
You have to love that "Cinema 4" sign. I suspect the whole mall used to have that dark siding as well.
I would absolutely LOVE to know what this was originally right next to the Theater. It looks sort of like an old IHOP, but today it is Fireside Books & Gifts.
This sign is atrocious in every way. Mildew and lichens are actually growing on it. I bet if you replaced "Specialty" with "Empty" the first word would still be fully legible.