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Charlotte Malls Get 'De-Malled': Forecasting The Pandemic's Impact On Community Spaces

SouthPark Mall
Mia Britt
Queens University News Service
Urban planner David Walters expects SouthPark mall to thrive, but with significant changes in spaces occupied by ‘big box’ department stores and parking lots.

Department stores go away completely. Restaurants and bars focus on outdoor seating, better ventilation, and takeout and delivery. Retail parking lots get smaller. Apartment complexes grow next to successful shopping malls. Unsuccessful shopping malls struggle, or close completely.

Charlotte urban planning and retail experts expect massive changes in malls, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in a post-COVID-19 world. The good news? A bigger emphasis on outdoors, green spaces and socialization.

“The standard department stores are being related to zombies. They will slowly die out,” said David Walters, professor emeritus of architecture and urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“The big boxes in the mall will start being filled with community-based shops like health care services, educational facilities and local shops,” Walters said. “The once-crowded mall will now eventually turn into an urban village. Store anchors days are over. Nobody in the retail business can hold out because these department stores are dead. Malls are then faced with the conundrum about what to do when anchors shut down.”

People Need Community Spaces

Other experts in Charlotte real estate and urban planning said communal experiences would grow, however, because human beings are social creatures who need to get out.

One of Walters’ colleagues at UNCC is Deb Ryan, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design. Shesaid that after being in isolation for so long, people crave the chance to get out and experience life again. Attracting people to open spaces like parks, she said, requires new art, music, and event programming.

“There will be a rebirth of celebrations and a more profound interest in events that have been around for years,” Ryan said. Margot Bizon and Lindsay Stafford, Charlotte-based executive retail consultants with the JLL commercial real estate firm, agreed that there would be an increase in the need for social gatherings in the near future.

Get Ready For Smaller Parking Lots

Shopping malls that fall into the Class A category — those with the highest annual sales per square foot, the wealthiest neighborhoods, and the best-maintained infrastructure — have considerable investments in parking lot footprints, Walters said.

“As COVID has caused less people to go to shopping malls, that means parking lots will soon be changed,” Walters said. “Simon Properties are currently sitting on expensive land at SouthPark and they will start building new structures to bring income in. This will cause urbanization around SouthPark mall and will encourage more outdoor community gatherings.”

Restaurants Focus On Outdoors, Drive-Thru

Outdoor space and seating will become even more important for restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, said Ela Casuga, controller for the Kuester Commercial real estate firm. Casuga has advised restaurants and bars for 20 years, and said many are looking for sources of funding for renovations, accommodations, and improvements that include outdoor seating and better ventilation. Despite recently announced enhancements to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Small Business Administration resources indicate that these loans do not cover outdoor space construction or air quality purification equipment.

City of Charlotte guidelines announced in June 2020 allowed bars and restaurants to convert up to 25% of dedicated parking spaces into temporary outdoor dining, although the results of these new guidelines are unclear.

JLL experts Bizon and Stafford wrote recently that from a retail perspective, developers are increasingly having to accommodate larger areas for green spaces, patio seating, and drive-thru capabilities for tenants. National quick-serve restaurants such as Starbucks, Chipotle and Panera are requiring drive-thrus for new store development.

Charlotte Malls Get ‘De-Malled’

While successful malls like SouthPark are expected to continue to thrive, Walters said others will struggle to survive. Major retailers including Nieman-Marcus, J.C. Penney, Lord & Taylor, Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and Stein Mart declared bankruptcy in 2020. Belk reorganized. Malls depend on traffic from anchor tenants like these to survive.

Eastland Mall in east Charlotte, once filled with cinemas, ice skating and shopping, has been closed since 2010. “I'm not saying this is the future of Class B malls, but the market is constantly changing and malls have to transform their plan in order to remain alive,” Walters said.

Bizon and Stafford explained that online sales will continue to grow, but malls will continue to serve as social places. “It depends on the market, but we are seeing many traditional indoor malls being ‘de-malled’ to accommodate consumers’ desire for open-air and green space in shopping centers.” Another change for malls, they said, is that some traditional tenants such as Sephora and Anthropologie are looking for off-mall locations.

“The retail market is brutal and won’t stay in the past," Walters said. "As the world changes, so will the retail market.”

“Obviously, COVID was a huge shock. We’re all so eager to get back to a social life, to hang out with friends, to eat pizza or whatever, we’re so eager to do that that we’re breaking health regulations,” Walters continued. “But assuming that enough people get vaccinated and herd immunity within this year, most people expect our natural sociability and desire to walk down Main Street and have coffee with friends again, and go into the hardware store — that idealized life, some version of that will come back.”

Mia Britt and Palmer Magri are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local news.

Mia Britt is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local news.
Palmer Magri is a students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local news. Her summer work is supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.