I was driving up Interstate 40. Out of habit, I glanced left to check the massive Amazon distribution center going up in Garner. From the interstate, it looks like the back of one of those shopping malls you glimpse through the pines from the highway. But it's not.
I was headed up to the northern arc of Raleigh's beltline to see a relic of a real mall, the J.C. Penney Co. store at North Hills. Once it was J.C. Penney's best store in North Carolina, ranking second in the entire chain in sales of women's dresses 10 years ago. But J.C. Penney has eliminated 20% of its stores in the last five years and, next spring, this one is closing. The building will make way for more offices, residential units--maybe a hotel.
That will eliminate all traces of North Hills Mall, most of which was demolished in the early 2000s, replaced by in upscale retail district in Raleigh's modern Midtown neighborhood.
For a half-century, suburban malls like North Hills dominated retail in North Carolina, drawing department stores from cities and tearing the hearts out of downtowns. North Hills was originally a strip center, enclosed in 1967. More than 50 enclosed malls operated throughout the state, totaling more than 33 million square feet. Two dozen malls opened in the 1970s alone, including Hanes in Winston-Salem, SouthPark in Charlotte, and Crabtree Valley in Raleigh.
From the 1980s until 2005, another 15 went up, including two in the Raleigh-Durham suburbs and three outside Charlotte. And then, no more. When Carolina Place opened in Pineville, just south of Charlotte, in '91, a Charlotte Observer reporter asked Belk executive David Stovall Jr. how long it would be before the store would be overtaken by the next new trend in retailing.
Probably not long, Stovall answered. "In our business, everything's always changing."
He was right. Carolina Place was 2 years old when an investment banker decided to sell books online. Jeff Bezos discovered he could sell other things, too. By the end of the '90s, the internet was a threat to Belk and J.C. Penney and, especially, Sears. But they weren't showing much urgency. J.C. Penney had $31 billion in revenue in 1999, barely $100 million from web sales.
By the middle of the 2000s, despite renovations, malls were losing anchors as online competition grew exponentially. Some failed, like Eastland Mall in Charlotte. It wasn't just the internet. The last malls--such as Durham's Streets at Southpoint that opened in...