Monday, January 09, 2012

A Look Back (And To The Side): Oak Hollow Mall

(Warning: this is strictly op-ed noise about hometown stuff. You may be bored to tears, and (as usual with these long pieces) I can't promise coherence, but you can't say I didn't warn you.)

Oak Hollow Mall, which opened in the summer of 1995, is a 1,262,440 sq. ft two-floor enclosed mall built for $75 million on the north end of High Point, NC. The initial proposal was approved in 1988, but massive grass-roots opposition centering around environmental concerns killed the plans for a few years. The city council went out of their way to bring CBL & Associates back to the table, and their modified plan is what threw its doors open that summer. And today, barring an end-of-the-game miracle, it's pretty much done for.

Oak Hollow Mall
(source: daysofthundr46 via Flickr, CC 2.0 license)
To go back and read the local news articles in the years immediately after the mall opened and comparing it to the current reality is an exercise in watching a city's heart being broken. There was a story in the paper at the time of the opening about a woman bursting into tears of joy after a sneak preview tour, and I remember saying to myself, "Oh, this cannot be good." A mall or (God help me) a Walmart is going to save the bacon of a city? The expectations were so hyperbolic, it seemed like wishing on a star.

You see, Oak Hollow Mall wasn't just going to be a retail space when it opened, but was a symbol of a community desperately trying to escape the shadow of Greensboro and Winston-Salem as the weaker partner in the Piedmont Triad community. The enthusiasm for development of Oak Hollow could imaginably be chalked up to 1990s aspirational spending--the same enthusiasm led a community group to try (and fail) to get a major league baseball team--and for the first few years it seemed to work fairly well, with first-year sales beating the projected goals at at $85 million, and pulling in $134 million at the end of 1999, with occupation at 95% capacity. Eventually, they put in a 7-screen theater and a Target for people who still bore a grudge against Walmart. A multilane road was laid down for easy accessablity so that all you had to do was make a turn off of Main Street and it was a straight shot from there.

There were casualties of course. In the space of a year it killed off the city's already-wobbly Westchester Mall once and for all, which, as the Triad's first enclosed shopping mall (opening in 1970), killed off downtown retail. The circle of life and all that. And in what should've been a bad omen in retrospect, once-ubiquitous regional fixture Will's Bookstore walked away from Oak Hollow over a dispute about plans for an outparcel Barnes & Noble.

A number of things have eaten away at Oak Hollow, not the least of which were the continuing strengths of Greensboro's Four Seasons Town Centre and Winston-Salem's massive Hanes Mall, both of which maintained an occupancy rate in the high-to-mid 90s even as the recession kicked into sudden-death overtime, and both of which had the hit-the-offramp-and-you're-there access from major interstate highways that Oak Hollow didn't get for a long time. However, a few friends and family (and this is strictly second-third-and-fourth-hand, you understand) seem to think that the point where Oak Hollow's fortunes took a fatal turn was when CBL started jacking up the rent on the stores once the century turned. Whatever the reason, the smaller merchants began walking once the initial leases ran out. The recession didn't help, of course, but all of this started before the bank bailouts and the real estate collapse.

But the major body blows were still around the corner.

A few of the major departures of the 2000s can't be pinned on bad mall planning or bad mall management. Steve & Barry's, the clothing store which replaced the financially troubled Goody's, went bankrupt. Same with Circuit City, which was run into the ground by corporate management who, in a cost-cutting spree, didn't see the sense in keeping the experienced people around who actually made the store's reputation in the first place. But The Gap came and The Gap went in just a couple of years, and since some people think a mall that can't float a Gap store is a bit funky, that was one failure you can't really shrug off. Likewise, when Dillard's, still a reasonably healthy chain overall, turned their two-floor store into a bottom level clearance outlet in 2009...well, you can't hang that on Dillard's. Anybody who has read more than a few times got a sinking feeling from that maneuver.

Oak Hollow Mall - JCPenney
(source: daysofthundr46 via Flickr, CC 2.0 license)
And then, at the beginning of 2011, JCPenney decided to massively scale back its longtime High Point presence from a two-level store to a Catalog Center desk at the back of a uniform shop. It couldn't have come at a worse time for CBL, since during the previous year the group had finally put the mall up for sale for $15 million at a time when the occupancy rate had dropped to a dire 56%. Thanks to the ongoing turmoil (and with some prodding from the mayor) High Point University picked up the property for $9 million, retaining CBL to manage the property. The University, which has been on a runaway real estate spree in recent years, announced that they intended to run the mall as a retail property in the short term, since they had as much of a stake in the city's economic health as the rest of us did. Pretty much all of the uni's acquisitions eventually turn into another piece of University, and thus would join the furniture market showrooms which comprise a massive part of downtown as yet another section of the city cut off from the general public, so it was a necessary reassurance. All that was before 2011's other bombshell dropped: Sears decided to cut a few under-performing locations after Christmas, and Oak Hollow is on the chopping block. After April, or maybe as soon as February, Belk is the last anchor standing, and even they seem to have one eye directed towards the open road. The writing is on the wall. I'm going to sing the Doom Song now.

When the baseball campaign fell through--primarily due to the failure of a bond issue that would impose restaurant taxes to build a stadium which wasn't even guaranteed a team at the time--one of the leaders of the group who had busted his hump trying to hustle up support rather petulantly said "There is no plan B," flatly stating that we blew it. That's us, you understand, not a strategy (MORE TAXES!) with its own built-in backlash. It's as if the "influential" part of the community hasn't got a clue what the rest of us are actually like. In a similar fashion, when "the mall war" was declared over last summer, an editorial in the High Point paper, after bringing up the lack of a focused advertising push as a potential culprit, decides the primary reason that the mall has failed is that "for whatever reason", we didn't shop there. The column, which didn't reassure me at all by including "get over it" in the headline, mainly because (as stated before) a sale to HPU was guaranteed to have a jeering section trailing behind it, ended with a rather sour "Our long community mall wars are over. Live with it."

That "for whatever reason" is the most troubling part of trying to scrape together something substantial about the Oak Hollow decline and fall. If you actually talk to people who live around here, everybody's got a theory, so when you run a search through ten years' of online newspaper archives, why is it that the best you can find is "You people are the reason the rest of us can't have nice things"? Yeah, I get it, it's a retail center, and if people don't show up the merchants pack their bags, but why did it  happen the way it did? What turned the so-called jewel in the crown into Carolina Circle Mall II: Electric Boogaloo? Aren't you even curious?

Somebody who actually knows what they're doing (and before you ask, I'm pretty sure that isn't me) needs to be curious enough and brave enough to perform a malltopsy, asking the hard questions so that maybe the community can learn from mistakes and figure out what the future needs to look like. Jabbing fingers at somebody else's rib cage can be fun in the moment, but come on, that's the reason we can't have nice things.

Your thoughts are always welcome. Please throw them at the comment field to see if they stick.


Mike Kaz said...

Thanks for using my photos! I have plenty more I havent posted. Feel free to contact me for them.

Eric said...

Well, thank you for some great pictures (and of course, putting them under a CC license)! I spent a few hours thumbing through your Flickr gallery and wouldn't have known about the Sears outlet center in Greensboro without it. Yeah, the one that opened in 2009. Just shows you how often I get out, I suppose. :)