As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, SouthPark mall thrives as the backbone of one of Charlotte’s most vital commercial districts.
by Michelle Boudin
photographs by Michael Hrizuk | historic photos provided by SouthPark Mall
Ed Finman was just 10 years old when he and a friend walked almost 4 miles from their Freedom Park neighborhood to what was then the Morrocroft family farm. They set out on the hour-and-a-half walk with one goal in mind: to see the prize bulls they’d always heard made their home on the south Charlotte property.
“It was way out in the boonies. When we got there, we snuck onto the property and the bulls ended up chasing us,” Finman says, laughing. “We had to climb a tree to get away from them, and those bulls stood under us for two hours.” That was 1954, when the area that is now SouthPark was farmland as far as the eye could see. Now 75, Finman says as a kid he could never have imagined what SouthPark would become. “Oh my gosh no. Everything was in uptown back then. How would I possibly envision what that area of Charlotte would come to be?”
What it’s come to be is a thriving business, shopping and residential district centered around SouthPark Mall — 1.8 million square feet of retail space that is home to 175 stores, sees 12 million visitors a year, and is widely regarded as the most upscale enclosed mall between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
“It was such a nice mall, so elegant,” says Joan Scharf, who moved from Alaska to the SouthPark area with her husband and four daughters in 1985. “I remember going to one of the kids’ ball games and telling one of the other moms that I didn’t realize I was going to have to dress up to go to the mall,” she recalls, a common refrain among Charlotte newcomers.
That luxury aspect might be a reason SouthPark has thrived while other shopping centers have struggled along with the rise of e-commerce. Despite malls across the country facing regular dates with bulldozers, SouthPark — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month — continues to regularly attract top-tier stores, with few vacancies. The last two years have seen the addition of Arhaus, Trina Turk, Peloton, Tommy John and Jack Rogers, with major renovations at Lululemon, Sephora, L’Occitane, Sunglass Hut and Pottery Barn.
The mall officially opened to shoppers on Feb. 12, 1970, but the Belk and Ivey families started planning it back in 1962. The families owned two of the three original department stores at SouthPark (Sears was the third), which was built on land previously owned by the Harris family. Before the mall opened its doors, it had already become a catalyst for office and residential growth in the area, news reports at the time showed.
“The design of the center was inspired by the architecture of NorthPark mall in Dallas, which is how the center received its name,” explains Holly Roberson, SouthPark’s director of marketing and business development. “It was named ‘SouthPark’ because it was located south of uptown.” As the plans were being drawn up, people living in the surrounding neighborhood had an average household income of just under $12,000.
Over the years, the mall has added on, and on and on. The first real expansion came in 1988 when the fourth wing — now home to Macy’s (previously Thalhimers, then Hecht’s) — was added.
It would be another 16 years before the next big addition, but it was a significant one. In 2004 — two years after Simon Property Group purchased SouthPark from Dutch real-estate company Rodamco — Nordstrom opened in the new ‘luxury’ wing. The 250,000-square-foot addition included popular brands like Apple, Kate Spade New York, Louis Vuitton and Burberry. Two years later, Dallas retailer Neiman Marcus opened its first (and still its only) store in the Carolinas.
“My friends and I used to drive to Atlanta to shop because we didn’t feel like Charlotte had what we wanted. But that changed in the early 2000s,” Nancy Garofalo says. Garofalo lives less than a mile from SouthPark and admits there are some weeks now when she visits the mall several times.
“The mall is a destination for a lot of people from all over the place,” says Delores Scott, who has worked at SouthPark since 1996. An assistant manager at Fink’s Jewelers, she’s had a front-row seat to many of the major changes in recent years that she says have only helped to bring more guests. Scott says the mall’s appeal also lies in the fact that shoppers can come “and everything is under one roof.”
Steve Balsley is at the mall every single day, and has been for decades. He’s one of the three brothers who run Arthur’s, the beloved wine shop and café on the lower level of Belk. Arthur’s Restaurant & Cafe is one of a handful of stores that have been at the mall since the early 1970s, along with Belk and SouthPark Optical. Known for its menu of simple-but-tasty sandwiches and salads — and as one of the first wine shops in Charlotte — longtime Charlotteans consider Arthur’s an institution. Steve runs the restaurant, while Robert oversees the wine department; John is the controller.
At first, Arthur’s was located in the Ivey’s department store, but the shop moved to Belk after Little Rock, Ark.-based Dillard’s bought the 23-store Ivey’s chain in 1990.
“I think people love it because it’s family-run, and we’ve been here forever,” Balsley says. “We know a lot of our customers by name. We’re starting to see third generations of families come in here, where the kids are bringing their kids in.”
While the brothers say they have no plans to retire (yet), they are grooming John’s son, Robert, to take over.
“We’ll stay as long as Belk will have us,” Balsley says.
SouthPark Optical owner Tom Renfrow has lots of memories from his years at SouthPark. Renfrow remembers the citywide ice storm in 2002 that had people camping out in the mall for days: Locals who had lost power at home would show up when the mall opened and stay until closing time. He also remembers the mall’s disastrous attempt to reimagine the center-court Santa display: In 2015, mall management briefly swapped the giant Christmas tree for a futuristic glacier, which was promptly removed after backlash from shoppers who preferred the traditional holiday decor. The controversy was picked up by national news outlets.
Then there was the time two bank robbers were arrested at the mall.
“There used to be two banks where the Cheesecake Factory now is, and these two guys robbed one of the banks and ran into what was Woolworths,” Renfrow recalls. “They sat at the lunch counter after changing clothes in the bathroom and tried to pass themselves off as diners, but when the police came in they were the only people in the restaurant staring at their food instead of the officers — and that gave them away.”
Renfrow’s store is now in its fourth location in the mall, so he knows the layout pretty well. The center of the mall has seen the most change, he says.
“They used to have TV sets in the middle of the mall. You’d go up there on a Saturday afternoon and see all the men watching TV while their wives were shopping.”
But the funniest thing to happen in center court involved a prankster who worked at one of the mall stores.
“There was an employee at the old pet store, and he would take soap, wrap it in toilet paper and toss it in the fountain. There would be bubbles everywhere. This was the ’80s – before there were [security] cameras — so he got away with it a few times before they figured out who it was.”
These days, Renfrow says things are calmer inside the mall but congestion outside is a growing concern. With continued development in the area, traffic can sometimes be hard to handle — and despite 7,500 spots, parking can sometimes be hard to find. In addition to the mall expansions, in 2007 owner Simon developed the Village at SouthPark at the edge of the parking lot on the Sharon Road side, adding 150 apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail anchored by Crate & Barrel. More residential units are under construction on the opposite side of the mall along Barclay Downs Road, just across the parking lot from Dick’s Sporting Goods and Neiman Marcus.
Traffic concerns around the mall are nothing new. Back in the ’90s, a contentious rezoning request sparked tensions between the mall and a group of nearby residents. Scharf — the Alaska transplant — was part of a group recruited to lobby against expanding the mall.
“We were told all the traffic studies showed there would be a big increase in traffic and the roads couldn’t support it. We were concerned about that. It turned out to be true.”
Though traffic has only gotten worse with each expansion, people in the neighborhood around the mall have just grown accustomed to it, Scharf says.
Residents have also benefited from increased property values. And SouthPark’s local management team is working with a neighborhood group and the city on potential enhancements to Symphony Park, which was added in 2002, and a cultural loop project, Roberson says. The 3-mile bicycle and pedestrian path will connect key SouthPark area destinations.
Scott, the Fink’s employee, says the increased traffic is a small price to pay for such a lucrative shopping mecca.
“The area just keeps growing and growing. You think there’s no more space, and then up comes more construction,” Scott says. “It just means more people are in walking distance. [Even] in the days of online shopping, people still want to come in and touch and feel what they’re purchasing — and that’s a really good thing for the mall.” SP