Whither Kerr Drug, University Mall?

Kerr Drugs will soon move from University Mall to a new location on rte. 54.

That may not seem a particularly earthshaking bit of news. However, for those of us who have a long-standing relationship with that pharmacy, it is a bit of a tremor. For those of us watching the economy change the paths and patterns of Chapel Hill, and for those who've kept an eye on the Mall ever since Belk closed and the K&W moved, through at least two (is it?) changes of ownership, it's at the very least a notable rumble underfoot.

As I learned visiting in Florida, Dillard's recently announced that it was closing both Sarasota stores, shocking the non-Saks shoppers in the area and, even more, the other occupants of the Dillard’s-anchored malls. I instantly thought of the valiant survival of our University Mall Dillard's, despite the opening of Southpoint and shifting ideas about the Mall’s target market. It's hard not to wonder whether it can yet survive the shaky consumer economy, especially if the parent company is sharpening its cost-cutting razors.

And then there's Rose's, under repeated pressure to leave despite its unique service to a population that people erroneously assume doesn't live in Chapel Hill. It’s hard to imagine it surviving even one rise in rent.

University Mall has developed a more-than-split personality already, but recent efforts to fill spaces and make it more than "just a mall" have been exciting: Scrap-ple Hill (though they disappointingly left out serving real scrapple), Deep Dish Theater, the events center, etc. The current management seems to have the will to make the Mall something special to the community. But what will happen when it loses the people who stop by Kerr to pick up a prescription or necessity and then browse the other stores? Were they the mainstay of the Mall? Or are the Southern Season clientele? More basically, who are they trying to draw? Residents, students, upscale visitors? My crystal ball is foggier than ever. Where, I'm wondering, is the University Mall - an eastern mainstay of the Carrboro-Chapel Hill axis - actually heading?



What is the reason for Kerr Drugs' move? Did they give one?

They provide a wonderful alternative to the upscale nature of so much that is around us.  They have good, cheap polo shirts, for example.

but I have very mixed feelings.  Rose's is owned by Art Pope, the Karl Rove of North Carolina politics ... a person who uses his profits to promote free-market extremism and fight virtually any progressive initiative you can think of. 

After I expressed my appreciation for the efforts to make University Mall more than "just a Mall," I learned that Ed Camp - the mall's manager, who's been responsible for all that - has been named General Manager of the Carrboro Arts Center.  As the press release says "Camp and his team were instrumental in changing the face of the mall to a community mall."Haven't heard anything about plans for Camp's successor, let alone whether there's sentiment for continuing efforts toward making it a "community mall." My original question stands, and the crystal ball is murkier still.

University Mall has gained status as a corporate citizen in recent years, supporting various community initiatives like Scrapple Hill.  Ed Camp gets credit for most of this.  He might be the perfect captain in the ArtsCenter's upcoming storm of reconstruction.  As for "community mall," however, I have trouble thinking of a shopping center as a gathering place.  That designation might or might not survive the change in management.  

I have been in the Mall on several occasions while events were ongoing in their new community space that was once a store.  I believe that Susan Reba oversees this program.

I think more food options would help towards making it a place of gathering.  When you can do something where you sit down and spend time with people, even if it is as simple as eating a meal, it feels more like a gathering place. I am a fan of eating at Chick-Fil-A with my husband, walking next door to try out the video games they have on display, doing any shopping in the mall we need to while there, and browsing around a few stores while there.

Years ago, at University Mall they would have a kids' event in which they'd drop ping pong balls from a helicopter and kids would scramble to collect them.  A few of the ping pong balls were winners and like a lottery led to prizes.

"I have trouble thinking of a shopping center as a gathering place."In the last few decades, that's pretty much what malls have become - replacing town centers as gathering places, particularly for teens and young adults - often to the detriment of more traditional "downtowns."  Most mall developers have tried to build on that trend, and "Streets at Southpoint" is a perfect example.  Some malls, in fact, have becme too much a "gathering" place for some more questionable activities, requiring beefed up security or even closing malls whose economic life has been gutted by intimidating "gatherings."   Perhaps what you're saying, Cat, is that you have trouble thinking of this particular mall as a community gathering place -- and I admit much of the time I'm there, except for Christmas and certain "sidewalk" events, it's often a little too deserted to feel all that communal.  Still, I enjoyed "Scrap-ple Hill" and hoped to see something else built on the same idea.  Similarly, the ping-pong drop sounds like it was a great event, as were the visits from fire-trucks and other sorts of big vehicles,  etc. The parking lot has certainly served a number of "communal" purposes, including tail-gating; the trick is to bring the public inside.   (Things certainly seems dependent, however, on adequate publicity and promotion, which brings us to the status of local papers and broadcast media, which is another blog.)

It's surprising to me that the University Mall has survived, especially with the economic issue
going on. I've noticed over the years that stores have been moving in
that are the kind of stores that are pricey and I personal feel that
because of that, more people have been going less than in the past. Now
I wounder what will happen in the future when people stop buying things
there because of prices? How would stores keep up? How will they have
enough money to stay an their spot at University Mall?

If one stores going down then in time everything will go down, its time to think differently and not think about just money! ;)



An employee at Kerr confirmed to me that they are leaving involuntarily.  The owners refused to renew the lease, period.  Can't imagine that Rose's won't be next when their lease comes up for renewal.  I still think it's short-sighted.  I believe the Mall management underestimates the value and volume of the foot traffic brought in by Kerr Drugs and overestimates the draw of the upscale boutique-ish places as stand-alone destinations.

Doesn't the "mall management" include the individual who is taking over the Arts Center? This is worrisome.....

I don't know if "mall management" in this case includes past or future managers.  When I used that phrase above, I was thinking primarily about the owners, so I was not being precise.  I certainly don't know whether Ed Camp was party to and agreed with the decision not to renew Kerr's lease. Speculation could include both agreement and disagreement with that decision, given that he is leaving that job.

Hadn't been to University Mall since December, but had reason to go to Dillard's this morning.  Of course Kerr is gone. Waldenbooks is gone.  The toy/craft store next to Cameron's is gone.  There's another empty space across the way, and one of the ?gift? shops appears to have been replaced by an upscale furniture/accessories store. I'm sure there are other changes I missed on my quick errand.I can't imagine Rose's surviving this trend (even if, or maybe because, it is owned by a Rove-style capitalist:  ;-) J.P.). I'm long since old enough to grumble about change, and maybe switching to a homogenous array of upscale stores would have made sense while we partied like it was 2006.  But now I'm wondering if the "honest" thing to do would be to make a mini-me mall out of the K&W, Rose's, and the refugee proletarian stores on the "po' side" of the mall lot  - call it 1955 Redux or some such.  I will say that the mall seemed like a very well-appointed ghost town, even for a Monday morning.

Can't remember where I read this recently, but I'm thinking the idea of putting the library in the Kerr space sounds very interesting.  Maybe it isn't big enough (Rose's would work if/when they close), but certainly warrants consideration.

Would be a great idea to have a satellite library there, but I can't imagine even Rose's being big enough (or securable enough) for everything, esp. if current sq. footage at CHPL isn't enough for their needs -- remember all the back offices and work rooms you don't see plus public-use rooms, and the whole array of electronic resources. 

One of the biggest challenges to the owners of UMall, and any tenants, is that it's located in Bolin Creek's 100-year floodplain.  Because the Town participates in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), in order to have lower insurance premiums for property owners in Town, we have greater restrictions on what property owners may do in the flood zone.

A property within the floodplain can cumulatively have improvements and modifications up to 50% of its assessed value before it has to meet NFIP building requirements for wet or dry floodproofing.  Floodproofing can greatly magnify the cost of modification.  If I remember correctly, UMall owners recently (past year or two) went through a study of costs of desired improvements (for commercial/aesthetic purposes) and whether that would trigger the floodproofing requirements.  (One version I remember involved making UMall "open air" - removing the ceiling - to make it like Southpoint.)  In that case improvements would, and I believe the owners decided they would have to rethink their modification ideas.

In contrast, the owners of Eastgate also did a similar study (they're right on top of Booker Creek) and decided getting Starbucks there was worth the floodproofing costs.

I suspect any really creative, nifty, ingenious, or well-thought ideas for repurposing the UMall space will ultimately require considerable modifications to meet the needs for new uses and thus trigger the need for floodproofing.  Becoming part-community center, part public space, may be one of the best options to defray costs.  Obviously that'd be a long-term committment.


Trish D'Arconte

ToCH Stormwater Management Division


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