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By Aaron Keck

Becoming University Mall

By Aaron Keck Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:17 am

(Being Part 2 in a two-part series about University Mall.)

So it turned out to be a movie theater after all. Good.

In case you missed it: University Mall announced Tuesday that Dillard’s will be leaving—ooh, sorry, hope you were sitting down for that one—and they’ll be replacing it with Silverspot Cinemas, a 13-screen luxury multiplex that comes with leather seats, a well-stocked bar, a fine restaurant (here’s their menu), and selections ranging from “Bad Grandpa” to the Bolshoi Ballet. (Here’s hoping that selection also includes Rifftrax Live.)

Silverspot Cinema

Everybody’s excited about it—the mayor, the business community, U-Mall staff, Chapel Hillians in general. (Heck, they even brought Rameses and four UNC cheerleaders to the press conference, so you know this is something something.) Personally I try not to get too excited about anything in advance, before we know exactly what it’s going to entail. This will have consequences. The Chelsea Theater in Timberlyne might be in real trouble, for one thing. Less worry for Deep Dish, but that bears watching too. (Movie theaters and live theaters aren’t really competitors, even if they’re right next door, but that may change if said movie theater starts putting live performances up on screen.) And Silverspot’s ticket prices are higher—sixteen bucks each—so it remains to be seen whether Chapel Hillians will go for that anyway. (Though it apparently works in Naples, Florida.)

So let’s get all that on the table too. But even so, I still say this is a good move—for Chapel Hill, sure, but also for University Mall. Especially for University Mall.

This is where they ought to be heading. In many ways, this is what they already are.

I don’t know about you, but all my happy memories of University Mall seem to be arts-related. I remember the first time I walked in the place, how surprised I was at all the galleries. I remember walking through the mall during Scrapel Hill, admiring all those ingenious pieces. I remember the first time I saw “Baltimore Waltz” at Deep Dish last year—and the second, when I dragged my friend a week later. I remember stopping by U-Mall as a reporter to cover any one of the number of times they stepped in to provide space for some displaced business or agency—the library, Orange County Gymnastics, the Red Hen, the post-flood assistance center, now Kidzu. (Plus half of University Square.) I remember many a night on that center stage back in 2010-2011, playing moderator for WCHL’s Quiz Bowls. (Highlight: stumping eight Town employees in 2011 by asking them to name two of the three people running for mayor.)

What are they calling it? “Reimagine University Mall”?

There’s no “reimagine” about it. This is University Mall becoming what we were already imagining it to be.

UMall Blog 5

One non-arts-related memory I can’t not mention: I also remember showing U-Mall off to my parents when they came down from Michigan to visit—and we couldn’t find parking downtown. (This was during 140 West construction, so yes, yes, the parking situation has gotten better since then.) It worked out okay—my parents loved Southern Season. And Spice Street, as it happened.

And a good thing too. The history of malls in America is pretty simple: the first wave of indoor malls opened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s; later came a second wave of larger, multi-floor, more upscale megamalls that ran the first wave largely out of business. (Nowadays even those second-wave malls are struggling; the really successful ones tend to be the most upscale. Score one for income disparity.) We’ve seen this play out in Durham/Chapel Hill: Northgate opened in 1960 and put up a roof in 1973, University Mall opened in 1973 and South Square opened in 1975—then along came Southpoint in 2002. Bye-bye South Square. Northgate hung on okay, but there’s not much vibrancy in it anymore. And University Mall’s in that same group. By all rights, according to all the trends, it really should be struggling too. (Heck, how many times have we heard the line about U-Mall, that it’s a nice place but nobody buys anything there?)

And yet…

I walk into University Mall and I sense vibrancy. I sense a place that’s bucking the trend. What’s different about U-Mall? What does U-Mall have that South Square didn’t and Northgate doesn’t? It’s the arts. It’s culture. It’s that commitment to remaking itself as a cultural center rather than merely a shopping center. That line, “nobody buys anything there,” doesn’t refer to U-Mall, not really. It refers to Dillard’s. And Dillard’s—we love you, but you’re not the U-Mall. Scrapel Hill is the U-Mall. Deep Dish is the U-Mall. The Farmer’s Market is the U-Mall. Southern Season’s cooking school is the U-Mall. That’s where U-Mall gets its lifeblood. Even Try Sports, big and cool as it is, feels like the icing rather than the cake.

A cautionary tale. Earlier this summer, I was at a family reunion in Houghton, Michigan, way way up in the Upper Peninsula. In Houghton is the Copper Country Mall, opened 1981, about the size of U-Mall. It used to do great. It had two department stores, a K-Mart, a sporting goods store and a 5-screen movie theater all in one. Then Walmart opened just down the road, and that was that. I went in there this year—first time in a decade—to find JC Penney still hanging on and the movie theater and the sporting goods store still open, and that was literally about it. There were two craft shops, a consignment store, a GNC, and a recruitment center for the local community college. Everything else, everything else, was empty storefronts. (You can read all about it on a website called DeadMalls.com.)

I recognized it instantly.

“God,” I said to a friend afterwards. “This is what University Mall would be if you took all the arts and culture away.”

But—they’re not taking the arts and culture away.

Instead, with this latest move, they’re doubling down on it. Good. Yes.

Will Silverspot succeed? Will it thrive? Will it find a place in Chapel Hill’s entertainment community without threatening its potential competitors? The Chelsea? The Lumina?

I don’t know yet. We’ll find out in 2015 or so.

But it’s the right move, absolutely the right move, for University Mall—a destination for culture as well as commerce…a shopping center I remember not for what I buy there but for what I experience…a special and unique place that just got specialer and uniquer.

So bring it on, Silverspot. Let’s see those sixteen-dollar seats.

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