It’s hard to believe that Regency Square Mall was once one of the busiest malls in the country.
Indeed, mall-goers across the Southeast used to frequent Regency Square in its heyday of the 1970s, with the retail center bringing in nearly twice the profits of the average mall.
Back in these days, Regency served as a regional hub in a landscape absent of sprawling, decadent retail developments such as the St. Johns Town Center.
So how did Regency Square Mall come to be a retail giant in its earlier days? And how did this once-powerful mall become little more than a shell of its former self?
Regency Square Mall was originally developed in the mid-to-late 1960s. The project was initiated by Regency Centers, a now-powerful retail real estate trust based in Jacksonville that was at the time just getting started.
The mall was constructed at a cost of $12 million upon a giant clump of sand dunes, and it opened its doors to the public in 1967. It featured three anchor stores – JC Penney, Furchgott’s, and May-Cohens – as well as an adjacent movie theater.
Regency quickly became a hit, owing a lot of its success to its location. At the time the Arlington area was among Jacksonville’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, and Regency Square Mall was by far the closest retail hub for its residents as well as shoppers coming into town from the beaches. It also helped that the mall was built in an era where shopping malls were quickly becoming a ubiquitous part of life in America.
The surrounding area experienced a development boom, with shopping centers, car dealers, office parks, and restaurants popping up all along neighboring stretches of Atlantic Boulevard. Some of this was a result of continued growth in Arlington, but much was the direct result of traffic brought in by Regency’s success.
By the late ’70s, Regency was one of the country’s most active malls, and completely dominated the Jacksonville shopping landscape. The only “nearby” mall that could claim to compete with Regency’s offerings at the time, Orange Park Mall, was over 24 miles away.
Naturally, the mall’s ownership wanted to capitalize on this success, so around this time plans were developed to double the size of the mall at a cost of around $30 million.
Bizarrely, developers opted to tack on the additional space to the opposite side of May-Cohens, creating two wings divided by an anchor store. Ivey’s and Sears became the anchors of the newly-opened west wing.
Shortly thereafter, the east wing would get upgrades in the form of an AMC theater and a large food court.
All the while, business continued to boom at Regency Square, perhaps more so than ever.
There’s an old proverb based on a Bible passage that states, “Pride comes before a fall.”
In the mid ’80s, Furchgott’s announced their merger with Stein Mart. While most of the chain’s stores were converted to the Stein Mart branding, Regency’s operators proudly believed the brand to be too low-class for their mall and opted to pursue a replacement anchor.
At the turn of the decade, Regency faced stiff new competition in the form of The Avenues. This new two-story mall, constructed along the intersection of Philips Highway and Southside Boulevard, offered a slightly more upscale shopping experience and threatened to lure customers from the Baymeadows area away from Regency.
Around this same time, cracks began to show in the foundation at Regency. The mall changed ownership, being sold off to Chicago-based General Growth Properties.
A couple of anchor stores began a decade-long game of musical chair. Dillard’s moved to yet another new wing, vacating the former Ivey’s, which would then become a Montgomery Ward. May-Cohens would become a Gayfer’s, then later a Belk.
Most significant, however, was the rapidly-growing issue of crime. By the early ’90s, yearly crime reports at the mall reached quadruple digits. Over the following decade, the mall rapidly developed a reputation among locals as “the sketchy mall.”
The mall’s management made attempts to fix their reputation, but for the most part the damage had been done. The addition of a JSO substation in 1998 did little to curb the crime epidemic, and the addition of an aggressively-enforced mall dress code the next year only served to alienate its remaining customers.
It seemed clear that despite the mall’s shortcomings, its management felt as though it was still an elite retail hub. In other words, they let pride take the place of rationality.
Another round of renovations in the late ’90s brought an upgraded food court and theater. When Montgomery Ward left in 2001, management pursued big-name anchors rather than simply looking to fill the vacated spot. As a result, Ward’s spot stayed empty for five years.
In 2005, the opening of the St. Johns Town Center made Regency’s survival even less likely. The Town Center now catered to the upscale crowd, with The Avenues’ savvy management team rolling out renovations around the same time to keep up appearances.
Meanwhile, Regency’s crime rate grew worse and vacancies began piling up within its corridors.
By the late 2000s, it was clear that the mall was dying. Crimes at Regency outpaced those at The Avenues and St. Johns Town Center combined.
The mall’s west wing became a ghost town. Dillard’s converted its location to a clearance center. A shooting in 2008 involving an off-duty JSO officer only served to further solidify the mall’s reputation as a dangerous place. Many locals refused to shop at the mall by themselves, or after dark.
By 2014, the mall’s occupancy rate slipped well under 50%. Belk, which occupied the anchor space that separated the east and west wings, announced that they planned to bolt to a standalone store further down Atlantic Boulevard.
General Growth Properties, finally accepting that they wouldn’t be the ones to save the mall, put it up for sale in 2013, and got rid of it just a year later.
When new ownership took over, they opted to close down the west wing and move any remaining tenants over to the east wing in hopes of saving at least one part of the mall.
Where We Are Today
Today, most of the mall remains vacant.
JC Penney is the only anchor store left in the open stretch of the mall. Dillard’s is still around, but it’s now a clearance center and is separated from the main stretch of the mall.
Walking the mall’s short corridors is now an almost creepy experience, with its empty storefronts, dilapidated structures, and security guards ready to pounce on those who linger anywhere a little too long.
The mall’s food court has experienced something of a rebirth recently, with several food trucks utilizing vacant units to take a stab at a brick-and-mortar location.
It remains to be seen if that recent trend can be converted into anything meaningful. That being said, just about anything is better than what it’s been for the past couple of decades.