Aiken Mall Demolition (copy)

Southeastern Development Associates has announced plans to demolish the Aiken Mall and build luxury apartments in its place.

Cautiously optimistic.

That’s the takeaway after Monday night’s big news that luxury apartments are planned for the Aiken Mall property. Vic Mills, CEO of Southeastern Development Associates, made the announcement at the “State of the City” address.

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and other elected officials applauded the news. But since the Augusta-based developer bought the property in May 2016, not much has happened.

At the time of the purchase, Mills said the plan was to transform Aiken Mall in a similar fashion as The Mall at Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island. That property was redeveloped into Shelter Cove Towne Centre, which has been described as an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, dining and shopping center. A group of Aiken leaders toured the site in 2017 and liked what they saw.

Demolition of the Aiken Mall site was expected to occur in 2017, but didn’t. Then it was also planned for 2018 and 2019, but still nothing happened.

The developer also has been in discussions with anchor tenants, movie theaters and even a bowling alley, according to previous reports. None of those plans ever materialized.

In recent months, trees were cut down at the main entrance off Whiskey Road because potential clients had complained of visibility issues. An unsightly water tank also popped up in the parking lot, too.

When it first opened in 1989, the Aiken Mall was a vibrant shopping center with plenty of “big box” stores as anchors with shops, restaurants and boutiques scattered throughout. The footprint also attracted chain restaurants such as Outback and Red Lobster to the vicinity. It was a destination for people of all ages.

But in the three decades since opening, the mall has slowly withered on the vine. Now it is down to two tenants, Belk and Books-A-Million.

While the retail landscape has changed in the past 30 years, the mall’s location is still in a prime area. The Aiken Rental Housing Market Study, which was commissioned by the Aiken Chamber of Commerce and other entities, was completed in 2018. Among the findings was that the rental market for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments could see long term success. That’s exactly what Southeastern is proposing for the Aiken Mall.

Southeastern’s new vision for the mall begins with 256 luxury apartment units. From there, retail and dining establishments, and possibly an upscale hotel, could be added to the mixed-use development.

The concept will still need to be approved by the planning commission and city council, but that seems a formality after the city recently approved a plan for affordable housing in the Whiskey and Dougherty roads area despite opposition from business owners and residents.

All parties involved believe that this concept will finally get off the ground, and that work will begin this year.

So, cautiously optimistic. Southeastern has always played its cards close to the vest and remained optimistic about the project; never pretending that the Aiken Mall redevelopment would be a quick turnaround. And we remain cautious, refusing to get our hopes up after seeing other significant projects vanish before being fully realized. A failure to see tangible changes after this announcement, and soon, will be a huge letdown indeed.