The Cameron Village Shopping Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, circa .

The Cameron Village Shopping Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the mid-1950s.

Built in 1949, the Cameron Village shopping center of Raleigh, North Carolina, was one of the first in the Southeast, and quickly became the city’s premier shopping area. Through economic fluctuations and years when sprawling development reigned supreme, it has managed to survive, and even now—as brick-and-mortar retail around the United States is struggling—Cameron Village is thriving, with several new mixed-use developments adding increased density and energy. ULI Triangle hosted a panel presenting a case study of Cameron Village focusing on the past decade, but incorporating the center’s entire history.

According to his son, Smedes York, Raleigh developer Willie York was riding a train to a ULI meeting in Chicago in 1946 when he read about Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, a suburban shopping center meant to be accessed by car—a novel idea at the time. York had recently purchased 160 acres (65 ha) that lay two miles (3.2 km) from downtown Raleigh, and that gave him an idea.

The result, three years later, was a six-block shopping area laid out on a grid that included ample parking and was surrounded by over 500 apartments and 100 single-family homes. It was the first shopping center between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and quickly became popular among customers who appreciated the accessible parking compared with that available downtown.

An aerial view of Cameron Village as it was when it was built in 1949.

An aerial view of Cameron Village as it was when it was built in 1949.

The center flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, boasting several department stores, including Sears and JCPenney, as well as services like a post office, pharmacy, and dry cleaners that nearby residents could easily access on foot.

For some Raleigh residents, Cameron Village was notable for one thing: the Village Subway, an underground nightclub that opened in 1971 and hosted the Ramones, Jimmy Buffet, REM, and many others over a dozen years’ time.

But the shopping center also began to struggle during the 1970s, as malls opened in Raleigh with even more parking. The department stores left, and they were expensive to replace. “You lose a tenant, you might have to invest about $500,000” to subdivide and renovate the space for new renters, said Smedes York, who spoke on the panel; he is the chairman of York Properties, which no longer owns the center but has managed it since inception.

The loss of the big anchors actually turned out to be a major advantage for Cameron Village, one that still pays off today. “We got more stores, restaurants, smaller shops,” said York. The complex began to be known for its many small, locally owned boutiques.

That may be why the center is currently doing well while so many others are faltering. “Cameron Village has always focused on mom-and-pops,” explained Lynne Worth, York’s vice president for retail leasing and property management, and a longtime employee. “Big boxes and malls are in decline, but malls haven’t focused on mom-and-pops.”

And York Properties is not a fan of exclusive-use clauses—which means that Cameron Village is currently home to over 30 women’s fashion stores, for example, making it something of a shopping destination for Raleigh women.

A more pedestrian friendly and modern Cameron Village.

A more pedestrian-friendly and modern Cameron Village.

In the late 1970s, the company hired Michael Buckley, a real estate consultant who now runs Halcyon Ltd., to freshen up the shopping center. “When you manage a property for a long time, you seem to wear blinders when you look at it,” said Worth.

But Buckley didn’t. He recommended that the company take down its parking decks and privatize one of the streets running through the shopping center. Eventually, the area became zoned as a “pedestrian business overlay district,” with wider sidewalks, more trees and benches, improved bus stops, and new bike racks. “It was a total reposition,” said York.

That change revived Cameron Village in the 1980s, and served it well into the 2000s, as tastes gradually shifted from car-centric shopping to pedestrian-friendly areas. While the complex does have ample parking, its spaces number about half of what’s typical, and it is easily navigable on foot. Meanwhile, the grid street system has kept the area from experiencing the extreme traffic of outlying areas.

And its location has continued to be a boon; the shopping center is within walking, biking, or bus-riding distance of two high schools and five universities, including North Carolina State, which enrolls 34,000 students. And as downtown has expanded, the two miles (3.2 km) between Cameron Village and the Governor’s Mansion feel like a short hop.

“One of the keys to success is how do you weather the storms, including the Great Recession?” said Marcus Jackson, the managing director of urban investments for Trademark Properties, who moderated the panel. “Cameron Village has weathered them well. And now we’re in an intense up-cycle.”

During the time covered by the case study, four mixed-use developments opened in Cameron Village, adding almost 900 new residential units, plus another 200 that are leasing up. At present, the overall residential vacancy rate is 7 percent (if the newest development, which was completed a few months ago, isn’t included), distinctly better than in the city’s other popular submarkets.

Even during the recession, Cameron Village had a retail vacancy rate of less than 2 percent, compared with over 8 percent for the region as a whole. And since then, the area has continued to flourish. Since 2006, sales have increased 31 percent, median home prices of the surrounding houses and condominiums have gone up 29 percent, and home values have increased 185 percent compared with the rest of the city. According to Jay Dawkins, the CEO of CityZen, which conducted a quality-of-life survey for the case study, Cameron Village residents love living in the area because of its location and variety of retail.

As far as the future goes, Worth said that York Properties has a few plans. First, she said, the company hopes to bring in some more full-service, chef-driven restaurants, and eventually de-emphasize fast-casual spots. And she would like to see the full complement of stores, including those that disappeared during the recession, such as high-end children’s clothing shops and cosmetics stores.

And finally, York Properties hopes to reopen the Village Subway, an underground entertainment district located underneath the shopping center,  in some form. There is a lot of interest in bringing it back, said Worth. “Two years ago, we hosted an event and sold 600 tickets in two hours,” she said.