Sub­ur­ban mall aims to re­vive glory days

Spring­field Town Cen­ter be­gins pulling crowds where re­tail cen­ter died

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY AN­TO­NIO OLIVO

The pa­tio-style restau­rants at one of North­ern Vir­ginia’s latest town-cen­ter ex­per­i­ments of­fer a view — for now — of a cracked, sun-baked park­ing lot.

Shop­pers at the Satur­day farm­ers mar­ket must stroll be­tween parked cars in that same lot to pe­ruse the items for sale.

It is a far cry from the leafy parks, glis­ten­ing of­fice build­ings, ho­tel and homes that are planned for the Spring­field Town Cen­ter, part of the re­birth of a once-pop­u­lar shop­ping mall that was dark­ened by crime and eco­nomic de­cline.

But with a new mall lay­out, more projects on the draw­ing board and talk of a po­ten­tial home for the FBI’s new head­quar­ters across the street, the 78-acre site is again draw­ing crowds, sow­ing a mix­ture of hope and skep­ti­cism in an older sub­urb strug­gling to re­cap­ture the glory of its bet­ter days.

At a time when many tra­di­tional shop­ping cen­ters are dy­ing, the eight-month-old Spring­field Town Cen­ter mall is be­ing touted as a cat­a­lyst, a des­ti­na­tion even be­fore the hoped-for high-rise projects and pedes­trian-friendly streets trans­form the area into some­thing that looks more like a real town cen­ter.

“It’s taken way too long to get to this point, but we’re there now,” said Fair­fax County Su­per­vi­sor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who grew up in Spring­field and rep­re­sents the res­i­dents of the brick ram­bler homes and quiet neigh­bor­hoods that dot the area, just off the

“Mix­ing Bowl” in­ter­change of In­ter­states 495, 395 and 95.

But Carolyn Clark, whose Olive Vine Gourmet wine store is one of the new mall’s home­grown of­fer­ings, said that with some store­fronts empty, the eco­nomic re­birth is still a spark rather than a steady flame.

“Things aren’t busy enough,” Clark said one re­cent af­ter­noon, stand­ing with two work­ers in an oth­er­wise empty store. “We’re not boom­ing like we’re sup­posed to be.”

In its hey­day, the Spring­field Mall was a cra­dle of sub­ur­ban mem­o­ries — a place of first dates at Far­rell’s Ice Cream Par­lour, long af­ter­noons at the ar­cade and shop­ping for prom out­fits. Princess Diana and Prince Charles vis­ited dur­ing their 1985 U.S. tour, lend­ing glam­our to a place that helped de­fine Amer­i­can sub­ur­ban cul­ture.

Far­rell’s hummed with ac­tiv­ity, with lines out the door on Satur­day af­ter­noons, said Spring­field res­i­dent Lisa Wheeler, who worked in the store as a teenager.

When­ever some­one or­dered the res­tau­rant’s spe­cialty — a 30-scoop con­coc­tion called “The Zoo” — work­ers would put the dessert on a run­ner and pa­rade it through­out the mall, ring­ing cow bells for as­ton­ished shop­pers, be­fore re­turn­ing to the res­tau­rant and de­liv­er­ing it to its owner.

“It was just a wild place,” Wheeler said.

Bir­gitt Wolf, who also lives in Spring­field, got a foothold in Amer­i­can con­sumerism at the mall, when the Mont­gomery Ward store that op­er­ated there ap­proved her first-ever credit card.

“My first im­pres­sions of the mall were all im­pres­sive and rather grandiose,” said Wolf, who mi­grated to the United States from Ger­many in 1992.

The luster gave way to darker mo­ments in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The mall roofs leaked dur­ing rain. Fights broke out in stores. Car break-ins and park­ing-lot car­jack­ings be­came a reg­u­lar worry.

Stores closed one af­ter another, some re­placed with niche re­tail­ers selling cheap, trendy items to teens.

In 2007, a 19-year-old Falls Church man was fa­tally shot out­side a mall res­tau­rant by al­leged mem­bers of a ri­val gang, a crime that shocked long­time mall­go­ers.

The fol­low­ing year, two teenagers ab­ducted a 60-year-old Alexandria woman walk­ing to her car on a Satur­day af­ter­noon, driv­ing her in her ve­hi­cle to the ATM while she fran­ti­cally called her hus­band to ask him for the PIN.

Bar­bara J. “Bob­bie” Bos­worth died of in­juries suf­fered when her ab­duc­tors crashed her car.

Ev­i­dence gath­ered for a civil suit in­di­cated that Bos­worth’s cap­tors ob­tained a fake gun at a store in the mall just be­fore the ab­duc­tion and that the mall man­ager had re­peat­edly told his su­per­vi­sors there was a grow­ing prob­lem of gang ac­tiv­ity at the mall.

As the mall de­clined, Spring­field res­i­dents in­creas­ingly shopped at Tysons Cor­ner or headed to the newer stores in the Kingstowne planned com­mu­nity a few miles away.

Then the 2008 re­ces­sion gut­ted home val­ues, paving the way for a wave of fore­clo­sures and busi­ness fail­ures. The mall be­came an em­blem of the com­mu­nity’s bro­ken state of mind.

“We had kind of lost our civic pride,” McKay said. “We weren’t feel­ing good about liv­ing in Spring­field.”

Vor­nado Realty Trust bought the mall for $36 mil­lion in 2006, with plans to reimag­ine the area into a vil­lage of high-rise apart­ments, of­fice tow­ers and parks sim­i­lar to Crys­tal City in nearby Ar­ling­ton.

Fair­fax County of­fi­cials ap­proved the zon­ing in 2009. But the re­ces­sion stalled plans for the mall ren­o­va­tion that was to be the first stage of the pro­ject.

The mall closed for ren­o­va­tion in 2012 and re­opened last Oc­to­ber. It has a movie theater with re­clin­ing seats, a spa, a chil­dren’s lend­ing li­brary and a lounge area with a gas fire­place.

In March, Penn­syl­va­nia Real Es­tate In­vest­ment Trust — which owns sev­eral large malls around the coun­try— pur­chased the mall and sur­round­ing land from Vor- nado — for $465 mil­lion.

To­day, “com­ing soon” signs are posted through­out the two-level shop­ping cen­ter, advertising new busi­nesses. The food court is start­ing to fill. The mall’s gen­eral man­ager, Eric Christensen, said the hope is to keep peo­ple lin­ger­ing.

“We want to cre­ate this as a des­ti­na­tion that peo­ple will seek out be­cause they want to be here, not just for shop­ping, but be­cause it re­ally is a town cen­ter,” he said.

Busi­ness ex­perts say the town­cen­ter con­cept is a way for malls to stay rel­e­vant in a re­tail land­scape that is in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by online sales, and where older shop­ping cen­ters face com­pe­ti­tion from newer neigh­bor­hoods that mix stores, homes and parks in close prox­im­ity.

Since 2010, at least two dozen en­closed shop­ping cen­ters around the coun­try have closed, and an ad­di­tional 75 are in dan­ger of fail­ing, ac­cord­ing to Green Street Ad­vi­sors, a Cal­i­for­ni­abased real es­tate re­search firm.

In re­sponse, mall de­vel­op­ers are build­ing their stores around hous­ing, restau­rants and other at­trac­tions, said Mau­reen McAvey, a se­nior fel­low at the Ur­ban Land In­sti­tute.

“If your mall is go­ing to be suc­cess­ful, it has to be a place that is rich in ameni­ties, where peo­ple want to go,” McAvey said.

Christensen, the mall man­ager, said there are no def­i­nite dates yet for build­ing the homes, re­tail space and of­fices. “We’re work­ing through a lot of the leas­ing and re­de­vel­op­ment still,” he said.

Spring­field’s real es­tate mar­ket has lagged be­hind mar­kets in other parts of Fair­fax, with fewer homes and other ameni­ties un­der con­struc­tion. That puts ex­tra pres­sure on the mall to thrive.

McKay is op­ti­mistic, say­ing the re­open­ing has inspired lo­cal de­vel­op­ers to ap­proach him with pro­pos­als for build­ings. There are plans, for ex­am­ple, for four of­fice build­ings near the Fran­co­ni­aSpring­field Metro­rail sta­tion, about half a mile from the mall.

And if Spring­field beats out two Prince Ge­orge’s County sites and lures the new FBI head­quar­ters, the area will ex­pe­ri­ence an in­flux of thou­sands of work­ers who will need places to shop, eat and live.

But some com­mu­nity lead­ers take a more tem­pered view, hav­ing watched other re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­forts in Spring­field start and fail. Most no­table among them: Plans for a large de­vel­op­ment about five miles from the mall that in­cluded homes, of­fices and stores col­lapsed af­ter the in­vestors pulled out in 2008.

“That one hurt,” said Bruce Wag­goner, pres­i­dent of the Spring­field Civic As­so­ci­a­tion. He calls him­self a “healthy skep­tic” of the town cen­ter’s long-term chances.

On a re­cent Satur­day at the mall, Frank Con­stantino, 77, basked in the tran­quil­ity of a gar­den-like seat­ing area as he waited for his wife to fin­ish an er­rand.

“There’s a lot of op­ti­mism in the area,” he said about the new mall’s ef­fect on his com­mu­nity. “To get on the Belt­way and go to Tysons? A lot of peo­ple just want to stay around here.”

But Jonelle Epps, who brought her daugh­ter from Wood­bridge, Va., to find a dress for her eighth-grade dance, wasn’t im­pressed. “The park­ing is ter­ri­ble,” Epps said. “In the stores that they have opened, I didn’t find any­thing in them.”

Out­side at the farm­ers mar­ket, sausage ven­dor Ed Smith did his best to lend folksy charm to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Y’all come back. And tell your friends about us,” Smith told one woman, who wiped her brow in the heat ris­ing from the as­phalt.

Smith, a for­mer to­bacco farmer in South Hill, Va., who re­cently turned to sausage mak­ing, said he’s re­ly­ing on the town cen­ter to boost his in­come.

“The peo­ple here are su­per nice,” he said. “They seem ex­cited to be here. I just hope they keep feel­ing that way.”


The for­mer Spring­field­Mall, seen un­der ren­o­va­tion in Septem­ber, re­opened as part of Spring­field Town Cen­ter, an ur­ban-cen­ter con­cept.


An­nie andMadi­son Sicam walk through the farm­ers mar­ket that is held on Satur­days in a park­ing lot at the town cen­ter.


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