- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

Not too long ago, having a shopping mall near a new housing development was a major draw. The shopping mall, with its familiar anchor stores, crowded food courts and acres upon acres of parking lots, was an inviting destination for most people - especially teenage “mall rats.”

Back when Margaret McFarland was a teen, she and her friends used to love to go their local mall.

“If you lived east of Georgia Avenue, you went to PG Plaza (now the Mall at Prince George’s),” says Ms. McFarland, who spent her early years in Takoma Park and is now director of the Colvin Institute of Real Estate Development of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland in College Park. “I also remember Wheaton Plaza with all the stores … Woodies and Hechts.”

The mall, a once-iconic refuge of suburbanites and teens, has fallen on hard times in recent years. According to Reis Inc., a research company that studies commercial real estate performance, mall vacancies peaked at 7.1 percent at the end of 2008, compared to 5.8 percent a year earlier.

Even before the current downturn, there were rumblings of trouble brewing. Old department stores began to fail, national chains went bankrupt and smaller businesses saw customers vanish. For homeowners in surrounding neighborhoods, the old mall’s empty parking lots and shuttered shops can loom as a potential liability when it comes to trying to sell in troubled times.

“A closed mall can be a disaster for the community,” says Marie Howland, a professor in urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland.

Things have changed dramatically since malls first began to take hold on the national consciousness. Back then, new shopping centers competed with older business districts. Then, large regional malls (like Tysons Corner Center) went up in the late 1960s and 1970s. Malls just continued to get bigger in the 1980s and 1990s, putting stress on smaller shopping centers and strip malls.

Now, large regional malls are the ones facing competition from mixed-use open-air “lifestyle centers,” which ironically hearken back to the downtown districts of yesteryear.

“They’re developed as a place for people to go even when they’re not shopping,” says Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed use development at the Urban Land Institute.

It’s easy to see why malls have lost their appeal. Eighty percent of respondents reported having at least one problem during a recent trip to the mall, according to the fifth annual Consumer Dissatisfaction Survey conducted by the Baker Retailing Initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Verde Group. The most frequent complaint was “nothing new or exciting” at the mall. Other popular concerns included the lack of restaurants and parking problems. Teenage loitering was also a commonly-cited issue.

People are tired of the same old stores and the same old merchandise. Crowded food courts are more popular with the teenage set than they are with parents or young couples looking for a memorable dining experience.

Demographics have changed as well. Those once-new neighborhoods surrounding the mall have become old hat. Neighbors themselves can be more demanding and less friendly toward the added traffic brought by an expanding shopping center.

“A mall decline can affect the neighborhood,” says Ms. Howland. “And when a neighborhood declines, the mall usually does worse.”

However, there may be new life in old malls - thanks to revitalization programs and a combination of federal, state and local funding.

Consider District Heights, one of the early D.C. suburbs and a modest community that has a commercial strip that hasn’t changed all that much since the early 1950s. Located in the 6000 to 6300 blocks of Marlboro Pike, it contains small shopping centers and scores of mom-and-pop shops - such as Gallo’s Carryout and Italian Grocery, which has been on the strip for more than 30 years.

While Gallo’s legendary subs haven’t changed much in 30 years, neither has the architecture of the surrounding shops.

So, District Heights embarked on an ambitious revitalization program that involves improving store facades, greening the streetscape and improving the infrastructure with an eye toward a trickle-down effect throughout the larger community.

“Improving business directly impacts the surrounding residences - it builds community morale and pride,” says Samantha Archibald, the city’s urban planner and program manager of the commercial revitalization program. “We want to transform the look of the commercial area to reveal the true identity of District Heights.”

Similar commercial revitalization programs exist throughout the Washington area, including in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. These programs usually allow for flexibility in property improvement and help expedite planning for redevelopment. They ease zoning restrictions and facilitate the permit process, something especially useful in the face of new trends toward mixed-use development.

A successful reinvention of an aging downtown occurred in Silver Spring, which saw many of its once-busy shops and department stores close by the mid-1980s as customers were lured away to newer, cutting-edge malls like Westfield Montgomery Shopping Mall and White Flint.

Now, the streets of downtown Silver Spring are filled with couples and families strolling along Ellsworth Avenue enjoying free music and entertainment before they visit one of the many restaurants or national chain stores.

“They’ve managed to do it very well,” says Ms. Kramer, who admits to not being a “mall person.”

Many of Silver Spring’s downtown visitors simply walk to the commercial section from nearby apartments, condominiums and other housing. The revitalization of the area has made it a desirable place to live again.

Places such as Bethesda Row in Bethesda and Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia are indicative of a new trend in commercial design: the lifestyle center that integrates retail, residence and entertainment destinations. Bethesda Row has shops, restaurants, a movie theater and events such as a farmers market and outdoor concerts. A luxury apartment community, aptly named Upstairs at Bethesda Row, features traditional floor plans as well as two-story loft-style homes. Many housing communities are also within walking distance of Reston Town Center, which has shops, restaurants, a movie theater, a hotel and a pavilion that hosts events throughout the year and ice skating in the winter.

“The separation of retail from housing is out of fashion,” says Ms. McFarland.

Unlike those static enclosed malls, lifestyle centers are flexible. If a store fails, it is relatively easy to convert the space to something else.

Yet, the mall concept is hardly dead. Existing malls have been reinventing themselves, intensifying their uses and expanding. At Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center, the old Wheaton Plaza has been revamped with new anchor stores that include Macy’s and Target.

The Mall at Prince George’s has added new chain stores, an updated streetscape and some high-priced condominiums nearby. It’s also added lifestyle events, including a college showcase and a black doll show.

“Larger malls with three or more anchors have a better shot than the smaller malls,” says Ms. Kramer. “If one [anchor store] goes dark, it’s not traumatically hurt.”

Other aging malls literally have turned themselves inside out, like Seven Corners in Fairfax County, which got rid of its interior corridors in the late 1990s in favor of stores with outside access.

Most defunct malls don’t sit empty for long, and find new life as senior housing, educational centers or mixed-use developments.

“No one wants an eyesore,” Ms. Kramer says.

These days, homeowners can help set boundaries and place limits on the mall’s green space, store size and traffic patterns.

“[Mall] developers assume they are going to be working with the community,” says Ms. Kramer. “People understand that they can have an impact and there are options.”

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