Wednesday, October 29, 2014

White Flint Mall: North Bethesda, MD

The crisis with enclosed malls in the past decade has had many victims, but the majority of troubled malls have been comprised of semi-rural and suburban mid-market malls.  In fact, most analysts have been saying that the only malls likely to survive are outlet malls and those that are higher end destination malls.  The problem is that even in that demographic, not all malls initially marketed as upscale have survived the huge earthquake in the retail industry.  In essence, three factors are at play when upscale malls fail. These factors include overbuilding of upscale malls that essentially cannibalize a relatively small shopping demographic, demographic shifts that have diluted the pool of potentially well-heeled customers and re-positioning coupled with expansion of competing and often busier mid-market malls into upscale malls.  All of those were a factor in the eventual decline of White Flint Mall in Bethesda, MD.

When White Flint Mall opened in 1977, it was a premier shopping destination for the fast-growing edge city of Bethesda.  Built by Maryland-based Lerner Enterprises (owners of Lerner Shops, now New York & Company), the mall directly competed with four other malls: Montgomery Mall, Wheaton Plaza, Mazza Gallerie (which opened shortly after White Flint opened) and tiny Georgetown Square (then anchored by JCPenney).  However, the 800,000 square ft. mall was still largely a boutique offering three anchors including two new to the market.  All of these anchors were upscale selling higher end merchandise.  Because of that, it effectively positioning the mall as the most upscale mall in the area aside from smaller Mazza Gallerie.  Opening with Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale's and the only East Coast location of now-defunct I. Magnin, the three-level mall was both architecturally stunning and elegant.  In fact, the mall remained very popular for about 30 years.  The factors described above, however, began its downfall.

White Flint Mall is fascinating for a number of reasons with the center court being the most fun part of the mall.  The elevated platform on top of a center tower gives the mall a tree house feel.  Above is a former overlook that got access cut off in subsequent remodels.  The first photo shows the front of the mall with the former Bloomingdale's on the right.

It is interesting that this feature was retained in the mall despite neither the elevator nor any staircase existing to reach it.

The tower in the middle rises three levels to an elevated platform slightly higher than the rest of the third level.

The tower includes a walk-through area giving access to the elevator

A pill-shaped elevator transports shoppers three levels with an overlook of the mall.  These were cutting edge in the late 70's.

Probably the biggest factor in the decline of White Flint Mall was the wealth that brought the mall to the area in the first place.  Very wealthy areas tend to be highly competitive, and likewise they tend to have an ever increasing value in the real estate.  In the past decade, a three-level traditional mall has had to stay very profitable to justify the cost of operating in such an expensive area, and the increasing vacancies in the mall were hurting that profitability.  In addition, the mall had major competition coming from both Montgomery Mall and a major upscale retail district in Friendship Heights in Northwest DC (which includes Mazza Gallerie).  Further away, the increasing popularity of Tyson's Corner as the premier upscale shopping destination for all of DC Metro also began to have a significant effect.  When White Flint opened Tyson's Corner Center was a mid-market regional mall far from being the region's leading mall today.  Another factor was that the mall was more difficult to reach than most other area malls lacking direct interstate access compared to both Montgomery Mall and Tyson's Corner.

At the base of the tower, center court was originally a showcase of fountains, all of which were later filled in and/or removed.

The Lord & Taylor wing is actually the least exciting part of the mall with the third level sealed off for offices.  With no access to Lord & Taylor, that entire wing appears to have been sealed off years ago.  Most likely it was closed off in the 90's to hide the increase in vacancies in the mall.  These pictures were taken in 2012 prior to the departure of 

Lord & Taylor holds on to disco era mall entrances.  It is the sole remaining anchor at the once three anchor mall.

Since Lord & Taylor was only two levels, the third level never actually connected to any anchor along that wing.  It appears it was once open, but eventually it was converted to offices.  This view is looking back towards center court.

View of the Lord & Taylor entrance from the second level.

Over time, White Flint Mall began to suffer due to inability to better position itself to attract upscale shoppers and department stores when faced with better positioned competition.  Too suburban for the ultra wealthy, too middle class for high end department stores and too inconvenient for commuters, the mall's two main competitors began to aggressively expand their offerings thus making White Flint less appealing.  With White Flint never having had either a major expansion or significant major renovation, the mall gradually lost its appeal when shoppers were pulled away in three different directions.  For instance, when I. Magnin closed in 1992 it was replaced by Borders Books (which itself closed in 2011).  Just the fact that Nordstrom had passed over the mall in the previous year for a nearby mall was the first sign of trouble.  While Borders was indeed a draw, that did nothing to bring in the upscale shoppers needed to keep the mall viable.  Border's joined Dave & Busters in a failed attempt to make the mall more entertainment oriented, but this did not mesh with the more stodgy anchor lineup.

View of the Bloomingdale's wing with the already-closed Bloomingdale's

Looking back to center court from Bloomingdale's.

Third floor with Dave & Busters on the left

Closed theaters on third floor next to center court (adjacent to the closed portion of the third floor)

View of Bloomindale's from second floor

Steps from second to third

Bloomingdale's mall entrance from second level is super spooky

Bloomingdale's from third level

While White Flint was struggling to position itself, its competitors were increasingly drawing business away from the mall.  The huge blow of Nordstrom choosing Montgomery Mall over White Flint in 1991 altered the balance between White Flint and Montgomery Mall.  At the time, Montgomery Mall already had higher end Woodward & Lothrop, so the base of upscale shoppers began shifting away from White Flint.  The second and hardest blow came from the redevelopment of the former Hecht's (originally Woodward & Lothrop) in Friendship Heights as part of the Wisconsin Place redevelopment.  The demolished Hecht's was replaced in 2007 with a brand new Bloomingdale's that effectively cannibalized sales at White Flint's own Bloomingdale's.  In addition, the mall has always had to compete with Mazza Gallerie, which abuts the Wisconsin Place development in Friendship Heights.  Anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, the smaller boutique mall is situated in a complex with probably the most concentrated cluster of high-end department stores outside New York City.  In addition, the complex includes a free-standing Lord & Taylor, which surprisingly has always operated simultaneously with the White Flint store.

Old food court sign looks pretty stuck in the early 90's

Mall directory showing the engine shape of the mall.  

The main entry corridor was once pretty grand with soaring escalators overhead to the I. Magnin store, which later became Border's.  Instead of occupying all three levels it was approached via an escalator from the single-level entrance wing on the first floor.

Inside Lord & Taylor at the mall entrance

Dave & Busters sign on the third floor

In early 2012, it was announced that Bloomingdale's would leave the increasingly vacant White Flint Mall citing poor sales.  With the Friendship Heights store essentially replacing it, Bloomingdale's no longer had a need to operate such a large store at a dying mall that was tarnishing its image.  Closing in March of that year, the building was demolished within a year to make way for the planned redevelopment of the mall.  Redevelopment plans have been ambitious including demolishing the mall for a mixed used development that, according to this article, will have 21 new buildings including a 300 room hotel, four office towers, twelve highrise residential towers and a million square feet of retail space.  In other words, White Flint will effectively be rebuilt into the urban downtown that Bethesda never had.  Seeing the writing on the wall, it seemed that the remaining players would also stay on board with the plan.  As it turned out, that was far from the case.

Third level "yellow" level parking deck entrance.  The rear parking deck provided access to all three levels of the mall.

Inside of third level entrance

The mall's exterior was certainly straight up late 70's with its penitentiary-like brutalism that also resembled many office buildings of the period with the elongated single pane windows.  

Dave & Busters has both outside and interior access.

Another view of the third level deck entrance

The first to react to the planned redevelopment was Lord & Taylor, which still operates at the mall today.   At the pending announcement, Lord & Taylor sued to attempt to block the redevelopment in hopes of preventing the mall from being demolished while stuck in a long-term lease.  While they lost in appeal, the fight turned out not to be over.  It turns out that it wasn't just Lord & Taylor fighting the redevelopment.  Joining in the fun is Dave & Busters who claims that lease terms prevent them being evicted.  Even better is Lawrence Lerner, brother of Ted Lerner and original managing partner of the mall has also sued to block redevelopment.  With a 2% stake in the mall, he claims that the redevelopment plan violates the original 1975 partnership agreement and that action on the mall was taken without his consent.  It is a uniquely nasty fight surrounding a clearly troubled mall that has little chance of ever again succeeding as an enclosed mall.  The result has held up redevelopment of the mall for months with the almost completely vacant mall still open to the public.  In fact, the interior mall corridor was supposed to close in December 2013.  Though held up, the demolition hurdles have mostly been cleared away when it was reported on July 24th that a judge ordered Dave & Busters out of the mall within 30 days.  Up to their departure, Dave & Busters along with Lord & Taylor were the last two tenants remaining in the mall with the interior mall only still open because patrons to Dave & Busters must enter the mall on the third level.

Lord & Taylor's simple Mid-Century modernism on their store exteriors has not changed much.  The white brick is the same although the arches give away its 60's and 70's design.  The anchor apparently will remain open even after the mall is gone.  

Aside from the issues surrounding the mall, White Flint Mall is a very distinct looking mall.  With three main corridors, the mall has many unusual elements.  First is the center court, which includes a center tower with an elevated platform on the third level.  On that platform, it appears that it was possible to once go even higher to overlook the mall judging by the presence of a now inaccessible walkway above the main court.  The mall also appears to have originally had a full third level with part of the third level sealed off and converted to offices due to lack of access to anchor tenant Lord & Taylor.  Lord & Taylor is a two level store in lieu of Bloomingdale's, which had four levels.  Most fascinating of all, though, was I. Magnin, which instead of anchoring the mall in a traditional fashion was situated in the middle of the main entrance wing above the main mall itself.  Shoppers entering the main glass entry encountered escalators in the middle of the entry, which took shoppers to the first level of the store on the mall's second level.  Looking up, more escalators were also visible criss-crossing the two levels of I. Magnin directly above the main mall with the glass canopy bringing light into not only the first level of the mall but also the store itself.  This was not altered when Border's took over the space.  The mall also had three fountains originally, all which were removed in later minor renovations.  One of those was at the base of the escalator at the entrance to I. Magnin with the others in center court at the base of the multi-story tower in the center.  The center also has a rear parking deck that provides direct access to all three levels of the mall.

Southeastern view of the now-demolished former Bloomingdale's

South/southwest entrance of Bloomindale's.

 West entrance of Bloomingdale's facing roughly Rockville Pike (MD 355)

Close-up of main entrance.  The Cheesecake Factory used to be on the right.  I Magnin was inside the glass atrium.  

Today, the mall has turned into a shell awaiting the demolition of the complex, which originally started early in 2014 with the Bloomindale's demolition.  The Bloomingdale's wing has been sealed off with drywall, and an empty pad is growing weeds where a four-story Bloomingdale's once stood.  In its place, a temporary metal awning protects the former mall entrance from the elements, and bracing secures the concrete walls that were part of the basement level of Bloomingdale's.  While Dave & Busters continues to be a major draw to the mall, Lord & Taylor clearly has a sparse amount of customers.  Most likely Lord & Taylor is looking for a way to break or terminate their lease so that they can consolidate into their Friendship Heights store or secure a location at Montgomery Mall when Sears closes.  In all, White Flint was one of many malls whose successful run had run its course.  It was simply unable to adapt to the complex and poorly understood changes in the industry.  Unfortunately, it was also one of the most interesting malls in the city.  As one of the most fascinating malls in the DC region, time is up for what was once one of DC's most upscale shopping destinations.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Greenbrier Valley Mall: Fairlea/Lewisburg, WV

High on the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia, Greenbrier Valley Mall is located in remote region lacking the population and growth to have much in the way of retail, but due to its position as a junction of an interstate and major US highway it has managed to create a small hub of development being located along I-64 in the city of Lewisburg.  While not large enough to support a major mall, the mall boom did not pass up this area with the mall opening along busy US 219 in 1979.  While tiny, the mall is surprisingly very striking architecturally compared to many rural malls built in the era.  In fact, the attention to detail and architecture is quite elegant with its gabled roof canopies over every store, wood shingles and faux doghouse windows on the canopies, triangular ceiling pitches around the high window skylights, colonial-style glass storefronts, old fashioned street lamps and brickwork.  It was as if they were attempting to re-create a colonial city street inside an enclosed mall.  It was probably helped by the fact that they initially drew West Virginia's best department store Stone & Thomas as the primary anchor tenant.

Curiously, most of the older retail development of Lewisburg did not locate near I-64.  This is probably because Lewisburg is actually the northermost of three populous areas in the county with the mall located in the middle.  To the immediate south is the unincorporated town of Fairlea where much of the retail development, including this mall, is located.  Further south is Ronceverte, which is the second most populated city in the county.  The mall is also located on US 219, which is the second most important transportation artery in the region connecting Lewisburg to I-77 in Princeton and Corridor H/US 48 in Elkins.  It also is just north of the WV State Fairgrounds designed capturing customers from traffic headed to and from the fair.  

The first photo shows the interior of the main entrance, which goes into center court.  The railing is not decorative since there are actually offices on that upper level.  It is the centerpiece of what is a pretty elegantly designed mall for 1979, especially for a small town in the coal belt.  The second photo is looking the other way towards the main entrance to Peeble's, which operated as Stone & Thomas until 1998.

A view of the left side of the mall looking toward Kmart.  Hibbett Sports has an outside entrance as well as mall access.

This angle is looking from the right side just shy of center court toward Kmart.

This is standing in front of the Kmart mall entrance back toward the east end of the mall.

Pitched "Star Wars" ceilings are found along two side corridors.  This one extends back between Kmart and the main entrance toward the movie theater.  The movie theater is detached from the mall via an outside breezeway.

The front north entrance wing has a similar design to the back theater wing.

Typical of many smaller community malls, Greenbrier Valley Mall is partially a strip center and partially an enclosed mall.  It has also seen many anchor changes over the years since it opened.  Along with Stone & Thomas, the mall was also anchored by a Heck's discount store and an Elliott's IGA supermarket.  Elliott's closed sometime in the 1980's to be replaced with Barnhart's IGA for a period of time.  That store today is Save-A-Lot.  The most dramatic changes came with the south anchor, however.  Opening as Heck's, Heck's was acquired by L.A. Joe in 1990.  L.A. Joe failed quickly as a chain closing two years later.  After L.A. Joe closed, the store was demolished and replaced with Kmart, which opened on May 6, 1993.  As part of Kmart, it appears that the mall was reconfigured for the Kmart adding ramps to the store suggesting that Heck's had been level with the mall while Kmart is lower than the mall itself.

Peeble's secondary mall entrance is misleading in that the entrance is actually facing the north entrance wing with nothing but windows facing the main mall.  Obviously Peeble's does not build stores like that, so it was clear that Stone & Thomas was a much more fashion-forward store than somewhat dowdy Peeble's.  I can only suspect that Elder-Beerman passed on this store due to its small size and the low population of the area around it.  Boutique department stores were rarely operated by large chain stores and rarely have been successful.

The east front entrance wing is very short, and it appears that Peeble's uses the entire store space on the east side of it.

The pitched ceilings give the mall an almost cathedral-like feel looking back from the theater entrance into the main mall.  Should I shop or should I pray?  Maybe I should pray that this mall doesn't get torn down any time soon?

The main entrance looks like an altar build to the god of shopping, but the tabernacle of ceiling tiles seems to be suffering from a decline in attendance and membership

Indoor faux street lamps.  These were only found in the golden age of malls.

Stone & Thomas was the only true department store anchor.  However, the chain was bought out in 1998 by Elder-Beerman.  In that buyout, some stores were instead converted to Belk and Peebles.  In this case, Peeble's took over the location, which was likely the smallest store in the chain.  Stone & Thomas has a very odd configuration in the mall forming a backwards L shape on the NW corner of the mall situated within the bounds of the mall itself.  While the store entrance is in the middle of the mall, the store itself wraps around to the north end of the mall.  The mall also contains a theater on the back side connected to the mall via a rear wing.  Other tenants found in the mall in the 1980's included Shoe Show, Cato, a jewelry store and mostly local tenants.  Bonanza Steakhouse was also located on an outparcel.

Kmart's biggest fans, including someone I know, should find this place positively holy.  Kmart has the same elegant treatment as Peeble's, but it looks like the entrance was altered suggesting that possibly Heck's/L.A. Joe did not have this mall access.

Kmart's transition area from the main mall to the store is a strange little room with a ramp that appears to have been originally smaller tenants.

This is the back entrance from the theater to the back of the mall.  This is the only access to the mall from the rear.

In all, the geographic isolation and lack of interest in new retail development is what keeps this mall afloat.  Aside from Wal-Mart and Lowe's, most retail development is much older in the area.  However, the main Achilles heel of the mall is that its largest anchor tenant is Kmart.  With Kmart continuing to close stores, it will be difficult to fill this store when they close.  It is the third largest big-box tenant in the area with Wal-Mart and Lowe's both established on the other side of the city.  It is questionable if the demand is there in the market for any store in the area to relocate.  The most likely candidate would be Kroger, which operates an older greenhouse store at Red Oak Shopping Center not far away.  Kroger could simply renovate the Kmart space operating as either a large format Kroger or a Kroger Marketplace.  Otherwise, the store would likely be subdivided with something else (or nothing at all) taking the side of the store located furthest from the mall.  

Close-up shot of the main entrance to the mall.  Some outside tenants adjoining the main mall may not connect to the mall directly such as H&R Block.  

Exterior detail of the main entrance, east entrance (hidden under awning) and front-facing shops.

A broader angle of the mall looking toward Kmart

The strip portion of the center extends from the east mall entrance out further into the parking lot then turning back east as a strip with Save-A-Lot and Advance Auto Parts not connected to the mall.

Save-A-Lot, originally Elliott's IGA and later Barnhart's IGA flanks the strip portion of the mall on the east end.  It is unclear what Advance Auto Parts was originally.

What I would personally like to see happen if Kmart leaves is that Peeble's takes over the Save-A-Lot with the mall expanded to connect to the Save-A-Lot (cutting through the current store) and Kroger Marketplace takes over the current Kmart space.  I would imagine that if this alone was done that the popularity of Kroger and expansion of Peeble's would help boost the mall's fortunes helping it to draw a few more chain stores.  The front-facing tenants should also be reconfigured so that they can handle larger, most likely be junior anchor tenants in lieu of smaller stores.  If necessary, the stores should be expanded further into the parking lot to make this happen with possibly single large tenants taking up the entire side of a wing much like Peeble's does currently.  The back side tenants could remain smaller tenants including local shops and service-oriented stores with lower rent than the front-facing tenants.  This would be the best way to help an aging small town mall remain competitive in an era where most enclosed malls are no longer viable.  

A look back east at the main mall entrance and adjacent strip portion.

Kmart features a distinctive, special design for its exterior entrance vs. the typical Kmart of the era.

Overview of the Kmart, which opened in 1993 to replace Heck's/L.A. Joe.

The distinct trim extends to the garden shop, which otherwise has the typical 90's Kmart exterior.

Limestone boulders line up along the edge of the parking lot where the mall fronts US 219.  It appears that a ton of limestone had to be moved to build the mall.  A rock bluff was directly behind the mall.

Otherwise, the future of Greenbrier Valley Mall as an enclosed mall looks pretty doubtful.  Aside from the anchors, the mall has no chain stores other than Hibbett Sports.  Almost everything else in the mall is local in nature, which suggests that the rents are too low to continue operating as a mall without Peebles, which currently absorbs much of the mall space.  The mall has never been remodeled since the day it opened, and spaces within the mall will be difficult to fill.  I expect that more than likely the mall portion of the center will be demolished converting the back half of the mall into an open-air strip center.  However, I can see that a small portion of the mall would likely be kept intact to provide access to the theater if the theater stays where it is.  Nevertheless, I would like to see Greenbrier Valley Mall stay just like it is.  It is a very unique mall architecturally, and it is attractive inside and out.  It fits well with the natural beauty of the area as well.  Because of this, I hope that this mall survives the bad economy and mall death epidemic and comes back stronger when the American economy eventually revives in the future.