Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Staunton Mall: Staunton, VA

Near the junction of I-64 and I-81 is Staunton's lone shopping mall, a sprawling mall with three department store anchors and few similar options in any direction, so why is this mall not doing well?  Staunton Mall's nearest competitor is 30 miles away in Harrisonburg, and its next and better competition in Charlottesville is 40 miles away.  Furthermore, it is the only enclosed mall in a metropolitan area of over 100,000 residents residents in a county seeing a modest growth rate of around 12-20%.  Despite this, the entire area that the mall is located seems to be an area that has seen better days with a dozen or so partially vacant shopping centers with lower end tenants stretching up US 11 north of the mall.  While it seems the anchors do well enough to stay open, is everyone really driving to those other cities to shop or is just nobody shopping in Staunton?  Usually it is pretty easy to figure out why a mall is struggling, but this one is a mystery.  The best indication from a recent article is that a quick succession of owners coupled with bad management caused store after store to leave, but maybe the mall was just never really to the liking of the public.  Perhaps the mall can be turned around, and this post explores some ways to make that happen.


Staunton Mall opened originally as Staunton Plaza, an open-air mall anchored on one end by Montgomery Ward, the other by JCPenney, and Woolworth's (now Peebles) on the back side in the center.  The 68,000 square ft. Montgomery Ward was the first to open in September 1968 with the rest of the mall opening the following April.  Wards previous location was at 110 Beverly St. in downtown where city hall currently stands.  Safeway also opened a store on the front of the mall facing the parking lot and People's Drug took over another junior anchor spot between the main entrance and JCPenney with two entrances into the mall.  JCPenney's arrival was timely and ironic since in January of the same year a tremendous fire had completely destroyed the downtown store located at 113 W. Beverly St that likely was about to close anyway.  It was in all a lower-end mall with a very basic design, and these blue collar anchor stores meant that the mall would struggle to position itself over the long term.


The first photo shows center court of Staunton Mall, which once featured a fountain in front of what is now Peebles on the right.  The second photo shows the current Peebles from the front entrance corridor.  Photo from July 23, 2013.


Architectural drawing from the Staunton News-Leader shows the original design for the enclosed mall with the Woolworth sign in the background and a raised fountain with a statue of "Thinking Man".  The fountain was unfortunately removed within a decade.


1969 view of the mall looking toward Woolworth when it was still open-air from the Staunton News-Leader.  Peoples Drugs is on the right.  It had two mall entrances, the other near JCPenney.


Another view of center count looking south toward JCPenney.


JCPenney mall entrance.  When it was open-air, shoppers were greeted with the famous "Funky P".


This appears to have originally been the location of Jo-Ann Fabrics judging by the outside entrance.


Skylight detail over center court in front of Peebles.

A major issue that was damaging to the early mall was access, but these problems were apparently alleviated before the mall had further issues.  At the time the mall opened, there was no direct access to the mall from I-81 forcing travelers to either exit onto US 11 nine miles south on I-81 or cut through on secondary roads from US 250 to reach the mall.  This alone could have brought the mall to the brink of death within just a few years of opening.  Another mall that famously faced this situation was 100 Oaks Mall in Nashville that actually shut down after a few years in the early 80's due to a lack of shoppers from a promised interstate exit not being built in time.  Fortunately, VDOT came to the rescue and constructed a limited access spur just south of the mall in 1981.  While it was proposed for part of a now-completed larger VA 262 by-pass, this short expressway meant a quick stop off of I-81 at the mall thus bringing weary travelers back to the mall.  This helped increase the malls viability eventually leading to a major reworking of the mall to expand its appeal.  VA 262 today forms a western beltway around the city as a "super two" on the SW leg, and the completion of the connector led to an explosion of businesses around the mall during the 80's and 90's.


Detail of the original front entrance corridor looking away from Peebles.  Enclosing it seemed to narrow it a lot.


A look at the mall from Peebles to JCPenney, and it looks to be doing a bit better.  Maurice's is on the left and Bath & Body Works is on the right.


Potted plants outside of JCPenney clearly replacing what was originally trees down in those grates.


However, past Peebles heading to where Wards was, the mall begins to look a lot more dire.


Wards original mall entrance is on the right with the mall wrapping around to the left.  Just like I'm turning this corner, I wish this mall could turn a corner back to viable.  People must have really hated Staunton Mall for it to be this dead.


Another view of the original Wards mall entrance with a greenhouse front vacant store next to it.  It is unclear what it was, but originally it was the location of the ABC (state-run liquor) store.



The mall's (mostly vacant) food court and theaters.  The theaters should under new ownership be reopened by 2018.

In 1986, Staunton Mall not only was fully enclosed, but it was also given a huge addition.  It is of note that the design of the mall looks in some ways much older than 1986, and this was likely due to the fact that construction was a complicated process that took place slowly meaning that many of the architectural details may have been designed earlier with some slight modifications done to give it a more updated appearance later on.  Since Montgomery Ward was somewhat offset on the north side, the new wing was built so that it wrapped around the store to extend to a new Leggett store that opened in February 1987.  However, this same modification destroyed Montgomery Ward's direct access to the front parking lot that it enjoyed for nearly two decades.  In addition, the auto center had to relocate north of the mall.  Dollar Tree has operated since 2002 in that location. However, this also resulted in Wards ultimately gaining two mall entrances while the mall gained significantly more space than its former configuration.  A new off-ramp and a larger enclosed mall added about 20 years of life to the mall, but changes in the industry have been a challenge with smaller markets being hit the hardest.


This 2013 view shows a bit more greenery than the 2015 view below in the new part of the mall.


On the left is the second Wards mall entrance from the new part.  This used to be the original front outside entrance prior to 1986.  The court area in front of Wards is significantly larger than in the old part.  An outside entrance is to the right out of view.


Before the mall was enclosed and expanded, this is what the same area looked like.  Picture from Staunton News-Leader from 1968.


1986 construction showing the entrance above transformed into the court below.  Photo from Staunton News-Leader.



A couple shots taken two years apart leaving Belk.  Photos from July 27, 2013 and June 20, 2015.


One more view of the Wards court.

The first anchor change since the mall was enclosed was in 1982.  This was when Safeway closed at the mall over union issues when the store was not able to compete with Food Town, the precursor to Food Lion.  Since then, the former Safeway in the mall changed ownership a bunch of times.  It was Sears Surplus for about a decade after, then Goody's took over in 1993.  Goody's remained until Stage Stores bought them in 2009.  After that, the old Safeway location became Gold's Gym then Staunton Health & Fitness.  The result is that the original Safeway location has seen a very high amount of turnover and is currently vacant yet again.  In addition, the unusually small size of the Montgomery Ward resulted in Wards becoming a concept store called "Focus Montgomery Ward" that involved four separate stores that excluded clothing and apparel.  The "Focus" name was used for a period of time in the late 80's and early 90's.




A view of the same court looking toward Belk (former Leggett) in 2015 and 2013.  The former Wards entrance is to the right.  Vegetation helped.


Belk mall entrance, originally Leggett.  It was the last original anchor to open at the mall, opening in 1987.  Can anyone identify the store to the left?


The mall directory from 2015.  MAJK was the Wards, and both mall entrances are clearly visible.  Staunton Health & Ftiness is where Safeway, Sears Surplus, and Goody's previously were.  Peebles is the old Woolworth and later Stone & Thomas.  Despite how it looks, Wards was NOT downsized for the mall's expansion.


Directory of the mall when it opened.  Image from the Staunton News-Leader from 1969.


Colonial was one of several owners, and they took ownership of the mall in 1998.  This directory dates to 1998 after Stone & Thomas was sold off to Peebles.  Their ownership marked the beginning of the mall's decline, but the closure of Wards in 2001 with no viable replacement did not help.



Wards court looking to the outside entrance.  Not a lot is going on in this part of the mall.

This was not the only significant anchor change to the mall.  After Woolworth went out of business, Stone & Thomas opened a store in the former location in 1997.  This turned out to be a flash in the pan as Stone & Thomas was bought out the following year by Elder-Beerman.  Elder-Beerman decided not to open any stores in Virginia and subsequently sold the store to Stage Stores opening the location under the Peebles name.  The Stone & Thomas was the last location opened by the Wheeling, WV-based chain, and it was one of six stores sold to Peebles in lieu of Elder-Beerman (three others became Belk).  Two changes happened simultaneously with the opening of Stone & Thomas.  For one, the mall's fountain, added in 1986, was removed before Stone & Thomas opened.  The second was the mall's food court was relocated next to the theaters.  When Stage stores bought Goody's a few years later in 2009, Goody's location in the mall was immediately closed due to store overlap.


The black terraced facade in front of Belk, originally Leggett, is the epitome of post-modern.  I am guessing this choice of design was literally a subtle hint that the store is a "shopping Mecca"


Photo of the store as Leggett taken from "Belk, A Century of Retail Leadership" by Howard E. Covington, Jr.


A Belk sign is being installed in place of the Leggett sign on the store front.  1997 photo from Staunton News-Leader.


Leggett as it looked when it was still downtown.  1985 photo from Staunton News-Leader.



View of the main entrance taken in 2015 and 2013.  You'd think some reference to it actually being a mall would be around the Peebles sign.  JCPenney is on the right in both pics.


This appears to be the former location of what was originally Safeway, then Sears Surplus, Goody's, Gold's Gym, and Staunton Health & Fitness.  This pic from 2013 appears to have been taken between the time that Gold's Gym left and Staunton Health & Fitness arrived.


How it all looked when Safeway was still there.  Photo from Staunton News-Leader from 1969.

After Stone & Thomas came and left, Montgomery Ward would close their store with the chain in 2001.  Steve & Barry's University Sportswear took the former Wards spot from 2006-2009, but since then nothing permanent has used the former store.  The mall directory showed it as "MAJK", but it is unclear what that means.  In fact, the Wards location is periodically leased out for events indicating that MAJK referred to an event center.  Despite all these anchor changes, JCPenney has been completely stable at the mall operating continuously in the same location from 1969 to present while Belk has continuously operated at their location from 1987 to present, previously under the Leggett name prior to 1997.  Unfortunately, the shaky stability of the two largest anchors have not been enough to drive traffic into the increasingly quiet mall in between.


JCPenney with an unlikely capture of a rainbow behind the store.  The rainbow visible in this photo was ironic since this was precisely the day that the U.S. supreme court passed gay marriage into law.  Photo from June 20, 2015.



This store also once sported the beloved "Funky P".  1969 images from Staunton News-Leader.


Despite the high part in the front, the majority of the store is a simple one-level store.  The small upper level is most likely used for storage or offices if it even actually exists.  This view is from the back side of the store.

Since 2010, the mall's vacancies are bringing the mall to crisis levels.  It is currently at only 30% occupancy, usually a tipping point for enclosed malls.  What few chain stores remain are located primarily in the corridor between JCPenney and Peebles, and this was worsened when CVS, which replaced Peeble's, relocated off-mall.  However, none of these remaining anchor stores have given any indication of leaving, or at least we hope.  If JCPenney and Belk are on leases, it is likely that JCPenney's lease ends in 2019 and Belk may be on an extended lease if it otherwise expired this year.  Belk is finding itself anchoring quite a few dead malls as of late, so it will be interesting to see what happens to those stores.  Overall, the mall itself is a case where the anchors appear to be outlasting the mall itself.  So what should they do?  Obviously action is needed to keep the anchors anchored, and a clear redevelopment plan might make them renew.  It is always possible that through some very creative marketing, favorable lease terms and a refresh of the mall's interior some stores might come back, but that is a tougher sell in the current retail bankruptcy chaos.  While it might buy time for the mall, it is not a renaissance if the interior stores are mostly low volume local shops and services.  In this case, quality is much more important than quantity.  The predictable solution is, of course, not a very exciting one: demolish the interior mall between Belk and JCPenney and reconfigure it into a large strip center with all three anchors worked into the new strip center.  However, the next paragraph will detail some far more creative solutions.



The Woolworth store on the outside was obviously never anything fancy, and no succession of owners through Stone & Thomas or Peebles led to a cent spent in upgrading the exterior.  Apparently this store has never had very high margins thus was never worth the cost of making fancier.  Plus, most people never see the outside of the store since it is on the back of the mall.



At first glance,  you'd wonder why Wards could look so plain as an anchor, but the fact is that when the mall covered up its front entrance, it too would not see any exterior modifications.  With two mall entrances geared to the front of the mall in a chain that was already on the downswing by the time the mall was enclosed, why bother?

The primary issue with Staunton Mall appears to be more that chain stores do not see any value in locating in a 70% vacant mall that has not seen any substantial renovated in over 30 years: a situation that will be extremely difficult to fix.  One thing that definitely hurt the mall was the construction of Waynesboro Town Center closer to I-64.  While just a regular strip, it is more centrally located and has stores that should have opened in the mall such as Target, Kohl's, Ross and Hibbett Sports.  Undoubtedly, if the mall was turned into a strip, it would probably be far more successful.  Perhaps Publix or Wegman's should be brought in to anchor the new strip to create a bigger regional draw.



The shell that Wards is today was once a cause for real excitement.  It was replacing a downtown store with a modern, larger store with plenty of free parking!


The kind of thing that would have caused more of a stir today.  A Montgomery Wards auto center was under construction, something went wrong, and they tore it completely down!  The auto center was ultimately rebuilt, the building was later demolished again: most likely in 1986 when the mall was expanded.  Photos from Staunton News-Leader, 1968.




A couple shots inside Wards.  While not quite as fabulous as Dixie Square, it was certainly a cause for celebration.  The inside of the store still has the same lights, but the flooring was covered with wood for Steve & Barry's University Sportswear.  1968 photos from Staunton News-Leader.

Obviously another (unfortunate) possibility is that Hull Property Group finds the mall and guts it with their painfully generic, bland remodels in an attempt to attract stores, but their track record is not particularly successful in breathing life back into dying malls.  Failures such as Parkwood Mall in Wilson, NC and Macon Mall in Macon, GA show that covering up empty stores with fresh paint, historical photos, new lighting, and neutral colors is not always going to change the mall's fortunes.  Fortunately, the current management is committed to doing as much as they can.  In October 2017, it was announced that the mall's theaters would be updated and reopen: clear evidence that at least one Virginia mountain city actually is underserved by retail and entertainment options.  This comes, however, on the heels of Staunton Health & Fitness leaving the mall the same month.  Is the mall cancelling leases with some secret plan?



Grand opening flyer for the mall.  Note that interstate access from I-81 is not shown here with travelers told to take Rt. 644/Frontier Drive from the interstate.  Today, getting to the mall is less complicated to reach via VA 262.  1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.


A list of the mall's original tenants.  Of special note is Bell Clothes that appears to be the same store still operating today in the downtown mall in Winchester.  1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.



Architectural drawing vs. aerial image of Staunton Plaza.  Note the Penney's and Wards auto centers.  Red Lobster currently occupies the old JCPenney auto center and the Wards auto center was demolished in 1986 with the expansion of the mall.  1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.


Grand opening at Staunton Plaza coupled with the iconic Peoples Drugs sign in the background.  1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.

In all, it is just another case of a mall that has reached the end of its lifespan and needs to be rethought.  Like an old interstate bridge that took a beating from years of traffic, the mall is no longer serving the needs of the surrounding region and just needs to be rebuilt.  The need is obviously still there for a regional shopping center, and anything they do to seriously update it will likely be successful.  With enough creativity they might even save the mall just by shrinking the footprint back to the original mall, taking the roof back off, and rethinking the 1986 addition between the old Wards and Belk.  Perhaps with better visibility, a junior anchor would be more interested in the old Wards space.  Where the 1986 addition currently is, a new strip/lifestyle portion could be constructed with a myriad of options, including the forementioned Publix or Wegman's.  If it were my mall, I'd basically turn the old part of the mall into a beautiful open-air courtyard with plant, fountains, and covered walkways with a distinctively Colonial aesthetic somewhat like The Shoppes at Main & Maple in Purcellville.  Belk would also be remodeled with a Colonial motif as compared to the current rather ugly store.  Peebles could also move within the center or trade spaces such as taking over the current T.J. Maxx across the way with T.J. Maxx moving into the mall.  The new mall would be best if it could also be shaped like a cross by cutting through the existing Peebles to provide easy access to the courtyard without having to cut an actual street through it.  Shopping centers such as Bridge Street Town Center in Huntsville and the numerous open-air outlet malls show that an actual open-air mall is definitely not a dead concept.



Peoples Drug was once as common as Wal-Mart in Virginia, so these ads are likely to be quite nostalgic for those who long for the days when regional drug stores were the norm.  Ads are from the Staunton News-Leader from 1969 and 1988.


Reconstruction of the mall underway.  1986 photo from Staunton News-Leader.


If those doesn't make you want to enter those doors, you're probably not a retail geek.  1987 photo from Staunton-News Leader.



These directories from 1988 definitely indicate that the mall has always had trouble attracting national stores although it was clearly at its peak at this point.  However, many local shops were replaced by chains such as Matthews Hallmark replacing Duet Cards & Gifts.  This is probably the root of why the mall is struggling today.  Original tenants that were still in the mall by then include Boyd's Hairdressers and Peoples Drug.  Piece Goods replaced Jo-Ann Fabrics and Country Cookin' (still semi-common in Virginia) replaced Kenney's Family Restaurant. (Staunton News-Leader)


1996 ad for the mall from Staunton-News Leader.  With Leggett's, JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, and Stone & Thomas, it probably DID feel like it just keeps getting better.


Last but not least was this ad for Stone & Thomas, a Wheeling, WV based department store that opened their very last location at the mall in 1997.  It was one of six locations sold to Peebles instead of Elder-Beerman in the following year.

Overall Staunton Mall is at a crossroads...will it sputter into full dead mall territory or find a way to revive?  Unlike other troubled malls, it should not be in the shape it currently is in.  The market is there, and the reopening of the closed theater proves that it can survive.  For that reason, there is still time to save it.  However, for that to work the mall portion does not need to be as big as it currently is.  Perhaps if nothing else, a real investment might take place that could update the mall just enough to attract tenants as-is.  Maybe even an outlet mall might not be out of the question.  There are still many stores that do not have locations in the market, and they might consider locating there if the property was made more attractive.  If they do so, the best efforts should involve attracting junior anchors typically found in power centers such as Best Buy, T.J. Maxx, Home Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dicks Sporting Goods, Field & Stream, etc.  Creatively configuring them into the mall space would help create a badly needed hybrid of mall and power center.  While there are many malls these days that have no hope of being revived, perhaps Staunton Mall can get the third chance that it deserves.

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