Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fairfield Commons Mall/Eastgate Mall: Richmond, VA

Eastgate Mall, now Fairfield Commons Mall, opened on the east side of Richmond in unincorporated Henrico County in 1967.  Recently, it became Richmond's oldest enclosed mall since Willow Lawn shopping center demolished what remained of their mall part in 2011.  Unfortunately, this is a dubious distinction since the mall itself is barely hanging on as a retail center with much of the property in disrepair.  In fact, it is probably one of the most run down malls I have seen to keep as many inline tenants as it has and remain open to the public.  Unfortunately, the small size and condition of the mall is not leading to any plans to keep it open, renovate or expand on it in its current form.  Instead, it was announced in June 2012 that an Arizona developer named Bromont Investments was planning to demolish the mall and replace it with a strip including an unmentioned 90,000 square feet tenant (1).

Eastgate Mall when it opened was not a showy mall.  It was a basic one-level T-shaped mall anchored on the east end by regional chain Thalhimer's and on the west end by Sears.  In the middle was junior anchor G.C. Murphy's.  The mall also appeared to have a People's Drug, which is currently the Citi Trends space and a cafeteria, likely a Morrison's or local chain.  Both have outside entrances with the former next to the former Sears and the latter near what was Thalhimer's.  G.C. Murphy's was also designed with an outside entrance to the back of the mall.  The mall was never expanded at any point in its history, and near the mall on the east end is the remains of what appears to be a grocery store built as part of the development.  It is not known what store it was, however.

By far, the most interesting aspect of the mall is the Maxway, which originally opened as G.C. Murphy's and still retains the "M" from when it was Murphy's.  A find like this, especially in a mall, this recent is rare indeed and proves that the days of the mall are definitely numbered.

Here are a couple other angles of the Murphy's turned McCrory's turned Maxway (keeping with the M theme).  The last close-up shot of the "M" and tile was taken by Mike Kalasnik, who was touring with us that day.

More shots of the vintage Murphy's including some inside detail by Mike Kalasnik 

Murphy's also included an outside entrance on the back side of the mall.  As this and the following shots will show, the outside of the mall is extremely weathered and looks almost abandoned.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

The ability of Fairfield Commons Mall to survive as long as it has is really what is remarkable.  It was renamed Fairfield Commons from the more generic Eastgate name in 1989, and its last remodel was in 1990 (1).  Across the city, far more appealing options have since replaced the aging center, and the mall was largely supplanted in 1991 by the now struggling Virginia Center Commons to the west.  Fairfield Commons lost Sears to the newer mall, and a year later Thalhimer's closed at the mall when the chain was bought out by May Company with most stores becoming Hecht's.  However, Peeble's took over the former Thalhimer's the following year keeping at least one department store operating in the mall.  This move by Peeble's essentially saved the mall from closure along with the continued operation of long-time tenant G.C. Murphy, which remained in the center until 2001.  G.C. Murphy became a division of McCrory's, but apparently the location keep the name on the door through acquisitions by Ames in 1988 and McCrory's in 1989 up until the liquidation of the McCrory's corporation.  It has since operated as Maxway, a division of Variety Wholesalers who also owns the Rose's chain.  Essentially, the mall has shifted in the past two decades from a  small regional shopping mall to a struggling community mall in a lower-income neighborhood.

A look down the straight-shot mall corridor.  Evidence of water damage is plentiful throughout the mall.  This is a problem with enclosed malls is that high rents are needed to maintain the building.  A mall can appear to be doing okay tenant-wise, but when the rents are too low to maintain the building a decision must be made whether to close the mall, take a risk on massive renovations or raise rents, which in a mall like this will cause the mall to die anyway.  Absent public funding, renovating an enclosed mall in a low income neighborhood is typically not practical.  A massive renovation is planned: it just doesn't include a mall.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Front entrance wing looking towards the main mall with Maxway in the background.

More detail of the front entrance wing.

Peebles, originally Thalhimers, mall entrance.  Here is how it looked originally.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Another view of the Peebles mall entrance with what appears to be an old cafeteria on the left.  The space has since been subdivided.

The mall as it stands has been owned since 1996 by local developer Albert Chiocca, who originally acquired the mall for $2.9 million (1).  While the interior of the mall is very clean, the fact that the owners of the mall have given up on the property as an enclosed mall is apparent.  On the exterior, paint is peeling everywhere and signs are falling apart.  Only the Peebles still looks nice, and the building there is in excellent condition inside and out.  Inside, water damage is visible in many places notably in center court and next to Sears.  While it appears the leaks that caused the damage were repaired, the interior damage has not.  The main entrance stucco is also crumbling and buckled, and the parking lot is in poor condition with weeds, overgrown shrubbery and broken pavement.  In some ways, the mall looks abandoned even though it is still viable.

Looking towards the former Sears with Maxway on the left

What was this obvious original cafeteria space?  Morrison's?

A nice view of the mall with fellow photographer Mike K walking on the left :)

Former Sears mall entrance now hidden because of the storage facility that took its place.  Wouldn't it help business though to have a mall entrance to the front office for it?  The door to the right was another entrance corridor that was apparently sealed off.

A view of the skylights and water damage.

The mall inside contains many elements reminiscent of its age.  Many storefronts still maintain a 1970's appearance, and what is most striking is the Maxway, which has wood paneling and the oddly appropriate "M" left over from when the chain was G.C. Murphy.  This is an extremely vintage trapping that is rarely found today in any retail center.  The mall is also on a slight incline with a ramp and steps down to Peeble's and a ramp and steps up to the former Sears, which now operates as "Ample Storage".  Ample Storage has no access to the mall.  Curiously, the outside doors of what was Sears have been replaced with large garage doors.  The former Sears auto center now operates as a charity.  Across the street, the last Kmart in Richmond still serves shoppers in the declining area that was still a hot corridor in the 1980's.  Probably the newest building in the area is the Bojangles located on an outlot of the mall.

Doors at rear entrance wing next to Sears with a remainder of the original Sears wall still visible.

A look back at the mall from Sears.  There is a ramp up in front of Sears and a ramp down in front of Peeble's/Thalhimer's.

In all, I wish there was a way that this whole property could be redeveloped while keeping the mall, but realistically the mall has survived way past its usefulness and purpose.  No retail anchor has come to fill the Sears void in over two decades, and Peeble's rarely anchors or complements malls.  Maxway is typically viewed by residents of urban neighborhoods in a similar fashion to Family Dollar and Dollar General as blight, and it hardly provides the draw that G.C. Murphy once did.  The mall still has moderately high vacancies, though clearly it is doing far better than many similar malls of this size and vintage.

A shot of the pegboard wall inside Maxway that clearly dates to when the store opened.

Inside, the store contained these gems: McCrory's shopping baskets!  Apparently Maxway saw no need to hide what they were before.  Ironically, this store did not appear to ever be actually signed as McCrory's.

Does anybody know what this used to be?  It looks classy.

A step up outside of Peeble's.  A step down from what it used to be.

A blurry shot of the entrance wing next to Peeble's featuring Kmart's #1 Fan.

The push to redevelop the mall is also part of a plan to redevelop the whole Nine Mile Road (VA 33) corridor, which the mall is situated on.  In 2008, a nearby huge development known as White Oak Village opened attracting big name tenants like JCPenney, Ukrop's (now Martin's), Target and Lowe's.  A similar smaller plan is envisioned for the mall, except that the redevelopment will keep successful mall tenants such as Peeble's, Citi Trends, Foot Locker and GNC.  However, no mention was made if Maxway will also join the new development.  The mall itself is plain and unattractive architecturally on the outside, and the entire property is dragging down the rest of the area.  In addition, the success rate of keeping enclosed mall portions as part of redevelopments has also been poor as evidenced by Willow Lawn removing the remaining enclosed mall portion a few years after the first redevelopment of the center.  Considering all of this, I hope that the redevelopment works out well and helps to improve the neighborhood although I do hate to see another vintage retail mall get demolished.

Rear entrance next to what was Sears.  Does anybody have any idea what that store was to the right?  It doesn't appear that it ever had mall access.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Peeble's, formerly Thalhimer's.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Closed-off back entrance of Peeble's/Thalhimer's.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Ample Storage in an ample-sized old Sears.  Apparently the old entrances weren't ample, though, considering they replaced them with garage doors.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Intact Sears entrance followed by side view of Sears Auto Center.  This store bears a striking resemblance to the Sears at Houston Mall in Warner Robins, GA.  Photos by Mike Kalasnik.

Front of the Sears Auto Center, now a thrift store.  Yes, this street has seen better days.

Citi Trends on what was likely Peoples or Dart Drug has both a mall and outside entrance.  The old Sears is in the background.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.  

Outside of narrow mall entrance corridor next to Peeble's.

I really can't tell what this grocery store is, but I tend to wonder if it was either Giant or Safeway considered both were in the market during the time the mall was built.

The main entrance got a teal green and stucco update in 1989.  If you look closely in the photo, the stucco is pretty damaged.  

Fairfield Commons Mall sign from the road.  The owners are looking at this and saying "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Mall)" thinking it's too Funkadelic.

1.  Llovia, L. (2012, June 14).  Henrico's Fairfield Commons could be razed for center.  Richmond Times-Dispatch.  http://www.timesdispatch.com/business/henrico-s-fairfield-commons-could-be-razed-for-center/article_9027cfe0-5f05-5357-9d2d-84312fd430a9.html