Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fair Oaks Mall: Fairfax, VA

A bit west of all the well-heeled shoppers sitting in traffic jams in their BMW's at Tysons Corner is a mall that has more quietly established itself as a more modest alternative.  Opening in 1980, Fair Oaks Mall was Taubman's entry into Northern Virginia.  The large and spacious mall has Taubman's signature design including the angular "Star Wars" appearance throughout.  Located just northwest of downtown Fairfax, the center is actually situated in unincorporated Fairfax County as the centerpiece of the Fair Oaks development on the northwest corner of I-66 and US 50.  It is also one of four major malls in the county with the others both being in Tysons Corner and Springfield Mall.

Fair Oaks Mall was definitely built to be a major competitor in the region as was evidenced by its very own off-ramp from US 50 to the mall itself as well as being one of the largest malls in the region when it opened.  The original anchors were Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop (also known as Woodie's), Sears and JCPenney as well as junior anchor Garfinckel's.  In the time it was built, the mall helped absorb the huge suburban sprawl that continues to make its way westward along I-66, but at the time the mall was on the edge of the countryside.  Because of this, the mall's only real competition was more complementary and less formidable in the early years consisting of Tyson's Corner Center, Springfield Mall and Landmark Mall.

One of the most special things about Fair Oaks Mall was its unique center court fountain.  Unfortunately this was taken out and replaced with just a flat spot with new flooring in the 2013 renovation.  I was glad to see and capture it before it was gone for good.

"Star Wars" ceilings and spacious angular atriums are a common feature throughout the mall.

Sadly removed in the renovation, the modern art sculptures were a nice, although gaudy touch throughout the mall.  The last photo shows the sculpture covered while renovation is taking place preparing for removal.

One of the most unique things about Fair Oaks Mall is that it was one of the relatively few successful malls to never receive a major renovation for over 30 years after opening.  The original railing, flooring, entrances, modern art sculptures, fountains and planters were all still intact throughout the mall as late as 2012.  It was like stepping back in time to the era when malls were more exciting and in their prime.  With the five pool center court fountain, disco lights on the entrance wings, Star Wars ceiling and sunken conversation pit seating areas it hearkened back to the era when suburban life was still celebrated with a successful suburban mall as its downtown.

A couple more fountain shots.  The fountain was likely not original to the mall probably added in the early 1990's replacing a more interesting water feature.  Its sister mall Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, MD has the remains of a far more impressive fountain that has been shut off and partially covered for years.  

Disco lights remained in the entrance corridors from 1980 all the way to 2013.  This was my first clue that this mall was something special when I visited it the first time.

A second elevator exists opposite the one next to where the fountain was located carrying shoppers to the second level.  The fountain one is adjacent to the JCPenney wing while this one faces the Lord & Taylor wing.

Lower level detail when it still had planters.  These planters, while pretty, were unfortunately not real.  All plants were artificial.

Fair Oaks Mall's vintage charm may be partially related to the fact that the mall was always playing second best to the upscale mecca that Tysons Corner turned into.  When the mall first opened, Fair Oaks was more of a complement to Tysons who at the time was anchored by Bloomingdale's, Hecht's, Lord & Taylor and Woodward & Lothrop.  Fair Oaks also competed with Springfield and Landmark Malls, but neither mall presented a serious threat to the mall catering to a different demographic than what Fair Oaks aspired to.  Nevertheless, the mall attempted to move upscale more than once and was probably the most upscale during its first 15 years.  The first major anchor change came in 1981 with Lord & Taylor joining the mall between Sears and JCPenney.  That line-up pretty much remained unchanged until 1990 when Garfinkel's folded.  Garfinkel's was quickly replaced by a Woodward & Lothrop (Woodie's) home store dropping the official anchor count back to four for a time.

A hoped for expansion never materialized leaving this very fascinating entrance at the end of an anchorless wing between Lord & Taylor and Macy's II (Hecht's).  It was originally built with the mall.

More entrance detail from the upper level.

JCPenney has a truly retro vibe with its copper-toned entry and disco lights.  It is one of my favorite design features along the exterior.

Macy's occupies what was originally Lord & Taylor.  However, it's far newer stucco-clad appearance suggests the original Lord & Taylor was not only expanded but also possibly gutted for the Macy's when it arrived in 1998.

Sears presents shoppers with a rather bland entrance typical of their heavily brutalist and utilitarian early 80's stores.

Original exterior mall entrance, which has since been updated.  Even the exterior details were not touched prior to 2013.  December 2012 might not have been the end of the world, but it was the end of an era for one of the best preserved and coolest malls in Virginia.

Lord & Taylor may have renovated the interior of Woodie's, but its exterior still maintains the original trappings of its former storied DC department store chain.

In 1993, the mall still had a pretty solid lineup between mid-market and upscale, so the mall then got ambitious believing it could move more upscale.  The mall at that point attempted to court a new Nordstrom in the empty anchor pad between what is now Lord & Taylor and Macy's II, but the anchor pad was passed over for Tyson's Corner instead.  Fair Oaks pull was also challenged by the opening of Tysons Galleria, an ultra upscale mall that opened in 1987 featuring Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus: both which passed up on Fair Oaks.  Things began to get rockier after that as Woodie's fell into bankruptcy closing their main store and home store in 1995 with the chain leaving two dark anchors.  Failing to attract Nordstrom and losing a major anchor meant that the mall's prospects as a major upscale destination mall were dimming.  At that point, Lord & Taylor remained the last upscale department store in the mall.  In 1998, Lord & Taylor moved into the former Woodie's location with the mall gaining its first Macy's opening in the Lord & Taylor space.  The empty Garfinkel's was also filled again with Mastercraft furniture store as well.  While it was likely not the most desired outcome for the mall, the mall was still an established upper middle income mall.

Another shot of JCPenney on another night with greater detail of disco lights

Fair Oaks mall directory from pre-renovation.  Note Macys I and Macys II.

Here are some desecration renovation photos including the slanted cross-shaped thingy in the Sears court.  Yeah it was all stripped out, and not much replaced it.

Soldiering on, but now as a more regional mall, the mall really saw no significant changes for over a decade.  Even the consolidation of Macy's and Hecht's did not really change the mall beyond exterior signage.  In fact, Macy's made the unusual decision to keep both stores as full-line Macy's with the original Macy's store dubbed Macy's I and the former Hecht's dubbed Macy's II.  The one other anchor change was where the Mastercraft closed in the old Garfinkel's replaced in 2008 with Forever 21.  This arrangement still remains today.  However, since 2012 the mall has been seeing significant changes as it has received its first substantial remodel from when it was built.  The remodel was not a complete remodel, but it was an unfortunate one where all of the seating areas, modern art, planters and the unique fountain were removed in favor of flat surfaces with shiny floor tiles.  While this was apparently done in anticipation of upscaling the mall, the irony is that the mall most recently has grown noticeably in vacancies.  In fact, this is a strange turn considering that a few years ago that the mall had some of the highest sales per square feet of any mall in the country.  Were the rents raised too high?  Was its cheaper rent all that made it competitive with Tyson's?  If not that, are a bunch of new boutiques planned?

Macy's I opened in 1998 replacing a Lord & Taylor mall that originally opened in 1981.  The Lord & Taylor moved to the former Woodward & Lothrop space that same year.  It is located between Sears and JCPenney.

Mall entrance to Macy's II (formerly Hecht's) hasn't seen much in the way of updates.  It was Hecht's until 2006 then was converted to a second full-line Macy's in lieu of splitting the stores.  However, the court in front of the store looks far less interesting now since the renovation.

Lord & Taylor mall entrance.  The Lord & Taylor here originally opened where Macy's is now with this store operating as the local upscale department store Woodward & Lothrop until the chain folded in 1995.

Forever 21 originally opened as upscale junior department store Garfinckel's operating for five years as a Woodie's after Garfinckel's folded in 1990.  It then operated as Mastercraft furniture store before becoming Forever 21 in 2008.

JCPenney will likely soon be the last original anchor to remain unchanged in the mall.  It opened with the mall in 1980.

Sears mall entrance.  Sears is the only other original anchor in the mall, although its future looks doubtful.  It is unclear what might replace the store when Sears ultimately ceases to exist as a company.

The answer may lie with the increasingly shrinking and competitive retail market.  Fair Oaks lost a significant portion of their shopping base in 1999 when Dulles Town Center opened in Loudoun County.  Previously shoppers would go to either Fair Oaks or Tysons from the outlying areas, but Fair Oaks does not have the same destination mall status that Tyson's Corner enjoys today.  The result is that the future of Fair Oaks Mall looks more uncertain.  For one, it is in the unfortunate position of not having Metro access at a time that Tyson's Corner just gained access with Metro's new Silver Line.  Secondly, the anchor issue spells trouble for the now 34 year old mall.  With the looming Sears bankruptcy and the slim likelihood that Macy's will continue to operate a double header at the mall, the mall is facing the possibility of two empty anchors in the near future.  Third, Springfield Mall, which became a dead mall a few years before, has since reopened as a shiny new mall pulling shoppers and stores away that were previously passing over the mall for Fair Oaks and The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.  While the mall hopes to continue to attract Nordstrom, the reality is that Nordstrom already has three stores in the Northern Virginia market: one 15 miles away, one 11 miles away and one at Pentagon City 20 miles away.  Add to that that the upscale stores have all pretty much chosen the Tysons complex as their premier destination over Fairfax.  This market saturation of upscale stores makes it difficult for the mall to compete although incomes in the area are certainly high enough to support at least one more upscale department store.

Subpar photos of the Hecht's/Macy's (which will be retaken soon).  They were taken directly in the sun and had to be lightened significantly.

Black Friday traffic is backed up on the dedicated ramp to Fair Oaks Mall off of US 50.

View of Sears from lower level entrance.

View of current Lord & Taylor from lower level

However, hope is still on the horizon for Fair Oaks Mall.  It's only speculation, but the mall may end up being an experiment for chains looking to enter the market.  It is notable that stores like Belk, Dillard's and Boscov's, which all have stores less than 50 miles away, have no presence in the closer in DC suburbs.  All of those stores are good possibilities to take over vacant anchors at the mall.  Macy's may also convert one of its stores to Bloomingdale's since that would be only the second Northern Virginia location.  However, even malls such as Fair Oaks are not immune to the brutal winter that is occurring in malls and retail.  The mall sits in the middle of a crowded market of upper middle class and luxury malls with its only advantage being convenience and major disadvantage being too close to the two Tysons malls.  The gutting and reopening of Springfield Mall may also present a challenge for the mall as many new to the market stores that would have opened at Fair Oaks Mall prior have passed on to test stores instead at the newly reopened Springfield: likely the first time that Springfield Mall has ever had an actual effect on Fair Oaks Mall.  Today, it's a large mall dominated by traditional department store anchors, and it has failed to insulate its position in a time when middle class malls are struggling the most.  Nevertheless, at its worst it is still superior to many similarly sized malls in other cities so it could ultimately go a number of ways: more upscale, more mid-market, more mixed-use or worst case scenario begin to struggle against competitors, a tough economy and online shopping.  It will be interesting to see where Fair Oaks Mall ultimately stands in the rapidly changing retail environment it is in.

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.