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 (UPDATE: Kmart announced it was closing this store in June 2017).  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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Richlands Mall: Richlands, VA

Richlands Mall, the first mall outside of Bluefield, is the first mall in western Tazewell County.  A very tiny mall compared to Claypool Hill, the mall could have just as easily been a small strip connecting the two main anchors, but instead the owners built it as an enclosed mall possibly to maximize space in an area with limited land to build on.  At 162,500 square feet, the mall is basically nothing more than a single interior hallway extending from a main entrance in front of the mall turning left to end into Rose's forming a backwards L with 24 total spaces.  Geographically, the mall is situated on a narrow strip of land between Mudlick Creek and a railroad track with US 460 on the opposite side of the railroad and the mall serves three towns: Richlands, Cedar Bluff to the east and unincorporated Raven to the west.  Besides Rose's, the mall was also anchored originally by Kroger, Eckerd Drugs and a movie theater in the rear of the mall.  All three anchors have outside access and do not require mall entry.

Today, two of those anchors have since changed hands.  Eckerd is now CVS Pharmacy and Kroger was replaced by regional chain Grant's Supermarket (which also recently moved into the former Kroger in Galax).  Grant's, with 12 and soon 13 locations apparently is a growing and reasonably popular chain filling the void left behind by Kroger, who is diminishing their presence in the region.  In the back of the mall is a theater, which never connected to the mall itself and is positioned on the back side of Rose's.  In terms of anchor position, Rose's is on the east end of the mall, Grant's on the west and CVS on the front facing US 460.  While the Rose's continues to do decent business, the theater has since closed and the interior mall has been closed for probably around a decade.

The two images of the mall interior were taken through the mall entrance of Rose's into the mall.  The interior mall entrance glass was not covered up, so it was possible to see into the mall although the doors were closed and locked.

CVS is situated at the only exterior mall entrance with CVS doors on the left and the mall on the right so that no part of the mall could be entered.  The glass doors had two sets so it was impossible to get a picture of the mall interior from this angle.

Repurposing Richlands Mall would generally be simple with its small size, but the mall is an economically depressed area.  The mall itself was built on a former industrial site.  According to the Richland News-Press from February 25, 1981 an Eastern Isle plant that produced women's clothing was previously on the site.  Cunningham, Weaver, Foreman and Bailey Architects of Atlanta designed the mall, and the mall was initially owned by three local businessmen.  Other mall tenants when the mall opened included Baskin Robbins, Athletic Attic, Shoe World and a Hallmark store.  It is not clear when these stores left, but the mall apparently always had vacancy problems (16 out of 24 stores were open in the first year).  Ultimately, the mall closed to the public in the late 90's.

Rose's is an original anchor tenant.

Grant's Supermarket was relatively busy.  If you look on the left of the sign, you can clearly make out a Kroger labelscar.

With the mall partially occupied, it is unclear if it will continue to function as basically a partial strip with a locked up mall like it is today.  Rose's and CVS may both eventually relocate since Rose's might move to Claypool Hill if/when Kmart leaves, and CVS is likely to build a free-standing off-mall store.  The structure is small enough it may be repurposed or demalled, but more than likely it could very well be completely abandoned and remain that way for years if Rose's chooses to leave with everything but the Grant's demolished.  Oddly enough, the interior mall seems to be in good repair functioning as nothing but storage.  As one of the smallest malls in the state in a region that probably doesn't even much care if it's there or not.  In all, it's pretty much a forgotten mall that probably has a future as a traditional strip mall.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Claypool Hill Mall: Cedar Bluff, VA

With a relatively small population, few roads and mountains as a natural obstacle to travel in the region, Tazewell County has remained relatively isolated from other parts of Virginia.  Nevertheless, as part of the Bluefield Micropolitan Region, the entire area has a population of just over 100,000.  While the majority of this population is found in Bluefield, twin cities sharing the same name in two states, some of this population also exists further west in the county: enough that a small regional mall was constructed between the towns of Richlands and Tazewell in Cedar Bluff, which includes unincorporated Claypool Hill.

Claypool Hill Mall is actually not the first enclosed mall to open in the area when it opened in 1982.  It was actually pre-dated by Richlands Mall, which opened in 1980.  Richlands Mall, however, proved too small for the region thus creating the need for a more appropriately sized mall with better anchors to bring modern retail options to the area.  Anchored originally by Leggett on the northeast end and Kmart on the southwest end along with a small twin screen movie theater, the mall appeared to be modestly successful prior to the arrival of Wal-Mart in the region.  Also, a Food City (not pictured) is located on an outparcel adjacent to the Belk.  Situated in a narrow mountain hollow, Claypool Hill became the main catalyst of a small retail hub at the junction of US 19 and US 460.  The mall is also connected to both highways via Claypool Hill Mall Rd (Rt. 719).  The fact that this retail strip located here instead of among the cluster of towns further west on US 460 is partially due to more favorable terrain, but moreso the fact that the mall is situated close to the junction of two major highways.

Belk opened as Leggett in 1982 and converted to Belk in 1997.  Like it's sister company Belk, Leggett often opened in very small towns. The first photo is the ramp outside of Belk.  I apologize for the poor quality of most of these photos.  My camera (since retired) was on the fritz and was not cooperating with these photos.  It took significant photo editing to make them look this good.

Side entrance to Leggett featuring globe lights.  Belk/Leggett stores always looked best with the 70's/80's modernist look

Kmart is only directly accessible via the mall itself with its mall entrance functioning as its only entrance.  This was typical for Kmart mall anchors.

K-mall entrance

The only remodel this mall has ever seen is on the mall entrance adjacent to center court.

Claypool Hill Mall's history is pretty uneventful in its first 20 years aside from Leggett changing to Belk in 1997.  However, in the 2000's, Claypool Hill saw a few positive changes.  One of those was some exterior facade updates over one of the main entrances.  This apparently came coupled with the addition of junior anchor Goody's, which was carved out of existing mall space.  Goody's joined the mall on the Leggett end of the mall (by then Belk) opening in 2005 building on with both exterior and interior mall access.  After Goody's (prior to the Stage Stores revival) folded in 2009, Belk expanded in the mall by taking over the former Goody's with some Belk departments.  Otherwise, no interior or exterior changes have been made.  Unfortunately, most of the changes have not been positive since the center has mostly failed as a retail mall outside of its anchor tenants.

Kmart court area with square skylights illuminating a small fountain and seating area.  The mall continues towards Belk to the right.

Looking into Kmart

The fountain in front of Kmart is nothing special, but at least they have one.  It's a lot more charming than a flat, empty spot.

The ramp and stairs heading downhill from Kmart.  The mall has a continuous slope extending from Kmart at the top to Belk at the bottom of the hill.

Despite the commitment by Belk and Kmart, Claypool Hill Mall is today is otherwise probably 80-90% vacant.  The mall has also never had any interior renovation since it first opened, and it appears that most interior tenants either closed or fled to the US 19 corridor.  A small strip on US 19 has Hibbett Sports and Dollar Tree, which likely were the two last chain stores in the mall.  The future of the mall basically rests on Kmart and the commitment of Belk to the mall.  Any day, Kmart could close (considering the state of the company) and Belk relocate closer to Wal-Mart.  When this happens, another small town mall will likely be shut down for good.  While there are possibilities for replacing the anchors, the anchor options are few and mostly lower-end.  Perhaps the mall itself could be kept open with local tenants, but few local tenants are in the mall, so probably the future of the mall will involve converting the interior mall into a strip center.  As to possible anchor replacements for Kmart and Belk, the only possibilities for anchor tenants include Peeble's, Ollie's Bargain Outlet, Rose's, Gabriel Brothers and Magic Mart.  Rose's would be a likely move relocating from the failed Richlands Mall.

The approach to Belk has this graceful ramp with garish purple carpet.  However, the carpet does match the maroon-tiled Belk entrance suggesting that this was a feeble attempt at a theme.

The only thing that is updated in this entire scene is the logo.  If you photoshopped a Leggett logo you would not be able to tell the difference.

Close-up of Belk mall entrance

Blurry shot, but heading away from Belk towards Kmart a dry fountain was captured here to the right of the ramp.  Note the complete lack of any stores aside from the second Belk store on the left.  That Belk was the former Goody's.

For now, Claypool Hill Mall is a classic case of a hollowed out mall with stronger anchors than the mall itself.  With no other options nearby in the market, this is probably the only reason this mall is still open.  It should also be noted that the mall itself lacks much visibility although it is located along US 460, which is the major route in the region.  It will be interesting to see what eventually happens to this failed attempt to bring a 20th century modern shopping mall to a rural and economically depressed mountain region.

Second Belk store on left in former Goody's.  No other stores seem to be open on this entire stretch.

The gringos running this place decided to pull up stakes, because the other gringos that run the place clearly don't know how to market a mall.  Lo siento, no hablamos español en esta jugar. 

Do I spot a store open?  They must sell hope at bargain prices.

Looks like Dixie Pottery lost the war, but this mall doesn't look like it's going to rise again.  

Seeing that the mall has a functioning theater as one of three main tenants is surprising.  Clearly this area of the mountains has a shortage of movie houses.  The funny thing is that it looks like they put a theater in the location of an old five and dime.  I suspect this is the biggest draw to the mall.

The mall entrance might have an updated logo, but this sign is a straight up antique from 1982.  I'm guessing that everything on the marquee is basically what is left in the mall, although Kmart is not shown here.