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.