Willow's Revival 

Fifty years later, one of Richmond's first shopping malls returns to its roots.

click to enlarge Robin McBride and Sharon North show off Federal Realty's redevelopment plans for the Shops at Willow Lawn, which includes demolishing the indoor portion.  Photo by Scott Elmquist
  • Robin McBride and Sharon North show off Federal Realty's redevelopment plans for the Shops at Willow Lawn, which includes demolishing the indoor portion.  Photo by Scott Elmquist

Back in 1956, Elvis Presley had just released “Elvis,” his second album, the Mouseketeers dominated afternoon television and just off the far stretches of West Broad Street in Henrico County, a newfangled, car-happy shopping center was being built: the Shops at Willow Lawn.

Like hundreds of similar retail projects across the United States, Willow Lawn went through the usual iterations through the decades. At first, strips of small stores lined the edges of parking lots. By the 1980s, parts of Willow Lawn were reformed with roofs and climate control so older shoppers could walk indoors comfortably, and teenagers, hormones screaming, could check each other out.

Now Willow Lawn is turning full circle again. Come May, wrecking balls will knock down the enclosed section in the mall's center. By summer 2012, Willow Lawn will look a lot more like it did in 1956, albeit with 70 more parking spaces. It will have about 30,000 square feet less than its current 476,000 square feet of commercial space. Offices will return after a decade. Sidewalks will be wider and have more benches.

“We're sort of like bell bottoms coming back,” says Robin McBride, vice president and chief operating officer for the Mid-Atlantic at Federal Realty Investment Trust, the Rockville, Md.-based real estate investment company that has owned Willow Lawn since 1983.

Actually, the idea of ripping up older enclosed malls isn't really new, says Randall Shearin, editor of the Atlanta-based trade journal, Shopping Center Business.

“The trend took hold about 10 years ago and was largely a response to consumer demand,” he says. The reason is simple: Retail stores go through natural life cycles. “It is part of an ever-evolving process,” Schearin says. “I bet that 80 percent of the stores that were once at Willow Lawn don't exist anymore.”

Changing retail tastes is indeed an issue. One reason for the makeover, says Federal Realty spokeswoman Janelle Stevenson, is that an Old Navy store, which had anchored the indoor part of the mall, was anxious to switch positions.

That's part of a national movement by the Gap, which started the Old Navy brand in California in 1994. Gap is shifting Old Navy into stores that are roughly two-thirds smaller. Old Navy offers products to fashion-conscious teenagers that are cheaper than the flagship Gap, but the buzz that Old Navy enjoyed 10 years ago has evaporated. Kroger will remain a major anchor of Willow Lawn as will Gold's Gym and Ross. A new Old Navy will move several stores away from its current location.

Another dynamic favoring Willow Lawn is its favorable and stable location close to the border between Richmond and Henrico County. Federal Realty data shows that within one mile of the mall there are 87,987 residents with an average household income of $65,695. About 71 percent have college degrees and are in their late 30s — prime shopping years. A bus route stops right at the shopping center, which is one of the closest to downtown Richmond.

“It's important that Federal has recognized that Willow Lawn is viable as a retail location,” says Joe Emerson, Henrico County's planning director.

The same can't be said for other, older malls in the Richmond area. Cloverleaf Mall, which opened in 1972, was a dominant retail location for years, but was bypassed while suburban sprawl in Chesterfield County moved farther south and west. Cloverleaf will be demolished in the coming weeks and a new Kroger will anchor a much smaller new shopping area.

Federal also is renovating Willow Lawn during times of short credit. A number of new shopping areas, such as Hancock Village Shopping Center in southwestern Chesterfield County, had been put on hold while the recent financial crisis tried up lending.

Federal Realty officials won't say if the Willow Lawn project signals that the credit slump is over. They do insist that the community activities that had been a draw at the facility won't be interrupted. “We haven't been told yet what's coming, but the enclosed part will probably be a parking lot,” says Glennis Garrett, a salesperson at Cocoanut Jewelry at Willow Lawn. “My mom started this store in 1976. We just love it here.” S

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