The Mall’s Last Stand

The shopping Meccas that defined a generation are falling one by one. But they're taking more than just memories with them.

She worked at the Sunglass Hut. I worked at Kinney Shoes. Maybe it was the status of shilling high-dollar sunglasses, or the way her bobbed, silk black hair fell across her cheeks in the shape of a crescent moon, glimmering in the small, heavily mirrored store with $50 Ray-Bans.

I spent my lunch break pretending to shop, but I didn’t care much about sunglasses. I didn’t know it at the time, but the carefully designed store aimed to keep customers’ eyes transfixed on the product, rows upon rows of shades in glass cases, with even more mirrors. Browsers tried on Wayfarers and aviators, and gazed into the round mirror on the counter, rotating their heads right or left for multiple, angled reflections.

I finally asked her out. She accepted. I didn’t buy any sunglasses, but I fell in love with the mall nonetheless.

In 1988 Chesterfield Towne Center was just beginning to come into its own. The mall started as a tiny, single-anchor, enclosed shopping strip in 1975. Customers were so sparse in those first few years that merchants nicknamed the place the Chesterfield morgue. There was a Miller & Rhoads, Berry Burk, People’s Drug, fancy ladies clothier La Vogue and a place called the Pants Corral, among others. There was a Giant Open Air grocery store in the parking lot. Built on 33 acres on what was formerly swamp land, one manager told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1977 that large black birds often were seen circling the mall, seemingly confused by the changed habitat.

Chesterfield Towne Center is a different place today. Its struggles are difficult to see on a recent Saturday afternoon, when the parking lots are jammed and the mall’s corridors are packed with shoppers. Yet malls across the country, and in Richmond, are dying. They’ve been replaced by so-called power strips — Wal-Marts or Targets and strings of smaller shops — and new outdoor lifestyle centers such as Short Pump Town Center and Stony Point Fashion Park.

That direction is nothing new. The trend away from malls started long before the current economic malaise, and one needs only to visit any number of mall graveyard websites, such as, to see the power of creative destruction. Mall department stores began drifting away in the 1990s while stand-alone, big-box retailers such as Target and Kohls replaced Thalhimers, Hecht’s and Dillard’s, among others. Chesterfield Towne Center is no exception. Two of its anchor stores are filled with nontraditional mall retailers Garden Ridge and a discount combo store, T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods.

“They are declining,” says Robert Gibbs, an urban planner and managing principal of the Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Mich., and longtime retailing consultant. “There are about 1,500 shopping malls in the country, and about 400 are considered at risk.”

The de-malling of America is a welcome trend to many. Malls are anathema to urban planners and environmentalists, who see the advent of the introverted, fortresslike shopping behemoths as purveyors of suburban sprawl and carbon emissions. Malls, which came of age in the late 1950s, became the new downtowns during the proliferation of American suburbs, coinciding neatly with the rise of the U.S. retail economy. In many respects, during the last 60 years malls were the country’s primary economic engines, Gibbs says. And they still are. Black Friday — Nov. 25 — will jump-start perhaps the most important Christmas shopping season this century: Heading into an election year, with the economy still teetering, malls still matter.

Gibbs, who worked as an urban planner for Alfred Taubman — considered by many as the savviest operator of malls in the world — has an affinity for enclosed malls. Many blame malls for the demise of downtowns, including Richmond’s. But cities hastened the process. In the 1950s, downtown department stores were growing, looking to expand.

“Downtowns were asleep,” Gibbs says. “They did not accommodate the growth of the department stores.” Cities often didn’t meet department stores’ requests to build parking garages, and in street grids that were already built-out there was little room for expansion. “A lot of cities just kind of gave up the market share,” Gibbs says. “Most cities had one department store, and that department store worked behind the scenes to keep out competition. The department stores were overly protective — to their demise.”

Meanwhile, developers accommodated the downtown stores in suburban green fields, which had plenty of room for parking and access to bustling new middle-class neighborhoods. Richmond had two downtown department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, and both became feature tenants of the new suburban centers and the malls in Chesterfield and Henrico counties.

Something else aided the malling of America. Malls were expensive to build, and risky. In 1954, Congress changed the tax rules, allowing developers to speed up depreciation of their real-estate investments. Developers are allowed to set aside a percentage of income, tax-free, to pay for the natural wear and tear of a building. The change in tax law meant developers could recover the costs of building shopping centers more quickly, and it led to a retail real-estate boom unparalleled in American history.

In a 2004 profile of the late Victor Gruen, who designed the first shopping mall in Edina, Minn., in 1956, The New Yorker chronicled the phenomenon:

“In 1953, before accelerated depreciation was put in place, one major regional shopping center was built in the United States. Three years later, after the law was passed, that number was twenty-five. By 1956, that figure had increased five hundred per cent. This was also the era that fast-food restaurants and Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inns and muffler shops and convenience stores began to multiply up and down the highways and boulevards of the American suburbs — and as these developments grew, others followed to share in the increased customer traffic.”


The malling of Richmond didn’t begin in earnest until 1972, when Cloverleaf Mall opened on Midlothian Turnpike near Chippenham Parkway.

There were other major shopping centers in the city proper — the Shops at Willow Lawn and Southside Plaza, which opened in 1956 and 1957, respectively; Azalea Mall in 1962; Eastgate Mall in 1968. Southside Plaza and Willow Lawn were outdoor shopping strips, with massive parking lots and sidewalks linking the stores. Both Eastgate and Azalea were enclosed malls, but small, each with about 300,000 square feet. Cloverleaf was different. The mall was twice as big as the others, nearly 800,000 square feet, and it brought an air of fashion to Richmond retail that had been missing since the heyday of East Broad Street.

“The first major interior mall in Richmond is a total failure,” recalls George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond. “Azalea Mall never developed and it was just a total failure, to the point where it was totally razed. Cloverleaf opened in 1972, in basically a middle-class area, with great access to Chippenham. … And it was the place to be.”

Cloverleaf opened with J.C. Penney and Sears & Roebuck as its first anchors, and a year later added Thalhimers. The mall drew hundreds of thousands of shoppers from across metro Richmond and Central Virginia. More importantly, though, Cloverleaf was a social destination. It featured restaurants, most famously the buffet-style Piccadilly, and in 1974 even briefly exhibited three statues by French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

The mall’s developer, Leonard L. Farber of Pompano Beach, Fla., was a retail pioneer who developed dozens of malls along the East Coast. In Richmond, Farber developed Cloverleaf and experienced such success that he decided to build another mall, Regency Square, which outshone Cloverleaf. It was bigger, about 850,000 square feet, and constructed on two levels, with more stores and an upscale ambiance.

Malls were designed to create an introverted oasis of sorts, where time would slip by unnoticed and shoppers had no choice but to traverse the lengthy corridors to get from one place to the next. From the outside, they created a sense of mystery and social intrigue. Until malls arrived, shopping centers advertised their merchants externally, with outside signs and multiple entrances. Passing motorists could scan the centers to decide whether to stop. With malls, only the department stores had outdoor signs — and potential shoppers had no choice but to stop and venture inside. The shift from extroverted shopping design to an introverted one was critically important. Malls, in essence, created customer traps — once inside, foot traffic was dictated by design. Gruen, the architect who designed the first mall, was a socialist from Vienna, Austria, and his mall was designed to strictly control the shopping experience. The anchor stores would be on opposite ends of the building, forcing shoppers to trek between them, which fed them to merchants in the corridors.

At most malls, all of the color went into the storefronts (it’s why most mall décor is bland, usually off-white) and there were no clocks, Gibbs says, “because clocks tell you when to go home.” Restaurants and food courts were separated from clothing stores because the aroma of food discourages customers from buying apparel. At malls with two levels, escalators were located at opposite ends of the mall, which forces shoppers to walk past most, if not all, of the smaller retailers in the corridors. Another rule of thumb: Storefronts must be designed to remain within sight of customers for at least 8 seconds, the time it takes most people to decide whether to stop and shop.

Gibbs recalls being shocked at the cleverness of mall design while working for Taubman. For example, landscape architects love to design ornamental brick pavers in shopping districts, Gibbs says, but you won’t find them in most malls, where nothing is to detract from the retail stores. “If you are looking at your feet,” he says, “you’re not looking at the storefront.”

Over time, however, malls became too cookie-cutter, says Brian Glass, senior vice president of retail brokerage at Grubb & Ellis/ Harrison & Bates. Malls led to the “homogenization of retail” in the United States, he says: “You had a mixture of national chains, and mom and pops, and everybody — they all started to look alike. The anchors all started to look alike, so there was no defining difference between one and the other.”

Ultimately there were so many malls, aided in part by the new tax laws, that they ceased being true regional shopping destinations. Most live and die while the neighborhoods around them change. As discount retailing took hold in the mid-1990s, malls also began losing their department-store anchors. Slowly but surely, they lost their fashion.


In Richmond, the remaining malls as a group are in sharp decline. Regency Square has faced financial troubles in the last few years, and last year Taubman Centers relinquished ownership of the mall to Bank of America, its primary lender, because revenues weren’t enough to cover the mortgage (Taubman still manages the mall). Virginia Center Commons, which opened in 1991, has been struggling to replace departing retailers in the last two years, including Dillard’s, which had two locations at the mall, as well as Old Navy and Ruby Tuesday.

And the mall that started it all in Richmond, Cloverleaf, is being demolished. Last month Chesterfield officials gathered in the parking lot of the mall, which closed for good in 2008, to celebrate the property’s redevelopment. Members of the Board of Supervisors took turns swinging a sledgehammer, and officials cheered when a crane knocked a hole in the mall’s marquee, exposing steel beams and leaving electrical wires dangling over the front entrance.

Cloverleaf Mall has been dead to Tom Jacobson, Chesterfield’s director of community revitalization, since at least 2004, when the county purchased the mall property in hopes of tearing it down and redeveloping the site. In mid-October, before the demolition crews showed up, the longtime urban planner had a hard time finding sympathy for the old, vacant mall during a stroll through its empty hallways. He stops at what used to be the center plaza, under a still-glowing skylight. The mall has been closed for three years, but the palm trees are still here, brown and brittle, lording over a dried-out penny fountain.

“Structurally, this is still a really good building,” he says. “That’s the sad part.”

Most of the area malls were put on notice in 2003, when Stony Point Fashion Park and Short Pump Town Center opened, both featuring upscale department stores (Nordstrom at Short Pump; Saks Fifth Avenue at Stony Point) and multiple, high-end restaurants. But Cloverleaf’s fate had already been sealed.

Much of Cloverleaf’s demise can be blamed on the massive residential development that occurred in western Chesterfield, leading retailers to head west. But it also was poorly designed, Jacobson says. The mall’s access off of Chippenham Parkway was an obstacle — once exiting the parkway, motorists had to navigate across three lanes of traffic within about 100 yards to make a left turn into the mall’s main entrance. And behind the mall is about 200 acres of wooded, undeveloped land. Cloverleaf’s designers didn’t facilitate access to the property behind it, which could have allowed for more retail development around the mall, which likely would have helped it stave off elimination for a few more years. The redevelopment plans include a 123,000-square-foot Kroger grocery store, the chain’s largest in Central Virginia, and a mixed-use office and residential community.

Cloverleaf also gained a reputation for being unsafe. In the early 1990s, the mall was known as a hangout for teenagers. There were bouts of violence, rumors of alleged gang activity. And in 1996, Cloverleaf’s image suffered a fatal blow: Two employees of the All-For-One dollar store were stabbed to death in a back office. Fifteen years later, police still haven’t made an arrest.

Chesterfield Police Chief Col. Thierry G. Dupuis attended the demolition ceremonies Oct. 25 and still recalls the scene. “To me, it’s fresh in my mind, just like it was yesterday,” he says. Dupuis, who was a shift commander at the time, had the task of informing the families of the victims. He holds out hope that mall’s demolition might spark some new leads in the case, but otherwise he’s ready to see Cloverleaf disappear.

“From my perspective, I would like to see this as a new beginning,” he says.


Cloverleaf’s demise isn’t an anomaly. The new shopping centers are open and extroverted, like Stony Point and Short Pump. Willow Lawn, which enclosed a portion of the shopping center years after opening, is tearing off the roof to open up the shopping experience and create additional parking. Willow Lawn, the oldest regional shopping center in Richmond, is repositioning as an outdoor lifestyle center.

And in the last two decades, malls generally lost their stronghold on security. They were no longer seen as untouchable, safe havens for shoppers, particularly women. “In the 1960s and ’70s, we started to get two-income families. The mall gave guaranteed shopping hours of 9 a.m. to 9 at night,” says Gibbs, the former mall designer. “Downtowns didn’t do that.”

As early as 1989, Regency Square suffered an image setback when 1,500 teenagers descended on the mall the day school let out, leading to a fight and police wielding mace.

Malls coincided with the rise of modern-day suburbs, gated residential communities predicated on exclusivity and safety, and they were an extension of the ideal. Malls didn’t just serve as retailing Meccas, they were de facto community gathering places, many designed to function both as a place to buy and a place to hold community meetings, put on plays and choir performances.

“A lot of people don’t like them, particularly urban planners. On the other hand, they really are social centers,” Gibbs says. “I think that sometimes we underestimate how much malls contribute to people’s quasi-enjoyment of public spaces.” Bemoan their bland design and adherence to the car, but in the suburbs, it’s all that’s left.

Doug Cole, an urban planner and partner at Cite Design, which Chesterfield hired to create a redevelopment plan for Cloverleaf, says there are few public spaces in the suburbs. Houses are designed with garages in the back, obscuring activity, and there are few sidewalks and public parks. He stopped by a McDonald’s not long ago, and thought how odd it was that families seemed to be bringing their children primarily for the play area. “Why do you have to take your kids to McDonald’s to play?” he recalls thinking.


After an expansion and a diamond-themed makeover in 1987, Chesterfield Mall was renamed Chesterfield Towne Center, an attempt to reposition the struggling mall as more upscale. It’s arguable whether the mall succeeded as an upscale center, but it began drawing more customers, and retailers and power strips expanded around the mall rapidly. With the exception of Sears, the mall has long struggled to keep its anchor stores filled, seeing almost constant turnover: There was Miller & Rhoads, Thalhimers, Belk, Leggett, Hecht’s, Dillard’s and then J.C. Penney, which moved after closing its store at Cloverleaf store in 2000. After Hecht’s, the mall added Macy’s in 2006. Both Dillard’s locations at the mall closed in 2008, but the mall lured Garden Ridge to take one of the anchor stores in 2010, and earlier this year added T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods to the last remaining anchor space.

Amid the decline of malls across the region, Chesterfield Towne Center has replaced all of its anchors. The mall has transitioned the southern end of the mall, facing Huguenot Road, bringing in Barnes & Noble with a shiny new outside entrance, and is planning something similar for Sears, says the mall’s manager, Ashley York Venable.

Sears, for now, remains a concern. The retailer, which has more than 3,000 locations, reported $421 million in losses in the third quarter of 2011 as it struggles to compete with big-box retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot. For many malls, Sears has been the one constant.

“You wonder how long Sears can go before a major redoing,” Hoffer says. “With that, you can see Sears pulling out of tons of 1960s and 1970s malls … a horrendous retail disaster.”

Chesterfield Towne Center, however, will likely survive such a scenario. It’s managed to lure a healthy mix of traditional and nontraditional retailers. Earlier this year, mall management also added a farmers’ market in the parking lot, open on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. This week the market is moving indoors, making it the first indoor farmers’ market in the region. And beginning in December the indoor market will be open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Vendors include bread makers, grain-fed beef butchers, produce farmers and organic egg sellers, along with several arts and crafts vendors, such as Lynne and Roger Fuller. Lynne Fuller recently started painting portraits of pets, namely dogs and a few cats. Business is brisk.

“I have all the business I need right now,” Lynne Fuller says, explaining that she’s currently working on 12 dog-painting orders. “I just got another order today.”

Judi Williams, who manages the market, says she jumped at the opportunity to run a market that would be indoors. Once inside the mall, Williams, who also sells Indonesian coffee and teas with her husband, says the market will expand and begin offering sign language and basket-weaving classes.

“This place is mobbed,” Williams says, excited about the opportunity to move inside. “You come to the mall for shoes and you remember you needed eggs. It’s one-stop shopping.”

Venable, the mall manager, says it’s part of the destination’s attempt to be more community oriented. There are two play areas inside, and the once-a-month mom’s club boasts upward of 3,000 members. “We really want the mall center to become the heart of the community,” she says.

Already, Chesterfield Towne Center has outlived the normal life cycle of malls, about 30 years. Venable says the mall accounts for 6 percent of the county’s tax base, employs 1,650 people year round, and so far this year mall traffic is up by “double digits,” Venable says. She declines to release specifics, but says the mall expects after the Christmas season, 6.5 million customers will have walked through its doors in 2011.

Whether or not the place survives as a fashion center, it represents hope. People still love the mall.

The girl at the Sunglass Hut, whom I continued dating through high school and college, still has the silky black hair and the olive cheeks. We’ve been married 17 years. S

Correction: In the print version of this story, Style incorrectly reported the number of members of Chesterfield Towne Center’s monthly moms club. There are 3,000 members. We regret the error.


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