Main Street making a comeback at the expense of the shopping mall

Shopping malls gained stature in many corners of America by evolving into mini-cities, places where senior citizens took exercise walks and Girl Scout troops sold cookies. Some malls leased space to Post Offices and libraries. On Halloween, the mall became a place to trick-or-treat and come Christmas time, it was where Santa Claus spent the day accepting wish lists.

In short, the most successful malls usurped the role of Main Street as the commercial and even cultural center of the communities they served.

Now, however, many shoppers want Main Street back.

Development of new malls has almost completely stopped, with only two being erected in the country since the beginning of 2009, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Outdoor town center concepts, featuring brick sidewalks, streetlights and even public clocks evoking the Main Street of yore, are climbing to a degree that many owners of enclosed malls are considering dramatic makeovers, some including plans to tear off the roof of, or “de-mall” enclosed shopping centers.

Last week, owners of White Flint Mall, the Rockville shopping destination, announced plans to tear the building down and — over the next 25 years — replace it with an outdoor mix of housing, new shops, offices and park space.

The plans ultimately call for 5.2 million square feet, including 1 million square feet of offices in three buildings along Rockville Pike, 1 million square feet of retail, 2,500 residential units and a 300-room hotel. The current three-level mall is about 800,000 square feet.

Civic amenities are also envisioned for the property, owned by Lerner Enterprises and Tower. On the south side of the property, the companies have reserved space for the construction of a new elementary school, and on the east side, plan to build a public park, part of 13.1 acres of open space on the property.

“It’s not going to be a mall,” said Michael Cohen, an architect with Boston-based Elkus Manfredi hired by the developers. “It’s going to be more of a town, in a way. So you’re not making a mall, you’re making a town, a community.”

The first phase of White Flint Mall’s redevelopment envisions 740,000 square feet of retail and 1,200 residential units around a central “piazza.” The transformation is made more difficult by the fact that the mall’s two top tenants, Bloomingdales and Lord & Taylor, independently own their spaces and would re-open in the new development. The owners will also have to determine what to do with their existing tenants. The proposal, which requires a string of approvals, coincides with a new White Flint plan passed by the county.

“Malls are changing,” said James D. Policaro, managing director of development for Lerner. “It’s a transformation — a transformation of buying habits.”

White Flint isn’t the only property in the Washington area whose owners are considering a transformation toward a town center concept.

Vornado/Charles E. Smith, owner of Springfield Mall, envisions a similar remake. The developer has proposed replacing the 2.1 million-square-foot mall with an 80-acre town center that would ultimately have more than 2,000 housing units, multiple office buildings and a hotel.

Somera Capital Management, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., bought the Laurel Mall in 2007 and proposed a $250 million transformation into a town center that would have added new housing and retail. Plans were stalled by the recession.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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