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Springfield Mall finds itself at a crossroads

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010

To be the Santa at Springfield Mall could be a tricky proposition: The struggling mall could soon be closed for good, its lofty redevelopment plans permanently shelved. Or it could be destined for a multimillion-dollar Christmas gift, with new high-rise apartments, outdoor outlets and a hotel.

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The Northern Virginia mall's owner, New York-based Vornado Realty Trust, has been shopping its $160 million in debt in recent weeks, leading to speculation that lenders will foreclose on the property, according to retail industry analysts and publicly released financial documents.

Fairfax County officials are hopeful that Vornado purposely defaulted on its loans and is playing a game of chicken with its lenders so that it can buy back its own debt at pennies on the dollar. (The strategy of walking away from a distressed property by sending back the keys is informally known as "jingle mail.")

Representatives from Vornado declined to comment on their plans for the mall, except to point to previous public statements about their commitment to redeveloping it.

If the mall closed, it would mark the end of a storied shopping destination that helped define Springfield for decades. It would also become the latest reminder that the ubiquitous indoor mall, a byproduct of 1950s consumerism and a hallmark of modern-day suburban life, is continuing its steady march toward obsolescence.

"Many of these malls were struggling before the downturn, and they are still struggling today," said Andrew Johns, a senior associate at Green Street Advisors, which tracks retail malls nationwide. "It's a death spiral: The longer an indoor mall is failing, the harder it is for it to recover."

Opened in 1973, Springfield Mall was popular among families from across Washington. Big, boxy and boasting a carousel and plush play area, it was expanded in the late 1980s and made into a middle-class haven, a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping experience in traffic-clogged Springfield, a bedroom community of about 30,000.

"It was always the 'suburban mall,' and it had quite a following," said Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. "For a while, it did seem frozen in time."

During its heyday in 1985, Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana famously visited the mall during a trade trip to see a "Best of Britain" promotion at JCPenney. The mall's managers, a family-owned group, posted news clippings about the royal couple's U.S. visit on mall bulletin boards. The mall was sold to Vornado in 2006 for nearly $36 million.

Vornado agreed to invest an additional $100 million to turn the aging edifice into a "lifestyle center," with 1.1 million square feet of office space, a 225-room hotel and 2,200 apartments. County officials have called it the single most important project for deciding the future of Springfield, best known for its concrete Mixing Bowl interchange and aging strip malls.

But at least a third of Springfield Mall's storefronts are vacant, according to company estimates released in previous years and independent analysts. Large swaths of the mall, with its faded gray tile and white walls, are boarded up. Store owners and shoppers alike say it's in sore need of a facelift.

A change in behavior

In the past two decades, consumer habits have changed drastically. Shoppers grew tired of the traditional mall experience, with its seemingly endless maze of cookie-cutter stores, escalators and food courts.

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