With the opening of the Landmark Regional Shopping Center in 1965, Washingtonians finally had a mall to celebrate. Now, the Alexandria, Va. mall is about 40 percent vacant and is slated for redevelopment. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Falls Church High School band played, Virginia Lt. Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. spoke and 4,000 balloons were released into the air. As many as 30,000 people came to mark the day.

With the opening of the Landmark Regional Shopping Center, in the summer of 1965, Washingtonians finally had a mall to celebrate.

Nowhere else on the East Coast could one shop at the heralded department store trifecta of Woodward & Lothrop, the Hecht Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

This was the heyday of mall construction in America. Long trips to downtown department stores — in cities increasingly considered dirty and unsafe — had fallen out of favor, and fast-growing suburbs were pushing for their own clean, air-conditioned alternatives.

Developers and transportation planners were happy to oblige. From the mid-1950s to 2005, about 1,500 malls were built in America. Three years after Landmark Mall opened, Tysons Corner Center debuted. Eight years later, Springfield Mall arrived. Eventually, there were more than a dozen malls around the Beltway.

It’s been a long slide since then. With shoppers, businesses and investments pouring into urban areas, many suburban malls are dying. Experts predict that as many as half of America’s malls will be torn down or reconfigured.

“My view on enclosed malls is that there are 100 malls in this country that will always be dominant shopping destinations,” said Don Wood, chief executive of Rockville-based Federal Realty Investment Trust, owner of 17 million square feet of open-air U.S. shopping centers. “It’s Tysons Corner and Pentagon City in our area. It’s heavily populated, affluent areas. But there are 1,000 other malls in this country, and the future for those is bleaker.”

Malls endure public deaths. Letters fall off the marquee and weeds grow in the parking lot. They are used as practice sites for fire departments or sets for movies. Mega-churches hold services there. The worst are plastered for mockery on Web sites such as Deadmalls.com.

The dismantling of Washington’s lesser malls is already underway. The question is what do with them.

Today, Landmark Mall is in the hands of someone who knows it well: John Simon, who just after graduating from Anacostia High School in 1965 worked on planning the mall as an engineering intern for the City of Alexandria. He is now executive vice president of the Howard Hughes Corp., which assumed ownership of the mall as part of the bankruptcy sale of a portfolio of properties in 2009.

Once a prize, Landmark Mall came with a heavy dose of headache. Originally opened with outdoor walkways, it is now fully enclosed, about 40 percent vacant and surrounded by so many parking spaces and road interchanges that it is virtually impossible to walk to from any angle. Its parking lot is rented to a carnival in the spring. Simon deadpanned in a meeting with neighborhood residents, “We are the proud owners, I guess.”

Alexandria residents, seeing the chic new shops and markets opening in other neighborhoods, have clamored for a change for years.

So in the mall’s place, Simon and Howard Hughes proposed a 51-acre open-air neighborhood center with a 380-unit apartment building and a traditional street grid lined with restaurants, sidewalks and trees.

A current view of the Landmark Mall’s exterior (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Rendering of the proposed open-air center (Image courtesy of The Howard Hughes Corporation)

Simon said he envisions a “small-town, urban environment” aimed largely at baby boomers like him who grew up in cities and then raised kids in the suburbs. Although the company has not yet received final approval from the city, it is hoping to demolish the mall this fall and complete the project 2 1/2 years later.

“I grew up when Woodie’s, Hecht’s and Lansburgh’s were downtown, when you took the bus to the department stores to shop,” he said. “And you spent a Saturday walking back and forth from one to another. So my generation, the empty nesters, are gravitating back to urban areas.”

Other owners have made similar proposals to tear apart existing properties and turn them into streetscapes fashioned — however artificially — to look like Paris, Brooklyn or U Street.

In the Washington region, which Forbes says is home to six of the 10 richest jurisdictions in America, such redevelopment projects are attractive because even if the mall doesn’t work, the demographics that chain stores covet remain. In Merrifield, in Fairfax County, developer Edens had success turning a former movie theater into the mixed-use Mosaic District.

The Mosaic District in 2013 (Jeffrey MacMillan)

Richard Lake, developer of the City Market at O project in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, said shop owners are tired of being asked to pay more in rent to be near department stores.

“Retailers don’t want to rely on these anchors who may or may not drive the traffic,” he said. “They’re paying these ridiculous rents, and they’d rather be on the street.”

Washington’s blazing apartment market has created another incentive for mall owners in wealthy or transit-accessible neighborhoods to try their hand at apartments if they have a little extra parking or property. The owner of Tysons Corner Center — a mall that remains extremely strong, where analysts estimate per-square-foot sales top $800 — has undertaken a $500 million development connecting the mall to a new office building, a hotel and a 429-unit, 350-foot-high apartment tower called Vita. Residents can walk downstairs, past a Shake Shack, and into the mall or onto the Silver Line.

Turning malls from highly controlled, cookie-cutter places into neighborhoods that enjoy some semblance of authenticity and originality is hard enough. It’s even more difficult for owners who signed away some of their rights when they built the malls in the first place.

If any local redevelopment ought to be successful, it’s probably White Flint Mall. The owners of the mall, located near a Red Line Metro station and an urbanizing section of Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, began emptying the mall of tenants last year with plans to build a massive town center around a “Central Piazza,” inspired by Italian public squares. In place of the 800,000-square-foot mall, they proposed 5.2 million square feet of buildings, including 1 million square feet of offices, 1 million square feet of retail, 2,500 residential units and a 300-room hotel.

“It’s not going to be a mall,” Michael Cohen, an architect with Boston-based Elkus Manfredi, said when he unveiled the White Flint plans in 2011. “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 mall’s owners, Lerner Enterprises and the Tower Cos., aren’t afraid to move on from a mall when it isn’t working anymore, having demolished the Landover Mall, by FedEx Field in Prince George’s County. They have proposed building a 2.1 million-square-foot headquarters for the FBI on that site.

But White Flint has become a cautionary tale for mall owners looking to try something new. Like the vast majority of malls, it was built to accommodate department stores that were magnets for shoppers decades ago, and it did so by allowing the coveted anchor stores to own their own properties and have a say in any redevelopment plans.

A view of the exterior of the once prosperous White Flint shopping mall, where every store is closed except for Lord & Taylor. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Thirty-eight years after the agreement was struck between the mall’s owners and Lord & Taylor, it has badly stalled the mall’s redevelopment.

In 2013, the store sued the mall’s owners, saying they “cannot, without the prior consent of Lord & Taylor, alter, modify or change the architectural design or the appearance, or change the number of floors, size or location of the buildings” or parking areas. White Flint Mall is now a shell of itself. More than three years after the owners announced their ideas, no formal plan has been submitted. Bloomingdale’s has been demolished. Every store but Lord & Taylor has closed.

Both sides in the lawsuit declined to comment for this report.

Experts say such disagreements are common because of the control the anchor stores carry over the projects. Howard Hughes secured approval from Sears and Macy’s to move forward in Alexandria but will have to keep both of them open throughout construction.

“These agreements basically mean that the department stores can say yes or no to anything the developer wants to do, even if it’s redevelopment,” Los Angeles real estate consultant Ronald A. Altoon said. “There is a lot of horse-trading, things you don’t see. A department store might say, ‘I’ve been wanting to get into your shopping center in Denver, Chicago or wherever, and if you want to do this development here you’re going to find me some space there.’ ”

Tom Fitzpatrick of the developer Greenberg Gibbons had disagreements with anchor stores when he was redeveloping the former Laurel Mall. “They didn’t really have any motivation other than to get a huge termination fee,” he said. “They do this pretty much all over the country where they control the real estate and can hold up the developer until they get what they want.”

Even after dealing with the disagreements with stores, transportation shortcomings and neighbors’ concerns, there remains the question of whether turning a mall inside out will make it that much more successful. Owners of failing malls have tried slapping grocery stores or a Wal-Mart on the side, or lining the outside with restaurants.

Does it make any difference to shoppers?

Altoon said it does when the environment is welcoming enough that people are encouraged to walk past the stores.

“The reason these open-air centers are doing so well is because people like being there. People are there because they want to be, not because they have to be,” he said. “And they will walk a lot further. In this kind of project, people will walk three or four miles and they won’t even notice it. It’s like walking in downtown Washington. It’s just a nice thing to do.”

The owners of Springfield Mall aimed to create such an environment when they closed the mall in 2012 and began a two-year, $250 million renovation. It re-opened in the fall under new ownership and the name Springfield Town Center, with a fireplace in the food court, an upscale movie theater and restaurants out front featuring sidewalk seating, among them Chuy’s, Yard House and Maggiano’s.

Fairfax County has approved a plan to build office space, 2,000 residential units, a 225-room hotel and more retail nearby.

Similarly, Laurel Mall has been replaced by the new Town Centre at Laurel, now 80 percent leased and growing. Harris Teeter, Regal Cinemas, Sports Authority and Old Navy all opened. Outback Steakhouse came in this month, with Buffalo Wild Wings on the way.

It might seem a lot like a mall, just outside. But no one opens malls anymore.

“All of those retailers,” Fitzpatrick said, “you could not have got them to come into an enclosed mall.”

The state of D.C.-area malls


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