At White Flint Mall, in the final shopping days before Christmas 2013, the holiday hustle is notably low-key. As for the bustle: It’s practically nonexistent.
This former upscale retail mecca — born in the golden age of the American shopping mall and opened with such fanfare in 1977 that even Elizabeth Taylor showed up at one of its department stores — is dead. Well, almost dead.
The lights are definitely on at Lord & Taylor, the center’s last standing anchor, where clerks continue to man the cosmetics counters and accept 20-percent-off coupons in the petites department. The restaurant and game emporium Dave & Buster’s still serves double cheeseburgers and the opportunity to play skeeball in a really, really overstimulating environment. At most recent count, roughly a dozen of the mall’s non-anchor stores remain open for business, a collective of H&Ms, Pottery Barns and Banana Republics, retail-raging against the dying of the light.
But with the mall section that once housed Bloomingdale’s demolished, more than three-quarters of its shops shuttered and most of the remaining ones planning to close or move come 2014, it’s pretty clear: This is White Flint Mall’s last Christmas.
“The property owners, they hold a lot of details close to their chests,” said Lindsay Hoffman, executive director of Friends of White Flint, a nonprofit organization focused on implementing the redevelopment plans for both the mall and surrounding areas of North Bethesda. “My sense is that the mall would not be standing through next year, but that’s the most specific I can get on it.”
Lerner Enterprises, which owns the mall with Tower Cos., has not announced a timeline for closing or demolishing White Flint; multiple calls and e-mails to both White Flint management and Lerner representatives were not returned.
The mall’s owners have been clear, however, about their ultimate plans for the site, which will be transformed into a walkable, open-air town center with a mix of retail, office and residential properties — much the way that Springfield Mall in Northern Virginia is being reworked. Lord & Taylor slowed the progress of the White Flint redevelopment this summer by filing a lawsuit against the mall, seeking an injunction to stop the project, alleging that the plans violate the terms of the department store’s 1975 lease. Scott Morrison, the attorney representing White Flint in the matter, said that a judge ruled Friday that the redevelopment can continue, although the case will still go to trial on the merits of Lord & Taylor’s lease-violation argument. “The big story line is that the development can now go forward,” Morrison said. He also said the mall’s demolition will probably begin within the next year, although Nkosi Yearwood, a planner for Montgomery County, said in an e-mail that demolition is “at least two years away” because the county planning board still needs to approve preliminary and site plans for the new town center.
Even if razing isn’t imminent, one need only to enter White Flint — to stroll past store after store permanently gated and shrouded in black tarp — to see the end is near. A few days ago, the Cheesecake Factory, one of the last major draws here, officially vacated the premises, taking its oversize portions to nearby Westfield Montgomery. There, an expansion is underway, and the mall is actually issuing Santa Claus “FastPasses” designed to expedite the lap-sitting process. At White Flint, there’s still a Santa. But this year, Father Christmas visits only on weekends and Christmas Eve.
Clearly, shopping malls haven’t gone extinct. Such complexes as Westfield Montgomery, Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights, and Virginia’s Tysons Corner Center and Fair Oaks, among others, are humming along just fine. But many malls, in this region and across the country, have been forced to shut down or reinvent themselves because of economic dips, consumer movement toward big-box megastores and our increasing reliance on online retail, which offers the convenience that once was the shopping mall’s biggest asset: access to all types of purchases, all in one space. Mall culture might have dominated the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, but it long ago lost its cachet.
In its early years, though, White Flint was nothing but cachet. When the mall opened, in 1977, the place was all splash and glass-elevator glitz, a fact established by two black-tie charity events that christened the Lord & Taylor (designer Donna Karan attended) and the Bloomingdale’s, where Elizabeth Taylor — the personification of Hollywood glamour and then-wife of Sen. John Warner of Virginia — was one of the guests.
In those days, Elinor Walker worked on the school newspaper at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School and lucked into the opportunity to shadow Andrea Mitchell — then a reporter for Channel 9 — as she broadcast news of the mall’s debut.
“There’s Andrea Mitchell, cute as she can be with her little dark pageboy and doing her stand-up right by White Flint,” Walker, a Rockville resident, said. “Every woman I knew was so excited about Bloomingdale’s opening up, and she was, too.”
White Flint quickly became known for a shopping experience ensconced in fashion and sophistication. One wing, the Via Rialto, was designed to look like an Italian lane dotted with small boutiques; another, M Street, was a cobblestoned copy of a Georgetown street, because why go to Georgetown when you can go to the Rockville Pike version? In a story published in The Washington Post in 1981 under the headline “White Flint: The Aura Clings,” writer Chip Baker called it “pretentious like no other mall ever built in Washington.”
Amy Ginsburg, who grew up in Rockville, remembered the mall as “the first time anyone had seen a food court.” “That was just the most amazing thing,” she said. It was “the social mall,” where all her friends from the now-closed Woodward High School hung out. “You would get with your girlfriends and put on your powder-blue eye shadow and you’d go to the mall.”
Eventually, though, the aura stopped clinging, and the poshness bubble burst. By the time the new millennium’s first decade ended, shoppers were coming in smaller numbers that got only smaller once White Flint’s Borders bookstore closed, in 2011, and the Bloomingdale’s followed suit, last year, moving south on Route 355 to the region’s new center of high-end sophistication: Friendship Heights.
Many shopping malls, once considered innovative replacements for regional downtowns, are, like White Flint, morphing into urbanized town centers designed to make the suburbs feel more citylike. But while all this is happening, there’s also a nostalgia slowly bubbling up for the malls that once were.
In 1989, Michael Galinsky, then a student at New York University, took a series of candid photos at 17 shopping malls across the United States. Years later, the now-professional photographer and documentary filmmaker rediscovered the pictures — candid shots of girls with hair-band perms strolling past stores with names like Tape World — and posted them online, where they quickly went viral. In October, Steidl, a German publishing house, released the photographs in a book called “Malls Across America.” Additional printings of that book are in the works because, Galinsky said, Steidl did not ship enough copies to America to meet the demand.
When they see these pictures, “people are reminded of something that they feel is lost of their former selves,” he said of the often sharp sense of mall-stalgia the images evoke. “People connect to it in this really deep way.”
Hoffman, who, as head of Friends of White Flint is very much in favor of a White Flint Mall reboot, understands that. She has her own White Flint memories. Her husband proposed to her there in 1999, in the middle of Dave & Buster’s.
“I won my engagement ring with all my tickets I had earned that night,” she says with a laugh.
She also turned a visit to the White Flint Santa Claus into an annual tradition for her two sons, one they’d cap off each year with a visit to the Hallmark store so each boy could choose an ornament. Told that Hallmark is now closed, Hoffman realizes their tradition has abruptly ended.
“It’s sad,” she said of the changes. “I am staying positive about the White Flint Sector [plan for development] and what we’re building. But getting there is a little emotional.”
Chaney is a freelance writer.