The patio-style restaurants at one of Northern Virginia’s latest town-center experiments offer a view — for now — of a cracked, sun-baked parking lot.
Shoppers at the Saturday farmers market must stroll between parked cars in that same lot to peruse the items for sale.
It is a far cry from the leafy parks, glistening office buildings, hotel and homes that are planned for the Springfield Town Center, part of the rebirth of a once-popular shopping mall that was darkened by crime and economic decline.
But with a new mall layout, more projects on the drawing board and talk of a potential home for the FBI’s new headquarters across the street, the 78-acre site is again drawing crowds, sowing a mixture of hope and skepticism in an older suburb struggling to recapture the glory of its better days.
At a time when many traditional shopping centers are dying, the eight-month-old Springfield Town Center mall is being touted as a catalyst, a destination even before the hoped-for high-rise projects and pedestrian-friendly streets transform the area into something that looks more like a real town center.
“It’s taken way too long to get to this point, but we’re there now,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who grew up in Springfield and represents the residents of the brick rambler homes and quiet neighborhoods that dot the area, just off the “Mixing Bowl” interchange of Interstates 495, 395 and 95.
But Carolyn Clark, whose Olive Vine Gourmet wine store is one of the new mall’s homegrown offerings, said that with some storefronts empty, the economic rebirth is still a spark rather than a steady flame.
“Things aren’t busy enough,” Clark said one recent afternoon, standing with two workers in an otherwise empty store. “We’re not booming like we’re supposed to be.”
In its heyday, the Springfield Mall was a cradle of suburban memories — a place of first dates at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, long afternoons at the arcade and shopping for prom outfits. Princess Diana and Prince Charles visited during their 1985 U.S. tour, lending glamour to a place that helped define American suburban culture.
Farrell’s hummed with activity, with lines out the door on Saturday afternoons, said Springfield resident Lisa Wheeler, who worked in the store as a teenager.
Whenever someone ordered the restaurant’s specialty — a 30-scoop concoction called “The Zoo” — workers would put the dessert on a runner and parade it throughout the mall, ringing cow bells for astonished shoppers, before returning to the restaurant and delivering it to its owner.
“It was just a wild place,” Wheeler said.
Birgitt Wolf, who also lives in Springfield, got a foothold in American consumerism at the mall, when the Montgomery Ward store that operated there approved her first-ever credit card.
“My first impressions of the mall were all impressive and rather grandiose,” said Wolf, who migrated to the United States from Germany in 1992.
The luster gave way to darker moments in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The mall roofs leaked during rain. Fights broke out in stores. Car break-ins and parking-lot carjackings became a regular worry.
Stores closed one after another, some replaced with niche retailers selling cheap, trendy items to teens.
In 2007, a 19-year-old Falls Church man was fatally shot outside a mall restaurant by alleged members of a rival gang, a crime that shocked longtime mallgoers.
The following year, two teenagers abducted a 60-year-old Alexandria woman walking to her car on a Saturday afternoon, driving her in her vehicle to the ATM while she frantically called her husband to ask him for the PIN.
Barbara J. “Bobbie” Bosworth died of injuries suffered when her abductors crashed her car.
Evidence gathered for a civil suit indicated that Bosworth’s captors obtained a fake gun at a store in the mall just before the abduction and that the mall manager had repeatedly told his supervisors there was a growing problem of gang activity at the mall.
As the mall declined, Springfield residents increasingly shopped at Tysons Corner or headed to the newer stores in the Kingstowne planned community a few miles away.
Then the 2008 recession gutted home values, paving the way for a wave of foreclosures and business failures. The mall became an emblem of the community’s broken state of mind.
“We had kind of lost our civic pride,” McKay said. “We weren’t feeling good about living in Springfield.”
Vornado Realty Trust bought the mall for $36 million in 2006, with plans to re-imagine the area into a village of high-rise apartments, office towers and parks similar to Crystal City in nearby Arlington.
Fairfax County officials approved the zoning in 2009. But the recession stalled plans for the mall renovation that was to be the first stage of the project.
The mall closed for renovation in 2012 and reopened last October. It has a movie theater with reclining seats, a spa, a children’s lending library and a lounge area with a gas fireplace.
In March, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust — which owns several large malls around the country — purchased the mall and surrounding land from Vornado — for $465 million.
Today, “coming soon” signs are posted throughout the two-level shopping center, advertising new businesses. The food court is starting to fill. The mall’s general manager, Eric Christensen, said the hope is to keep people lingering.
“We want to create this as a destination that people will seek out because they want to be here, not just for shopping, but because it really is a town center,” he said.
Business experts say the town-center concept is a way for malls to stay relevant in a retail landscape that is increasingly dominated by online sales, and where older shopping centers face competition from newer neighborhoods that mix stores, homes and parks in close proximity.
Since 2010, at least two dozen enclosed shopping centers around the country have closed, and an additional 75 are in danger of failing, according to Green Street Advisors, a California-based real estate research firm.
In response, mall developers are building their stores around housing, restaurants and other attractions, said Maureen McAvey, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
“If your mall is going to be successful, it has to be a place that is rich in amenities, where people want to go,” McAvey said.
Christensen, the mall manager, said there are no definite dates yet for building the homes, retail space and offices. “We’re working through a lot of the leasing and redevelopment still,” he said.
Springfield’s real estate market has lagged behind markets in other parts of Fairfax, with fewer homes and other amenities under construction. That puts extra pressure on the mall to thrive.
McKay is optimistic, saying the reopening has inspired local developers to approach him with proposals for buildings. There are plans, for example, for four office buildings near the Franconia-Springfield Metrorail station, about half a mile from the mall.
And if Springfield beats out two Prince George’s County sites and lures the new FBI headquarters, the area will experience an influx of thousands of workers who will need places to shop, eat and live.
But some community leaders take a more tempered view, having watched other revitalization efforts in Springfield start and fail. Most notable among them: Plans for a large development about five miles from the mall that included homes, offices and stores collapsed after the investors pulled out in 2008.
“That one hurt,” said Bruce Waggoner, president of the Springfield Civic Association. He calls himself a “healthy skeptic” of the town center’s long-term chances.
On a recent Saturday at the mall, Frank Constantino, 77, basked in the tranquility of a garden-like seating area as he waited for his wife to finish an errand.
“There’s a lot of optimism in the area,” he said about the new mall’s effect on his community. “To get on the Beltway and go to Tysons? A lot of people just want to stay around here.”
But Jonelle Epps, who brought her daughter from Woodbridge, Va., to find a dress for her eighth-grade dance, wasn’t impressed. “The parking is terrible,” Epps said. “In the stores that they have opened, I didn’t find anything in them.”
Outside at the farmers market, sausage vendor Ed Smith did his best to lend folksy charm to the experience.
“Y’all come back. And tell your friends about us,” Smith told one woman, who wiped her brow in the heat rising from the asphalt.
Smith, a former tobacco farmer in South Hill, Va., who recently turned to sausage making, said he’s relying on the town center to boost his income.
“The people here are super nice,” he said. “They seem excited to be here. I just hope they keep feeling that way.”