The mall on the oddly shaped intersection at Wilson Boulevard and North Glebe Road has been on the cutting edge of retail more than once.
When it was first built, in 1951 as Parkington Shopping Center, it was among the first projects in the country to have a parking garage.
In 1986, the renamed Ballston Common Mall debuted an enviable pairing: a Hecht’s department store and a J.C. Penney.
Twenty years later it had added office space and the Kettler Ice Rink — a novel mix of uses in a suburban environment.
But Ballston Mall isn’t on the cutting edge anymore.
Enclosed regional malls have fallen out of favor while shoppers choose bustling sidewalks lined with restaurant, but only about 15 percent of the retail at Ballston Mall even faces the sidewalk. Its exterior mostly offers fortress-like walls as decor.
Inside, the connections for mall visitors are confusing. “If you arrive at the mall through the parking garage, I don’t know how anyone figures out where to go,” said David Kitchens, architect at Cooper Carry, who is working on the project.
For a decade the mall’s owner, Forest City Washington, has been plotting changes. Forest City and its Cleveland-based parent specialize in complicated urban developments; they are behind the Yards in Southeast D.C. as well as the New York Times building in Manhattan and the Barclays Center basketball and entertainment center in Brooklyn.
Putting together a plan for Ballston has not been easy. The ice arena, where the Washington Capitals and countless youth groups skate and practice, must remain in place. So too must two office buildings. And it took years for Forest City to persuade Macy’s to sell its furniture store, probably the most prominent portion of the mall. The two couldn’t come to an agreement until last August.
The delays have worn on the surrounding community, which lacks a central gathering place and will have to endure the loss of the National Science Foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Service in coming years.
“People ask me all the time — what are you going to do about that mall?” said Tina Leone, chief executive of the Ballston Business Improvement District, a neighborhood marketing organization.
With the Macy’s deal complete, Forest City and its architects have begun promoting a new vision for the mall, one that would tear the roof off the center and flip the focus of retail from the mall and its food court to the sidewalk. The developer laid out its plans Wednesday at an event hosted by the BID and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
“It should be one of the places like Bethesda Row, Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, that you think of when you say ‘let’s have a great night out’…that’s the kind of place that we want Ballston to be,” said John Moore, who manages the project for Forest City.
Unlike other malls — like those in Springfield and Alexandria that are being torn down and replaced with town center-style developments –many of the structures at Ballston will remain in place — the parking, the ice complex and the office buildings. “We have to be very surgical in our approach,” Moore said.
Given those obstacles, Kitchens said the challenge was finding ways to break up the super block.
“How do you begin to turn this mall inside-out and really make it more of an urban block…How do you begin to really look at it as a real, urban street with a sidewalk and a collection of buildings,” he said.
Among the changes the companies settled on was cutting an alley into the side of the property to create a “funky little sliver of retail,” he said.
The roof of the mall would be torn off to create an open-air shopping area that could better accompany restaurants. The companies also proposed a 26-story, 393-unit apartment building with two levels of ground floor retail and an outdoor podium, which would add to the vibrancy of the area after working hours.
The proposal still requires approval by Arlington County, and discussions with county officials are underway.
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