What’s the most depressing place in the entire DMV area? If you said anything other than “Landmark Mall,” you’re wrong and I’m shaking my head at you slowly like a disappointed parent. It just has to be Landmark Mall, in Alexandria. (Excerpt from one recent sad Yelp review: “It was creepy. Had it been after dark, I would describe it as “home alone in a rickety old house during a storm when the lights go out” creepy, but instead it was “almost alone in a weird 70’s mall in Alexandria creepy”. I walked the full length of the building (lets just call it a building and not a mall) and did not encounter anyone until I reached Sears.”)
Opened in 1965, Landmark was once one of the area’s most bustling malls, but is now basically a ghost mall, waiting on redevelopment. (Watch this video; the pale silhouettes on the wall where they’ve removed the circular signs of various stores that have left the mall are heartbreaking-slash-hilarious.) The mall’s new owner, Howard Hughes Corporation, has been pushing a redevelopment plan to remake Landmark as … a shinier, more upscale mall. Not exactly world-shattering, but the plan is steadily pushing its way through the approval process, if only because there’s no better alternative.
But what if there was? We only have to look west. Cinderella City Mall in Englewood, Colorado opened only three years after Landmark Mall, and for a long time was the largest mall west of the Mississippi River. Shaped like a huge “M,” the mall was clearly designed in an era when psychedelics were in widespread use; each wing of the mall had a different wacky theme (Sunflower, Rose, Gold, and Shamrock), and in the center of the mall was a reproduction of a New York City street, complete with light-absorbent black ceiling tiles to mimic nighttime. Business boomed through the Seventies and Eighties, when the mall contributed over half the city’s total sales tax revenue, but nosedived soon thereafter, and the mall closed in 1997.
So what next? Instead of building a bigger, better mall, city planners took a step back, and decided to go in the opposite direction. After a long demolition (some of it done by robot because of lead paint and asbestos contamination), the mall was essentially hollowed out and de-roofed. The center of the mall became an open, two acre public plaza. Builders extended the street grid through the parcel, turning it from a monolithic, closed-off superstructure into a welcoming, accessible, open air village. They also added a light-rail station and a bus hub, making it further accessible. The new buildings (dubbed CityCenter Englewood) became home to City Hall, as well as headquarters for most of the other city services, centralizing what had been a scatter of offices. There’s also an outdoor amphitheater, a public library and, crucially, hundreds of units of housing. Essentially what they did was convert a single huge building into a functional downtown. Is it perfectly idyllic? Well, no. There’s a Wal-Mart, and an Office Depot, and many other of the hallmarks of the suburban strip mall. Still, it’s a vast improvement.
The Englewood conversion is a perfect example of what’s being called “suburban retrofitting” – repurposing sprawling malls and surface parking lots for an era where walkability and mixed uses have become more desirable. While this has been happening clumsily since the mid-Nineties, as abandoned Wal-Marts become megachurches and empty malls are converted into call centers, contemporary architects have begun to follow the elegant example of Englewood. Oak Hill Mall, a failed mall in North Carolina, is slated to be converted into a business incubator/artist’s colony, with live/work studios made from shipping containers arranged into a village on the former parking lot, department stores converted into furniture workshops, and even a huge on-site garden.
So why not consider something equally adventurous for Landmark? Alexandria could certainly use some governmental office centralization, and just the potential value of condos, as part of a mixed-use redevelopment, has to command the attention of developers. The present Landmark redevelopment plan is the equivalent of a new paint job on an old beater; the massive surface parking lots and the two main department store tenants will remain, while only the central mall area will get a superficial facelift. At a time when almost all talk about the suburbs centers on how they’re dying – and when a third of all shopping malls are failing – it might help to shake things up, instead of repeating the mistakes of the past.