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Virginia Center Commons is a dead mall, and why its a sign of things to come for retail

I was recently asked by a friend of mine if I could go with her to the Virginia Center Commons, where the only Hot Topic in Richmond north of the James River is evidently – something of a strange request, but it had been a while since I’d been to Virginia Center Commons, and I’m never one to turn down the chance to see a woman try on corsets, so I agreed. Of course, once we got to the mall, I understood why she’d asked for an escort, and indeed, why she needed one. As I said, it had been quite a while since my last visit to Virginia Center Commons, so I was almost floored by the state of the mall.

Virginia Center Commons a dead mallThe first signs of trouble are obvious just driving in – the massive parking lots which wreath the mall lie almost empty, the biggest cluster being a group of about forty cars in front of the food court – this is on a Friday night mind you. The mall itself looks just as bad on the inside – I’d wager close to half of its ninety or so storefronts lie vacant, including an entire wing of one part of the mall where one anchor store, Dillards, closed up with no one else moving in. Of course, things for the other half of the mall’s stores with still open-doors aren’t entirely optimistic either – most are just as empty of patrons as the vacant stores next to them, little surprise for a mall so starved for tenants it boasts three barber shops/hair salons. As for the patrons themselves – I’ll just say it didn’t take long for me to see why my friend asked if I would go with her.
Virginia Center Commons empty wingOpened in 1991, and located just off both National Route 1 and Interstate 95, Virginia Center Commons was the gem of Richmond’s Northside throughout the 1990s, and after serving as the final blow to struggling competitors like the Cloverfield Mall and the Azalea Mall, became Richmond’s hippest and busiest mall until Short Pump and Stony Point both opened in 2003. Around the middle of the 2000s, the mall started to lose its luster and some of its clients, but looking at the derelict that Virginia Center Commons mall is today, you’d never have known this was once the place to be in Richmond.

It’s an increasingly familiar tale across the country – once the symbols of American capitalism itself, shopping malls have been hit hard by a combination of changing times and the continuing economic troubles having hit the retail particularly hard. It would have been a struggle for malls and the retail industry to adapt to things like the rise of web retail and increased automation, even in the best of economic times – add in the recession, which has claimed chains from Circuit City to Borders to Blockbuster, with many more teetering on the edge, and ‘for lease’ signs have become more common than storefronts in many shopping centers. Many economists warn that the worst is still to come, some even going so far as to predict malls may go the way of the mom and pop stores they replaced.
Virginia Center Commons empty food courtOne need only look over the recent change in fortunes for Virginia Center Commons to get an overview of that – the mall saw its first troubles with the rise of competing malls opening in Stony Point and Short Pump, and much like Virginia Center Commons did with Cloverleaf and Azalea Malls, both began drawing away retailers and customers, and in the case of Short Pump, residents from Richmond’s Northside where Virginia Center Commons is located.

Then of course, came the recession, which as mentioned when I talked about my hometown of Ashland, which is just a jaunt up Route 1 from Virginia Center Commons, has hit Richmond’s Northside like a bombshell, and the fortunes of the area from Ashland to Lakeside, along with it’s residents, still have yet to recover, and indeed, are in some ways getting worse, as more residents move away to better parts of the area.Virginia Center CommonsOf course, the worst is still to come for the mall. Among the long list of struggling retailers are giants like JC Penny’s and Sears, which like many other malls, form two of Virginia Center Commons remaining anchor stores, and in an era when JC Penny’s rotating doors see more CEO’s out than customers in, and when Sears doesn’t even own the Sears Tower anymore, both are looking as store closures, if not outright bankruptcy or liquidation, and the loss of one, let alone both, would spell the end of many malls, Virginia Center Commons included. It certainly doesn’t help that Simon Malls, which owns Virginia Center Commons, is having problems of its own, and may deem the mall unsalvageable, and close it down to try to get the stocks back in the black. Word has just been announced that a 400,000 square foot outlet mall is to be built a couple of miles up the road, and when it opens its doors to retailers and customers alike, it may strike the final blow that Virginia Center Commons barely missed from Short Pump or Stony Point. When you add in the continuing rise of web retail and the still floundering economy, the writing may be on the wall for Virginia Center Commons – already officially a dead mall, it would need a miracle to stay open another year or two, let alone recover. The time may come soon that Virginia Center Commons may shut its doors for good, be yet another blow to the still devastated Richmond Northside I call home.

Yet that may be more than anything why the impending loss of Virginia Center Commons hits home for me. Having been raised on the Richmond Northside for much of my life, this was the mall I grew up with, Virginia Center Commons having been opened shortly after I was born. As a child, it was the mall my parents took me to go talk to Santa, where my grandparents took me to get toys, where me and some kids from preschool went to go meet the cast of Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. As a teen, this was where me any by now older friends went to go hang out whenever we could, where I took my first girlfriend on our first date, where I got my first tastes of freedom as a young adult. As an adult, I’ve already watched my hometown turn into skid row, and my favorite bookstore shutter its doors for good – so it saddens me now that Virginia Center Commons is far more likely to end up a footnote on than it is to survive even another year or two.
Virginia Center Commons bleakI hope that’s not the case, I really do. But when the writing on the wall is so clear, not just for Virginia Center Commons, but for hundreds of malls in similar situations across the country, it may be time to face the facts – this mall is dead. It simply doesn’t know it yet.

30 thoughts on “Virginia Center Commons is a dead mall, and why its a sign of things to come for retail”

  1. Will Weaver says:

    Great article. I used to spend a lot of time at “VCC” when I was younger. I’d play Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, then (unlike most teens and early 20-somethings) walk around and shop at the many stores the mall had to offer. Then I noticed the stores starting to disappear, the biggest before Dillard’s being Old Navy. The mall is rather desolate; I might do a photo study of it if I can get around mall security (who still get around on their Segways despite having no one really to enforce the rules on).

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Those were the days huh? I went on one of my first dates in that same arcade. While I missed much of the early decline due to military service, I’ve seen it’s recent final decent into dead mall territory, and makes me sad every time I drive by – sadder, on one of the occasions I go inside.

      Best of luck on the photo shoot, though I will warn you from experience, don’t let the mall security catch you taking photos. One of the few things that gets the rent-a-pigs up in arms is people taking pictures, I had to sneak the ones I took for this article. Be sure to post a link here if you ever do that shoot, again, best of luck!

  2. jmadison says:

    Someone posted this on Reddit; a very good read, thanks for writing it.

    As an employee of a former dead mall during its dying days, I can with certainty tell you that is exactly what is happening here. I’m willing to wager that both dead mall poster children in my county in FL will be in the dead mall website–Sunshine Mall and Clearwater Mall–and I am going to check after I write this. Sunshine Mall was so bad, it was inhabited only by a dentist and a bus stop before it closed. Clearwater Mall..well, even when most storefronts were still inhabited, you could roll a bowling ball down the hall, have it hook a right at the fountain until it reached the other end, and still not hit a soul.

    What seems to end up happening is that an anchor store pulls out for lack of business–in our case it was first a store called Gayfers (yeah), and then the higher-end Dillards in the middle, leaving Burdines and Montgomery Ward on somewhat opposite ends of the mall. Not sure if other stores saw the writing on the wall after this, but more chains starting pulling out, and more independent-type stores would fill in some of those places. It got kinda ridiculous after a while, I mean how many gold chain stores and kiosks can you have?

    After that it just kept sliding down. At one point the mall manager even bailed before a store owners’ meeting/lynching. I left shortly thereafter and watched the decline through my former colleagues’ stories. Eventually they would tear down the enclosed mall and rebuild it as an open-air mall, which seems to be doing ok now. The one down the road, Countryside Mall got a huge renovation and is still an enclosed mall, but has a new–for lack of a better word, promenade–with higher end restaurants and a few bars now. I think this is the key to the success of malls now. It needs to be a destination that you will spend a few hours at, and not just a place to shop anymore. After you do shop (or before) you can meet up with friends, have a drink, see a movie, get a sit-down dinner that doesn’t come in a wrapper or on a tray…this attracts more affluent clientele, who can afford to spend more money, who will shop more…etc….what is the opposite of a vicious circle? LOL International Mall in Tampa is another example–an enclosed mall with a load of high end destinations–Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s, etc.

    This is also why I think Short Pump was such a success. It had the newer open air concept at the time, and it was a destination–you could do all of these things. It had more expensive stores–Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn ( I think), plus the ones I already mentioned. And it’s only a tiny bit farther up the road. Here where I am the next malls in the area outside of the new open air Clearwater Mall, and the new improved Countryside Mall, you have to go at least a half hour to 45 minutes north or south.

    I know you didn’t ask for a book, but malls and their stories fascinate me sometimes. I wouldn’t give up hope on VCC yet, that property is too good to let stand empty for long. Like Sunshine Mall, they could turn it into an apartment/condo complex. But it could be reincarnated much the same as my Clearwater Mall was. It might not be what you remember, but it is still very much viable.

    Again, thanks for this. VCC was also a part of my child/teen years, as was Chesterfield Town Center, Azalea, and Regency.

    Like Sunshine Mall, they could turn it into an apartment/condo complex.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Thanks for heading here from Reddit!

      I’m actually surprised Virginia Center Commons isn’t on yet, though it’s only a matter of time honestly.

      Of the two malls you mentioned, Virginia Center Commons at the moment seems to be at the same stage as the Clearwater Mall currently. One abandoned anchor, and with JC Pennys and Sears both on the ropes, the loss of one or both is only a matter of time, and this would be the final nail in the coffin for VCC. Most of the stores in the mall – the ones that aren’t vacant storefronts that is – are the same kinds of places you mentioned, gold chain kiosks, three barbershops, a handful of small chains growing smaller every month. Even the Food Court can’t seem to fill it’s reoccurring vacancies, and the chain restaurants have started leaving. When Wendy’s bails on your mall, you’re in trouble.

      Part of the issue is that re-purposing the mall would be a challenge I don’t think Simon Malls is up for. Short Pump and Stony Point provide Richmond’s ‘upscale’ mall needs, and Short Pump especially seems to be designing itself to be Richmond’s go to ‘night out’ district. Chesterfield Town Center, Regency and Westchester Commons have filled the gap of the more typical mid-range malls. With the outlet mall going in just up the road, even that route has been denied to VCC… honestly, short of maybe a mixed use office park or community center, I’m having trouble just what VCC could reorient itself as.

      No worries about the long comment – like you, I grew up with VCC, I want to see it pull out of this, but I just don’t see how.

  3. jmadison says:

    Oops, forgot to erase that last sentence after pasting it into my last paragraph. Disregard, please. 🙂

  4. Brian says:

    American Family Fitness just recently moved into the mall. Not sure if that will help or hurt the mall. I spent a lot of time in the arcade during the first few years that the mall was open. I remember racing friends around that circle road that goes around the mall. Would hate to see it go, but I think it’s only a matter of time. I really wouldn’t mind seeing it torn down if they build something similar to what they have at White Oak or Stony Point.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Eh, considering the first thing that American Family Fitness did was wall off the mall entrance to their future Gym, I’d wager it will hurt the mall. The only thing worse then a vacant anchor store is one you had to all-but physically separate from the mall to fill.

      Like you, I have many fond memories of that Arcade, and many other parts of the mall… it really is sad to see it in such sorry shape. It really us only a matter of time before it goes under, yet the worst part is that when it does, it will take out a lot of the nearby area businesses with it. Plus, considering they’re building an outlet mall just up the road, it could take a while to find a new buyer for the bones of Virginia Center Commons.

  5. Jamie says:

    Yeah, the mall’s really gone down the shitter, and the area around it ain’t far behind :p

  6. Randall says:

    Maybe it can be rebuilt into a Mall Of America kind of development?

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Frankly, I’d be happy if they could just get Virginia Center Commons above 50% vacancy at this rate.

  7. Mary says:

    Cloverleaf Mall, not “Cloverfield”…

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      How did I miss that? Thanks for pointing it out, fixed.

  8. Stacey says:

    I used to go to vcc every chance I got to hangout with friends and ply ITG and DDR. I miss those day. Those were the days.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Got many good memories myself of that arcade. It’s still there against the odds.

  9. Konrad says:

    I’m not sure why this showed up on my feed after having been written so long ago. Any ways here we are two years later almost three and the mall is in some ways getting better but not making great strides by any means. I feel like this mall has potential but with zero advertising and no stores or events to really draw people in it just does t seem like someone in corporate is trying. That last picture of an empty Dillard’s is now an American family fitness btw. Anyway I hope things improve.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      I’m not sure for the recent spurt of attention either, but far be it from me to complain about a boom in traffic and great comments like this one!

      In someways, the bleeding has slowed, but in other ways, the mall is in more trouble than ever. It’s still more than 50% vacant, and two of the big anchors, JC Pennys and Sears, remain in dire straights. If either goes, I expect the mall to go with it.

  10. Frank Hammon says:

    A few months ago Simon revealed plans to turn VCC into an open air shopping complex that cars could drive and park right by the stores. Think the newer part of Spotsylvania Town Centre 50 miles north.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      I wonder if they can pull it off, but I think it may hurt the mall in at least one regard – the one big advantage it has over Short Pump is that its indoors. I think they should capitalize on that – as good as Short Pump can be, if its bitterly cold, hot and buggy, or raining hard, its not worth going. VCC, being indoors, should really take advantage of that, especially since it and regency are the only two indoor malls north of the James River in Richmond.

  11. Val says:

    Not from Richmond. All I can say is, maybe they should look into what SPRINGFIELD MALL did in Northern VA. It use to be a “dead mall” as well. I live on the eastend and I’ve NEVER been to any mall in my 2 years of living here. Why isn’t there a mall closer to me? Why isn’t there a movie theater near me? Why do I have to get on the highway to find these things plus much more? #QTNA

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      What did the Springfield Mall end up doing worth imitation?

  12. J. G. Clem says:

    The outdoor malls have been very successful because they function as intended—a place to go shopping! Indoor malls are frequently just a place for individuals /groups to go hang out when they have nothing else to do. If you speak with former VCC retailers they will tell you that they left that mall because of inventory shrinkage, too many unsupervised teens and unruly groups causing the shopper population to dwindle. The halls were constantly being patrolled by (much needed) security. If you walked in a store you were watched like a hawk and followed by employees in an effort to try and deter shoplifting. There were times I witnessed hollering matches among groups. I quickly moved my family away from the scene because I was worried that a fight was going to break out. None of this made me or other shoppers feel comfortable.
    The design of the indoor mall is faulty because it has essentially become a temperature controlled hangout, not a shopping destination. The outdoor design of the newer malls discourages non-shoppers from using it as their play ground. Most people don’t want to hang around outside when it is really hot, cold, rainy, etc. so the outdoor design creates a more conducive environment for people wanting a relaxed shopping experience. I don’t think retail is dying. If that were the case then Stony Point and Short Pump malls would not be thriving.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      That’s the odd thing though – you’d think that would be reverse. I know plenty of people who go to Short Pump and other outdoor malls like it, in part because so many of those outdoor malls have milling about in mind in the design. Lots of benches, small plazas, I think Short Pump even has some outdoor fire places now. Virginia Center Commons, at least I would imagine, is much better suited to a straightforward shopping experience – especially since it happens to be indoors, which speaking from experience of having had to pick something up in Short Pump when it rains or on muggy days, you really think that would be part of the appeal.

      Me personally, that’s part of why I liked Virginia Center Commons before its decline – not only was it close to where I live, but I can pop in, get something, and get out without needing to wear a jacket or carry an umbrella.

      As far as retail itself dying, I talk a wee bit more about that topic here if you’re interested:

  13. Deloris Morgan says:

    I think it could be redesigned it be and additional outlet mall.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Oddly enough, they’re already building an outlet mall not far up the road. If Virginia Center Commons survives until 2017 when it opens, that could well be what sees VCC close.

  14. Jason says:

    I have great memories of this place. Its sad but times change. Online shopping is the future and these malls wont be here forever thats for sure. This is why i help people build their own mall without walls. A shoppig annuity. Ill def. miss this mall . Im sure its time is limited.

  15. Jo o. says:

    Shopping malls have lifecycles that are determined by developers before they are built. Read this for more info: “the call of the mall” by paco underhill

  16. Steven says:

    Word has it, this mall will be closing as soon as June 2016. It’s one of those “heard it from a friend of a friend”, but that friend knows someone who is on the board of the mall. Or close to that. I’m not surprised. That mall need to be bulldozed. The open air mall sounds good. Take the better stores and give them a refresh.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      That’s pretty huge if its true – don’t suppose you can share any more details, or know if this friend is willing to speak with, say, any journalists who might want to know more?

  17. C Renee says:

    I spent many of my teenage year at VCC when it was thriving. At one point, Willow Lawn was considered a dead mall after Dillard’s pulled out. It would be nice if they could revitalize the space like Willow Lawn did. Add some nice restaurant and make it more of an outside shopping center. Similar to the old Cloverleaf area, which is doing extremely well considering it’s still in the early stage. I would hate for it to become and empty lot like Azalea. The area has so much potential to completely become a ghost town.

  18. CJ says:

    I liked VCC, It was okay i guess. The biggest reason I went to the Mall was the Arcade and a couple other stores. I did’nt do any clothes shopping like people typically go to the mall to do. I’m not in to all that fashion. That was then this is now 2016. I still go to the mall when I can today but not seldomly. I do have memories of the mall as a child. Its kind of sad to see it close down. But thats life things fade away know matter how much money, liquidation or
    politics you put in it. Yea you can build another mall all you want to. But as time goes on It will eventually fade away like
    a flower in a field. Yea the internet plays a big part of these malls going under, not just malls buisnesses in general. Face the facts the worlds econmy is crashing like a meteor from the galaxy. Places aren’t just closing doors here in America But
    Around the world. The facts are all around you. Signs of the times man. I believe If the internet was’nt powerful as it is nowadays, i still believe. that these malls would go under. Its all about money. Its always has been, and always will be in this world. Its a fact & a reality. You get up everyday go walking somewhere here in the USA or where ever in this world. All you here is CHA-CHING CHA-CHING, in the atmosphere I don’t care where you go in this world, that is what you will here. Well things are all about money now. Well its been that way since day one. It sickens me
    that its this way in this world. Well If VCC Closes its doors oh well, thats all i can say. Time moves on people, move on with it thats all i can say.

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