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.
The 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.
Opened 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.
One 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 Cloverfield 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.Of 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 Deadmalls.com than it is to survive even another year or two.
I 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.