Several months ago, a humdrum article of mine about a dead mall surprised me because of the response it received. But then, the joke is once again on me: my articles on dead malls nearly always enjoy disproportionate views, hits, and comments. In this case, I honed in on the Sears at Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s the skeleton of a sperm whale, beached at the confluence of three busy highways on the fringes of a generally walkable city.
Yes, the mall is dead. Yet the Sears on one end of the mall lives on. This dichotomy proves all the more remarkable. Despite Sears’s widely publicized financial woes—the company can’t even secure enough contracts with vendors to fill its store shelves—this particular Sears looked great: tidy, well-stocked, reasonably staffed, even seemingly fairly patronized. Yet the rest of the mall closed down over a year ago. Why would Sears continue to invest so much in an otherwise failing property?
I pondered how this might work, enjoyed some of the nostalgia from my responses, and then put the article to rest. But recently I received another notification about the latest attempt to resuscitate the mall—or, at least, the shuttered Macy’s.For at least the last six months—about the time I started planning my original article—the Howard Hughes Corporation, owner of the property, has negotiated with Carpenter’s Shelter to turn the old Macy’s into a temporary homeless shelter, while its primary facility in Old Town Alexandria underwent extensive renovations.
It’s a perfect fit: Howard Hughes Corporation continues to formulate its ambitious plans to turn the mall property into a mixed-use town center of apartments, shops and offices, but it has no need to keep a Macy’s mothballed in the interim. Meanwhile, a department store makes for an unusually easy transformation into shelter space, since it already has the large floor plate and the plumbing. The Carpenter Shelter can easily build partitions for smaller bedrooms, then link to existing infrastructure for showers and laundry. And if it seems problematic that a homeless shelter might operate in a generally less than pedestrian-friendly part of town, bear in mind the transit services that have long fed into the Landmark Mall remain operative and robust.
Ultimately, this Macy’s-as-homeless-shelter will serve as a launchpad for a considerable mixed-income component to the envisioned redevelopment of the Landmark Mall site. Alexandria Housing Development Corporation is partnering with Carpenter Shelter to construct approximately 100 units of affordable housing into seven floors atop the Macy’s. Per the initially cited Alexandria Times article, the AHDC will reserve ten of these units for formerly homeless individuals who continue to receive services from Carpenter Shelter, to be completed around 2020, which is about the same time the Howard Hughes Corporation intends to begin developing the residual lands into its glitzy vision.
I’ll confess that I can’t find the details on the phasing for the project, and I am puzzled by how a shelter can operate easily with so much construction work going on around it, including a planned underground parking garage. Most likely it’s not all going to transpire on the exact same patch of land, and perhaps Carpenter will only need a portion of the Macy’s interior. Regardless, this proposal adds to the always-growing compendium of creative new uses for dead mall space, which is something I’ve explored in the past (and many more articles on the horizon). I have my hesitations of how politically feasible it might be to sell the mixed-use town center element to the income bracket the project will need to attract if it’s going to generate a good rate of return, especially given the combination of low-income and homeless individuals that will already be living on site when ground breaks for the town center. The inconvenient reality is that, while many middle-income people are perfectly comfortable living near or in lower-income areas—that’s precisely how the seeds gentrification took root throughout American cities—I’ve seen little evidence of a similar magnetism in areas that are fundamentally suburban in nature.
Will the brand new Alexandria Landmark Mall town center offer enough bling to attract not just residents and workers, but high-income ones, along with the requisite retailers that would catalyze the live-work-play trinity? No doubt the experts at Howard Hughes Corporation understand nuances to the market better than I do, and they may have determined that this gesture of corporate goodwill helps them achieve buy-in where they’re likely to need it, since Alexandra (and metro DC) suffers from particularly high housing prices, with the area around Landmark Mall long serving as a respite for the less affluent (though certainly not outright poor).
I strongly encourage locals to keep their ears to the ground as more details unfold on this project, since I think it could not only bespeak opportunities for adaptive re-use among other dead malls across the country, it could add to our understanding of the elasticity of demand for residential communities that mimic the character of old urban centers. And this “character” includes the broader array of socioeconomic strata that we expect from cities. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to that unusually perky Sears.
Special thanks to Allison Bouley for bringing this article to my attention.
10 thoughts on “From Macy’s to mission work: the Landmark Mall gets a memorable (if not easily marketable) makeover.”
So cool! Glad it was a lead worth chasing. Next up, talk to my mom, Sherry Dussinger Bouley, about how she went Christmas shopping at that sears and got so much of a discount, she got money BACK?!! (Maybe hyperbole but there were actual concern over how to return an item that was so discounted, it was essentially free). 🙂
And while you’re at it, she could tell you about the time she was kicked OUT Springfield mall…. apparently nova malls hold a lot of meaning to our family…
Hey! Hearing your story of your mom getting kicked out automatically made me assume you were talking about a mall run by Simon Propety Group (eg Pentagon City). Then I researched and was wrong! My blogging escapades have gotten me kicked out of two Simon malls and threatened to get kicked out of a third. But tell your mom that none of us have truly lived until we’ve had the glorious experience of being escorted out of a JCPenney‘s.
Some sardonic Hoosier will no doubt come here to suggest this use for the former Carson’s in Circle Centre Mall, which now qualifies as “dead” since it has no anchors.
Agreed! Sardonic Hoosier probably won’t come here per say (I don’t get enough readers), but certainly the comment board at the Indianapolis Business Journal. It might have happened already.
CCM may not be dead yet, but that is the only direction it could possibly be headed. I’m surprised Godiva has lasted this long. After Carson leaves, only the most gullible entrepreneurs would ever consider starting a lease there.
In six months we’ll be seeing buckets in the hallways to collect the rain from those leaky skylights.
Maybe a trampoline park is a viable use?
Only for the Artsgarden 🙂
Interesting. I lived down the hill next to Holmes Run for a couple of years before moving to Philly for school. I haven’t been back to Landmark in about 17 years.
Hi Jim, my guess is the mall was already in the early stages of decline at that time. From what I can tell, it was a serious under-performer for many years before it finally closed in January of 2017. It’s interesting that the Sears is still operational—one of only two in the northern Virginia suburbs of DC.
In ancient times, Sears Automotive was the busiest part of Landmark, before they rebuilt (ruined IMO) and enclosed the main mall in the 80’s. It was hampered by having only 2 exits because of the interstate on one side and steep hill to the NE. Easy to get to, PITA to leave. It surprises me that Condo Canyon to its south couldn’t keep it open. They needed an Ikea.
It never occurred to me (since I’ve only been to Landmark once or twice), but you’re right that it’s kind of a nightmare area in terms of traffic. I’m sure that regular visitors to Landmark back in its heyday got used to the hassle, but for the rest of us, it’s basically an appetizer of spaghetti junction getting in, surrounding by a main course of noodles at all three vertices of the triangle. This isn’t an uncommon condition in metro DC, but it’s certainly hard for places like this to compete with the ease and convenience of Amazon Prime.