Throughout the life of this blog, I’ve come down hard on malls. And I’ve done this, not because I fundamentally dislike them—they’re a paradigm for consumerism in the automobile era, whether we wanted it or not—but because malls in general have shown a diminishing ability to adapt to the shopping patterns of the last twenty years. And this blog has disproportionately chronicled the aftermath of this struggle to adapt, manifested by the proliferation of dying and dead malls. They’re among my most popular articles and have elicited some of the strongest array of responses. This time, however, I want to pivot to a mall in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC that does not appear to be dying; I’d say it’s a generally healthy mall, at least by 2023 standards. Resilient though Westfield Wheaton Mall might be, it defies conventional mall-ness with some unusual features, which may or may not contribute to its resiliency. And, at least until recently (perhaps it still does) the mall’s upper level features a concept called a “streetery”, and while it might have offered a short-term economic fix, I really struggle to understand how it managed to support itself for so long.
During my visit to Westfield Wheaton Mall last summer, the place was fairly buzzy on a Saturday early evening. Sure, this image of the food court might not suggest this, but it’s safe to assume the restaurants here were generally successful, as I recall only one vacancy during my visit. And the mall has no vacant anchor tenants—a rarity in 2023, after Sears closed over 95% of its locations across the country. Most interestingly, Westfield Wheaton Mall operates in the immediate area of downtown Wheaton, and while Wheaton is indisputably a suburb of Washington DC, it has burgeoned over the years with a robust central business district all its own, thanks in no small part to the convergence of highways (Maryland State Routes 193, 97, and 586), further bolstered by the extension of the WMATA Red Line and a major station within walking distance of both Westfield Wheaton Mall and this rudimentary downtown. I use the term “rudimentary” because Wheaton, like many prominent suburbs in wealthy Montgomery County Maryland, is not incorporated; it was an agrarian hamlet until the suburban explosion of the 1950s helped spawn Wheaton Plaza—the precursor to Westfield Wheaton Mall—and an expansion of businesses along the three aforementioned highways.
The photos below depict the area immediately outside Westfield Wheaton Mall, effectively revealing the juxtaposition of squat, old-school commercial from the early days, up against the mid-rise and high-rise office and apartment construction that has blossomed in the last twenty-five years.
Unlike 99% of malls in the country, Westfield Wheaton Mall does not directly compete with the juncture of streets that form downtown Wheaton; they developed in tandem and largely complement one another. I suspect that the enclosed mall has historically featured the higher-end shops among the two, while the adjacent streets of downtown Wheaton corner the market on mom-and-pops with niche appeal. Regardless of the degree of symbiosis involved, the pairing is unusual since most malls historically have broken ground on raw land as far from a downtown as is commercially viable. But the map below depicts how downtown Wheaton and Westfield Wheaton Mall stand cheek-by-jowl. My purple circle reflects the location of Westfield Wheaton Mall, and the irregular red shape just to the east is the general collection of commercial and residential-mixed use buildings (ranging from one to sixteen stories) that would comprise Wheaton’s downtown.
Whether “because of” or “in spite of” the fact that the mall and downtown emerged at approximately the same time, the two have achieved a co-existence that I have rarely encountered. Maybe never. Neither the mall nor downtown Wheaton are fancy or upscale. But both seem to prevail with high occupancy rates, offering goods and services that cater to a working and lower-middle class population. And this population is significantly more ethnically diverse than the national average. Though Wheaton is not a municipality—merely a loosely organized area with an identity which the US Census Bureau identifies as a census designated place–the area that the Census has established as “Wheaton” (complete with unofficial boundaries) has a 2020 population of about 52,000 and no clear racial or ethnic minority. Non-Hispanic white is the largest contingent, but at only 34%, with an almost identical contingent of Hispanic; black and Asian comprise almost equal parts of the remaining one-third.
Amidst this high degree of diversity, Westfield Wheaton Mall seems to absorb the majority of nationally recognized chains, while the commercial buildings scattered amidst downtown Wheaton feature largely ethnically specific restaurants, grocers, and other services. The mall is big (1.5 million square feet of leasable space), and, given the surprisingly small footprint for a retail hub of its size, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s multiple levels and relies heavily on garages rather than surface parking, making it more space-efficient than the average suburban mall. And, given the mall’s above-average occupancy level and foot traffic (adjacent to a similarly successful downtown), perhaps Wheaton really was a good chance to experiment with a streetery concept. The intent, the best that I can understand, was to offer people a place to congregate that was fundamentally open-air (and thus better ventilated) during the peak of COVID-19 restrictions, when restaurants often could not seat customers but needed to rely on carry-out service to stay in business.
Here is what I’m referring to when I keep referencing the streetery:
It’s an unusual bit of shared space, taken from the upper level of one of the parking garages, closest to the entrance to one of the upper levels of Macy’s. Nothing fancy. As the photo above indicates, it consists of little more than some movable (but durable) green plastic bollards, a visual partition with fake ivy, and promotional and directional signage, the latter of which is to remind vehicles passing through that, no, you can’t park here anymore. The streetery is off limits to cars. This next photo below shows where the streetery ends and parking begins.
This second floor to the Westfield Wheaton Mall garage is—or at least was—one of three streeries in the vicinity. The concept emerged in the summer of 2020, in response to the escalated social distancing restrictions imposed in part by the state of Maryland (more stringent than average for the US) as well as Montgomery County, whose restrictions were more stringent than the rest of Maryland. The census designated place of Wheaton, being little more than a loosely defined unincorporated area within Montgomery County, had no authority to legislate distinct restrictions. Therefore, Wheaton Urban District, an entity promoting beautification, maintenance, and safety in downtown Wheaton, partnered with the Mid-County Regional Service Office and Montgomery County Department of Transportation to explore a streetery, the first of which operated at Price Avenue and Elkin Street, which I outlined in green on the map above. This first streetery closed off all traffic in portions of these streets, allowing people to dine in an open-air setting while COVID prevented restaurants from directly serving patrons indoors. (Here’s a Google Street View of what it looked like in downtown Wheaton in June 2022.) Similar streetery efforts sprung up in Bethesda and Silver Spring, neighboring unincorporated areas in Montgomery County that, like Wheaton, have their own well-defined downtowns. (Much bigger and more defined than Wheaton, in fact.)
Piggybacking on the success of the outdoor streeteries, Westfield Wheaton Mall decided to add a streetery in late spring 2021, no doubt to help encourage visitors to patronize the restaurants in the food court, but allowing for social distancing among the tables. I stumbled upon the streetery in August 2022.
Needless to say, the social distancing initiatives had largely worn their course at that point in 2022, even in a county as strict as Montgomery. (The rest of Maryland relaxed the measures quite a bit before Montgomery County ever did.) To be fair, even though it’s obvious the initiative wasn’t expensive, this mall garage streetery didn’t look half bad.
The astroturf and overhead lights softened the feel of a garage. And yes, it even featured a stage for live music performances. And, thanks to its location, it’s well integrated both with the second floor entrance to Macy’s and some rooftop parking.
It really isn’t out of the way or obscure, even if it was basically deserted when I visited.
But that’s the clincher: what this streetery couldn’t achieve, at least at this advanced stage in COVID recovery, was a financial reason for being. It operated exclusively to compensate for the restrictions on food court dining. Yet, at that point in August, it still offered one surprising feature: a staffer!
There he is in the photo above, standing near the back right. amidst some elevated chairs. I felt bad for the guy. He had absolutely nothing to do, but he was unformed and greeted me—clearly was there to service the streetery.
I didn’t bother asking him the purpose of the streetery, and I have to admit I really didn’t put two and two together at the time. So, back in late August, when I visited, all I saw was a lone dude presiding over a space that had absolutely zero patronage. I took the research visible in this article for me to understand the function of the streetery. I guess that’s a testament to how marginal COVID had become by this point in the late summer of 2022. Yet, a year earlier, residents in the area petitioned to transform the streetery concept into a permanent fixture on the Wheaton downtown streetscape. They were hugely popular, yet not a trace of evidence of that popularity a year later.
What happened? Well, the entire basis for the streetery emerged from strict regulatory controls on how restaurants could operate. And while customarily high-density areas like Manhattan could flourish with their outdoor dining long after COVID ended, the growth of viable floor space didn’t automatically translate to a boom economy for all restaurant operators. I noted just a few months ago how the busy Georgetown neighborhood in DC installed special platforms on former on-street parking spaces to cater to al fresco dining, but quite a bit of it remains completely unused today. Not every restaurant can easily morph its business model to cater to outdoor dining. Meanwhile, the streetery of the Westfield Wheaton Mall only remained popular as long as indoor dining restrictions remained in effect, and while Montgomery County stretched those restrictions across many more months than most of the country, eventually they relaxed, and the streetery lost its cachet. While the County authorities extended the streeteries at least until Labor Day in 2022, I see no evidence from the mall’s website that the streetery on the rooftop garage of the Westfield Wheaton Mall is still operating. Without going back to Wheaton to confirm—which I have no intention of doing any time soon—I have to assume that mall management finally terminated the dead-in-the-water financial model I witnessed last summer. Folks are back in the mall food court.
Incidentally, a very recent article indicates that, even up to fall 2023, the downtown Bethesda streetery is still going strong. This isn’t a huge surprise: Bethesda is generally higher density, upmarket, and it doesn’t host a suburban-style mall with abundant parking just a few blocks away. As an experiment, I laud the streetery for making a lemonade out of a lemon; it effectively reintroduced the pedestrian mall to American downtowns in an extremely spatially precise manor, based largely on demand for outdoor congregation, while offering the fragile restaurant industry a lifeline during an unusual global crisis. But its success is extremely location sensitive. Under normal circumstances, who really wants to hang out in a mall parking garage? The fact that the mall management could set aside so much space, then keep it running long after it had any demand—while keeping it staffed—not only suggests the excess size of the typical shopping center parking garage, but how an innovative solution can thrive in one location, then land with a thud just a few hundred feet away.
Wheaton will always be weird for juxtaposing a fairly conventional suburban mall next to a pedestrian-scaled, transit-oriented downtown. But even weirder is the fact that both seem to be keeping it together amidst less-than-stellar economic conditions these last few years. The downtown Wheaton streetery may continue to flourish as a means of supplementing outdoor dining, but people shopping at a mall—and dining at a mall food court—generally aren’t looking for that type of thing. And if people who order at a Panda Express in a food court want an al fresco experience, they can always take their clamshell of hot cheap Chinese and walk the 1,500 feet over to Wheaton’s outdoor streetery. Yeah, like that would ever happen.