October 24, 2014
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Ballston Stall

It’s got the location and the demographics. Why doesn’t Ballston Common Mall have higher-end stores?

Illustration by Ellen Byrne

Illustration by Ellen Byrne

Clarendon resident Timothy Worrell often visits Ballston Common Mall with his kids to skate at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex or take in a movie at the Regal Cinemas. But when Worrell, an independent retailer of high-end home furnishings, decided to open his company’s first Timothy Paul boutique in Northern Virginia, he never considered the mall as a location.

Instead, he opted for a showroom at Mosaic, an up-and-coming shopping, dining and entertainment district in Merrifield that opened this fall. With the launch of his third store (he already has two in Washington, D.C.), Worrell hopes to attract customers on this side of the Potomac who are looking for hard-to-find imported rugs, textiles and bedding. It helps that those customers will be able to step outside his new shop at Mosaic and stroll to other high-end stores, including Last Call by Neiman Marcus, Dawn Price Baby, Anthropologie and South Moon Under.

Ballston Common’s retail space, which saw its last major facelift 26 years ago, doesn’t have quite the same cachet.

“I don’t even know what’s in this mall,” Worrell says one Sunday in August as he waits with his daughter, Vivienne, 7, and son, Holden, 5, on a footbridge that extends to the mall’s glass elevator.

Having just caught a movie, they’re headed back to the Metro for the quick ride home.

Worrell acknowledges that the mall has its pluses. “[It’s] an unbelievably desirable piece of property in terms of location,” he says. “It’s above a Metro, and three major [traffic] routes come together here.”

Still, those perks weren’t enough to lure him in as a tenant. “I need to be in with a certain type of retailer,” he explains tactfully.

With shops such as the J&J Dollar Store and an “As Seen on TV” outlet, Ballston Common doesn’t have very many of the types of retailers he’s talking about.  

Therein lies what detractors say is the mall’s fundamental weakness—a lack of critical mass at the luxury end of the retail spectrum. It’s a sentiment that local comedian Remy Munasifi summarized in his infamous 2009 YouTube music video, “Arlington: The Rap.”

We kinda got a mall, yeah, you know you can’t stop us. It’s got everything, but nothing good, man…it’s kinda like tapas.

Why Ballston Common has so few high-end retailers seems a mystery when you consider all that it has to offer. Nestled in the heart of a thriving, urban-style transit district, the mall is surrounded by thousands of well-to-do residents with money to spend. Metro is just a hop-skip from its entrance. The Washington Capitals hold their practices at its ice complex. “Ovie” sightings are a common phenomenon.

In addition, the neighborhood has evolved into a science, technology and research hub with the presence of employers such as the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Employees from those organizations and other nearby businesses frequently hit Ballston Common’s eateries for lunches and happy hours.

But it’s not clear what else the mall has to offer the 32,000 workers who descend upon Ballston every weekday, or the tens of thousands of residents who live in its surrounding neighborhoods, aside from convenience.  

“I like to shop in Arlington and be supportive of Arlington businesses...but I never shop there,” says Victoria Monroe, an executive at National Journal Group in D.C. who lives in Arlington’s Dover-Crystal neighborhood. “It has no stores there that offer anything I want or need.”

Wendy Pilch, a professional stylist and personal shopper (her Arlington-based company, Spendalla, assembles budget-friendly wardrobes for both women and men), feels the mall is hit-or-miss. “I don’t really shop [there] with clients…although I like the new store, Fornash, that just moved there from Georgetown,” says Pilch, who lives in Dominion Hills. “And I do visit the movie theater and Panera with my family.”

 

Photo by Marisa Ross“How many people are walking around with bags?” asks Kelly Shooshan, chief operating officer for local real estate developer The Shooshan Company. The answer—at least on the Sunday that Timothy Worrell and his kids are passing through—is few.

Shooshan, who counts herself among the mall’s loyal shoppers, wants Ballston Common to thrive. She serves as treasurer of the newly created Ballston Business Improvement District (BID), an economic development consortium funded by commercial properties in a 25-block radius around Ballston.

Shooshan’s family-owned business is also the developer of Founders Square, a new mixed-use complex located directly across from the mall on Randolph Street, that is soon to include a 183-room Residence Inn by Marriott; a 430,000-square-foot office tower; and The Place, a 257-unit apartment building with 8,000 square feet of ground-level retail. Founders Square, she believes, will complement Ballston Mall and its offerings.

Perhaps it will also provide some impetus for the mall to better leverage its assets—including the potential goldmine it has in the Caps. “We hope the Washington Capitals profile and continuing branding efforts help to attract fans and top-notch stores to the mall and surrounding area,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said in an email.

Many area business owners have placed high hopes on Forest City Enterprises, which owns the mall’s core retail space, to modernize the venue and make it more of a destination. (Forest City was part of the partnership that opened a renovated  Ballston Common Mall in 1986; it acquired full ownership of the mall’s leased retail space in 1993.)

Forest City certainly has the track record to do so. An urban redevelopment powerhouse with offices in nine states and the District, the company has built dozens of edgy “lifestyle centers” (mixing dining, entertainment and retail) around the country.

It’s even building one nearby. One of its newest ventures, The Yards—a 42-acre mixed-use complex on the Anacostia waterfront near the Washington Navy Yard and Nationals Park—has converted a former warehouse into Foundry Lofts, which includes 170 luxury apartments. Subsequent phases of the project will transform a factory that once made ship boilers and torpedo tubes into The Boilermaker Shops, a dining and retail center. A decommissioned Navy building is set to reopen in 2013 as the Lumber Shed, a glass pavilion with restaurants and office space.

Locals who are frustrated with Ballston Common’s apparent inertia say that kind of creative thinking would be welcome in Arlington, although it’s hard to know what Forest City’s plans or timeline for a mall makeover might be.

“It is our policy not to discuss redevelopment plans that are under negotiation,” says Forest City’s John Moore, who serves as the mall’s general manager.

Gary McManus, a spokesperson for Forest City Washington, says the developer isn’t in a position to show its cards —at least not yet. “While we are currently working on a significant reconfiguration and repositioning of Ballston Common Mall, we have not yet shared our plans with civic officials at the county and city levels,” he says. “So we are hesitant to disclose those plans in any detail...not wanting to potentially jeopardize the civic approvals process.”

One overarching obstacle may be that Forest City doesn’t have unilateral decision-making power when it comes to Ballston Common. Macy’s Inc. owns the two department stores that bear its name at either end of the mall. The Bernstein Companies, a D.C.-based real estate firm, owns an existing office tower that sits on top of the mall. Arlington County owns the parking garage, as well as Kettler Capitals Iceplex (which it leases to Leonsis’s company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment).

“The community doesn’t fully understand why the mall is this way,” Shooshan says. “It’s not because the mall ownership isn’t smart enough.” One of the significant challenges, she explains, is the number of parties that need to work together to come up with a mutually agreeable redevelopment plan.

Things weren’t always so complicated.

With the opening of Hecht’s (now Macy’s) in 1951, Ballston quickly became a thriving suburban shopping district. J.C. Penney followed in the space that is now occupied by the Macy’s Furniture Gallery.

Shortly after the Ballston Metro station opened in 1979, Arlington County built the parking garage, connecting the three-level mall and its two department stores. Originally called “Parkington,” it was one of the first malls in the country to adjoin a multilevel parking structure.

The mall itself was renovated and expanded in 1986 and renamed Ballston Common Mall as the result of an area-wide naming contest. (The Ballston name references the Ball family, relatives of George Washington who were among Arlington’s earliest settlers.)

But by then, the mall had competition. Seven Corners had emerged as a shopping destination, followed by Tysons Corner Center and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

“The story of America’s malls,” observes Arlington Economic Development Director Terry Holzheimer, “is that the newer, better, bigger ones crowd out the older ones.”

Tysons Corner Center, which debuted in 1968, welcomed the world’s first Apple retail store in 2001 and expanded its footprint in 2005. Today the “super regional mall”—as it is referred to by its owner, Macerich—boasts more than four times as many stores as Ballston Common, including A/X Armani Exchange, Brooks Brothers, Michael Kors, Restoration Hardware and Bloomingdale’s. It’s got a Macy’s, too.

The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, which opened in 1989 and is anchored by Nordstrom and Macy’s (yep, another Macy’s), now houses twice as many stores as Ballston Common, including high-end shops such as Kate Spade, Lucky Brand Jeans, Coach, Bose and Microsoft. It’s owned by The Simon Property Group, a publicly traded S&P 100 company that owns roughly 330 retail real estate properties in North America and Asia.

Competition has gotten even tougher for Ballston Common with the arrival of Market Common Clarendon, which opened in 2001 less than two miles down the road and includes stores such as Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Whole Foods and Free People.

Arlington County has continued to invest in Ballston Common—most notably with the construction of the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which Holzheimer says has increased mall sales by about 15 percent since it opened in 2006.

But that increase in sales may be part of the mall’s problem. The shops that occupy its retail space (including stores such as Bath & Body Works, Payless ShoeSource and Things Remembered) have enjoyed an uptick in business, while the ice rink and movie theater, along with restaurants such as Union Jack’s and Rock Bottom Brewery, continue to draw healthy crowds.

“One of the issues with the mall is that it’s doing well enough…it’s not failing,” Holzheimer says. “It’s kind of mid-level in terms of square-foot sales. The movie theater does okay, the mall does okay, Macy’s does okay, so there’s no emergency to do something drastic.”

Ballston Common certainly does not fall into the same category with Fairfax County’s Springfield Mall, which entered a death spiral in 2010 when declining sales prompted many of its stores to close, leaving fewer retailers to draw even fewer shoppers. By the spring of 2012, Springfield Mall was a quasi-ghost mall of boarded-up storefronts, with the few stores that remained open concentrated into an enclave at one end.

Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the property, has since shuttered those remaining tenants and closed the mall to undergo a two-year metamorphosis. The planned result will be Springfield Town Center, a mixed-use complex offering office space, hotel rooms and apartments built around multiple anchor stores and smaller retailers.

Ballston Common’s situation does not warrant that kind of wholesale resurrection.  

 

Photo by Marisa RossKilian Landersman, who is there on a Sunday afternoon to get a $17 haircut at The Barber Shop & Co., is a fan of the mall. “Mission accomplished,” he says, rubbing his buzz cut as he heads to f.y.e. to flip through its DVD selection. “Honestly, I don’t think there are many changes they can make. It seems good.”

For others, Ballston Common in its present condition feels nostalgic. “We’ve been coming [here] since we were young,” says Betsy (who gave only her first name), a shopper who grew up in Arlington and still visits the mall roughly twice a month. “I like the mall as it is.”

But her companion, James, who sports a tie and suspenders, and is carrying a Macy’s shopping bag, shakes his head. “It needs more upscale stores,” he says. “For example, it needs a men’s shoe store. There’s no place to get shoes here besides Macy’s.”

If recent attempts to upgrade the mall’s offerings are any indication, James shouldn’t hold his breath. Holzheimer says Ballston Common is unlikely to land many new retail tenants in its current state, given that most retailers see the territory as saturated.

“We have worked with the mall and approached nearly every top-level retailer in the country at some point,” Holzheimer says, noting that one of the mall’s biggest problems is its geographic proximity to Pentagon City and Tysons.

“[The retailers’] approach is, ‘I really need to make a choice, I need to be at Tysons or Pentagon or both, but I can’t be at three of them, and maybe I can only be at one of them,’ ” he explains. “So Ballston has to come in third of those choices.”

Independent retailer Stephanie Fornash Kennedy, whose accessories boutique, Fornash, relocated from Georgetown to Ballston Common this spring, may be the exception.

“I’m thrilled to be here!” Kennedy says of her preppy store’s new location on the mall’s “50 yard line” (meaning you can see it when you come across the bridge).

From that vantage point, the shop’s jewel-toned wares have lured in more than a few passersby. “I have customers coming in and saying, ‘Wow, this is unique and different. I usually don’t shop at this mall, but now I can come in and buy a cute gift on my way home from work,’ ” Kennedy says.

But renting space inside Ballston Common was a relatively low-risk proposition for Kennedy, given that retail sales account for only 5 percent of her company’s total revenue (the rest comes from a wholesale division that sells the Fornash collection to more than 4,000 stores nationwide and overseas).

The main role of the Fornash storefront in Ballston, she says, is to test how consumers react to different products in the collection—which made her parameters as a prospective tenant a bit different from the norm.

“They [Forest City] were very upfront with me in the negotiations,” says Kennedy, who signed a three-year lease at Ballston Common. “They said that maybe my retail store might not be extremely successful.  I said that was fine, because we have another division that’s profitable...whereas a normal retailer might not find that so appealing.”

Earlier this year, Arlington County commissioned a demographic study to determine which types of shoppers might be likely to patronize a renovated Ballston Common Mall. The research found that nearly 90 percent of residents in the mall’s immediate vicinity are “metro renters”—urban, young singles with an average age of 27. Surrounding them are neighborhoods of “high society” residents, which the study defined as “affluent, well-educated, married-couple homeowners.”

The average household income within a five-mile radius of Ballston Common, according to leasing information on the mall’s website, is $113,317.

The challenge is getting those well-heeled potential customers to open their wallets and enjoy a little retail therapy closer to home.

“Other than the emergency run to Victoria’s Secret for stockings, I don’t think anyone intentionally shops at Ballston Mall,” says a Lyon Village mom who prefers to remain anonymous. “They seem to have squandered the chance to do something cool or useful.”

Shannon Powell McCarter, who also lives in Lyon Village, believes that fresh architecture and a livelier, more extroverted street scene with green spaces and promenades would improve Ballston Common’s appeal as a shopping destination.

“It could be so much better if they renovated so the storefronts could be seen from the outside,” she says. “I don’t think the traditional [enclosed] mall layout is a very sought-after place these days.”

Still, the mall’s long-term success or failure in an area that’s growing ever more affluent will likely hinge on what it’s selling. “I think the customer base here in Arlington would be chomping at the bit,” McCarter says, “if good stores came in.”

Patrick Ross lives in Bailey’s Crossroads and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

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