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