My Thoughts on the Landmark Mall Redevelopment

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    Good afternoon, Alexandria City (and Northern Virginia) residents.  Hope you are all ready for a glorious Memorial Day Weekend.  The weather will be absolutely gorgeous this weekend.

    Please accept my apology as this blog post is late (I intended to write this much sooner, but academics got in the way – this is a good thing), but I also think that you will find it very informative.  Everyone knows what an eyesore that Alexandria City has in the Landmark Mall.  If you are unfamiliar with the location, it’s at 5801 Duke Street.  Without question, the Landmark Mall is the worst shopping center in the Washington, DC metropolitan area – and might be the worst one between Northern Virginia and Baltimore (and that’s saying a lot).  The Howard Hughes Corporation owns the central section of the Landmark Mall site between the existing Sears and Macy’s stores (who both own their stores).

    After much deliberation, the Alexandria, VA City Council, in June 2009, included the Van Dorn/Landmark Corridor Plan in the city’s master plan.  The plan discusses several important details, such as land use, transportation, development guidelines, and environmental sustainable – and I will not discuss those issues here.  The Alexandria City government planners have done an excellent job in these areas – and, as I said, there is no need for me to discuss that here.

    What I will discuss is the urban design element.  In section six of the Van Dorn/Landmark Corridor Plan above, you can see that the original vision of the redevelopment was somewhat a cross between the Reston Town Center (in Reston, VA) – and the Ballston Common Corridor (in Arlington County, VA).  It was an ambitious proposal to make it a livable, freestanding community.  One that would be self-sufficient in that – in theory – everything that you need (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants, shopping, medical care, apartment residents) to live would be in this community – and you would not have to get in your car for any reason if you did not want to (FWIW, the Reston Town Center and Ballston Common Corridor areas are designed in this manner).

    We fast forward to May 2013 – I attended the public forum, which was held at a vacated store in the Landmark Mall (here’s a copy of the meeting agenda).   The first part of the forum was an open house where attendees were given the opportunity to visit with Alexandria, VA City Planning personnel – and ask various questions about the Van Dorn/Landmark Corridor Plan (such as plans for the schools, traffic, parking, transit – that sort of thing).  The second part of the meeting was an open question and answer forum with representatives from the Howard Hughes Corporation, the owner and developer.

    The Howard Hughes Corporation representative presented a much-scaled back version of the original development plan.  What you see now is something that is a closer version of the Village at Shirlington (in Arlington County, VA).  If you go to page 22 of the presentation right here, you’ll see that there are two floors planned for this development.  The first level will have areas for small retail spaces and sit-down restaurants.  The second level will also have areas for retail and there will also be a potential movie theatre (where you can also have an alcoholic beverage – the Howard Hughes representative mentioned that this is a new design in movie theatres – where you can have dinner, a beverage, and a movie – so it will be set up for those who are 21 and older).  Similar in concept to the Village at Shirlington, there will be apartment units on the 2nd level of this new mixed-use development.  It appears as though these apartments will be marketed toward young professionals – many who might be single individuals.  I will discuss this strategy later in this blog post.

    In the May 2013 meeting, the Howard Hughes Corporation representative told the audience that he feels as though Sears and Macy’s have bought into the redevelopment plan – which is good news – because they did not buy in during the last effort in 2009.  Their buy-in is key to ensuring that the Landmark Mall area is redeveloped.

    As I said, this is much scaled down from what I thought it was going to be.  I really thought that the Howard Hughes Corporation (in concert with Alexandria City) would try to attract a huge tenant, like a federal government agency, so that there would be a built in occupancy in establishing this mixed-use development.  This, in turn, would attract higher quality retail shops, restaurants, and other residential development.  But, those sorts of business activities do not appear to be planned for the mixed-use development until Phase 2 of the plan at the earliest – and more likely, Phase 3 (for more information, please see Phases 3 through 7 on pages 27-33 of the developer presentation right here).

    That said, is half a loaf of bread (the developer’s much scaled down plan) better than no bread (e.g. the dumpster fire that is there now)?  For the most part, yes, it is better.  The developer plans to have several sit-down type restaurants in the new mixed-used development – this is music to the ears for several of us that live in the west end of Alexandria City.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have been asked for a recommendation of a high quality sit-down restaurant here in the west end of the city – and I have had to tell people many times that there are none – and that you either have to drive to Old Town Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, or Washington, DC.  I feel terrible that I have to tell someone that – but the truth hurts sometimes.  Am I disappointed that small-scale, one-bedroom type apartments are those that are being focused on by the developer?  Yes – because that encourages single people to live there without ties to the city – a transient sort of folk that might not care as much about the community as someone who is a homeowner.  Do I think that these people will have disposable income to spend?  Heck, yes – and that might bring in more development for future phases of this mixed-use development.

    The developer mentioned that he was fond of keeping the name “Landmark” somewhere in the title of the new facility (in fact, he wanted to call it “Landmark Village.”).  I cannot tell you enough what a bad idea this is – it is horrific.  In fact, it is so horrific, I am planning a future blog post where I imbed the Tweets of Twitter users when I asked them what they would think of having Landmark even associated with the name of the new development. We need to abolish any memory of Landmark Mall.  It is a terrible, horrible place – and that includes the name of the mall.  You see, Landmark brings up thoughts of the infamous prostitution sting in the west end of the city.  Or the number of police calls that originate from Landmark Mall – here’s an example where you find it at #1 for a certain month – and there were/are several months where this “famous destination” (yes, that was sarcasm – that’s why it is in quotes) was #1.  As Satirical Alexandria says, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this mall!!”    And I would add, “NOW!!”

    The next step for the Landmark Mall Redevelopment is a Planning Commission Public Hearing on June 4, 2013.  I would argue that the attainment of this development – that is to say, making sure that this happens, is important to the future electoral success of Mayor Bill Euille, Vice-Mayor (and City Council Representative) Allison Silberberg, John Chapman (a rising star – someone who I think has a good future), Timothy Lovain, Redella S. “Del” Pepper (who lives in my building and still can’t remember my name after a decade), Paul Smedberg, and Justin Wilson (who also has a great future – could be our next mayor).  West Alexandria has been losing out on too many tax dollars for far too many years and needs this development.  It is highly advisable that the mayor and the city council find a way to work with the developer – and make this happen.  Without this development, I think that you will find many people leave the west end of Alexandria for other parts of the city – or other parts of the Washington, DC metropolitan area – it’s that important.

    Happy Memorial Day Weekend!!!  And God Bless those soliders that have given their lives in service to our country – everywhere!!