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Fashion Square turns 32 in the era of outdoor, pedestrian-oriented shopping

Fashion Square turns 32 in the era of outdoor, pedestrian-oriented shopping

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Thirty years ago, indoor regional shopping malls like Charlottesville Fashion Square were considered cutting edge.

From the late 1960s onward, across the country, indoor malls sprouted quickly. But over the next few decades, many died slowly and painfully, starved of customers and cash as consumer trends shifted.

Today, pedestrian-oriented, big-box anchored shopping centers like Hollymead to the north and the under-construction Stonefield to the south are the next trend in retail. But the owners and management of Fashion Square say they’re confident that the center’s market-exclusive stores will keep the mall relevant and competitive.

“In the past five years, we’ve brought [exclusive] retailers to the market,” said Karen Weiner, the mall’s manager. Weiner cited Coach, Sephora and Crazy 8 as examples.

“I think we’ll continue to bring these strong retailers to the area,” she added. “There’s no place in the area you can go for the Gap or J. Crew … We draw [from] as far away as Lynchburg.”

Developed by the late Leonard L. Farber, the mall officially opened 32 years ago this week. Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group bought Fashion Square in 1997.

Although enclosed shopping malls have given way to outdoor shopping plazas, like Short Pump near Richmond and Central Park in Fredericksburg, Simon spokesman Les Morris said traditional malls are still good models.

Like Weiner, Morris said the ability to attract and retain exclusive retailers is the key.

“We’re laser focused on … being the best landlord and manager that we can be,” he said. “We face competition in every market and we have our eyes squarely on the future.”

Asked exactly what those future developments might look like, Weiner, who has overseen the mall since January 2010, was optimistic but non-specific, saying only that they’re looking to enhance the property. Simon has 337 properties worldwide.

Simon doesn’t provide vacancy rates for individual properties, but Morris said that company-wide, Simon’s overall retail space was 94.8 percent full at the end of the 2011 fourth quarter. The company also does not disclose sales per square foot for individual properties. However, Morris said that the company’s portfolio of malls and premium outlet centers averaged sales of $536 per square foot.

Fashion Square, which has about 570,000 square feet of leasable retail space, appears to be at or above this figure, with few vacancies among the mall’s approximately 70 in-line retail units. Regional malls, Morris said, are still economic powerhouses, even though there aren’t many of them being built from the ground up.

Morris and Weiner said they don’t necessarily see up-and-coming retail developments like Stonefield, under construction at U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road, or Hollymead Town Center, located a few miles north of the mall on U.S. 29, as direct competitors.

When completed, Stonefield and the second phase of Hollymead will each bring about 275,000 square feet of retail space to the market. Older shopping centers, like Shopper’s World and Albemarle Square, are looking to fill major vacancies.

Wendell Wood, president of United Land Corp., is the developer behind some of the area’s most visible shopping centers, commercial spaces and residential developments, including Barracks Road Shopping Center and the National Ground Intelligence Center facility. Wood said that many of the area’s older retail centers, including some of his own, aren’t a good fit for today’s retail market.

As an example, he said a typical, full-service chain restaurant like Olive Garden might need up to 7,000 square feet of space with parking for 150 cars, which is a difficult configuration to offer. He also added that the eatery, which is unrepresented in the area, probably won’t be coming to Hollymead anytime soon. Wood also declined to name the tenants that are slated to open following Hollymead’s latest expansion, saying he prefers for the stores to make their own announcements.

“I’ve been doing this for 51 years and I’ve found out that you can’t predict [trends],” Wood said. When looking to develop retail spaces, “We go by what’s going on at the present time.” Today, he continued, the trend is pedestrian-friendly outdoor centers that are anchored by mid-market big-box retailers like Kohl’s and Target, which bookend Hollymead.

Although Abercrombie & Fitch at Fashion Square closed recently, Buckle, a Nebraska-based men’s and women’s casual apparel, footwear and accessories store, is set to occupy part of Abercrombie’s former space. Buckle has 400 locations in 41 states, according to the company’s website. Weiner said the store is set to open this spring.

A few of the stores with lengthy tenures at the mall are Sears, J.C. Penney, Motherhood Maternity, GNC, Radio Shack, Sbarro, the Gap and Chick-fil-A.

Retailers that have come and gone include Thom McAn, K.B. Toys, Morrison’s Cafeteria and B. Dalton.

In an interview with The Daily Progress, published on Fashion Square’s grand opening day in 1980, Farber said the public was responding well to the nationwide mall phenomenon. He developed nearly 50 shopping centers throughout his career, before his death in 2005 at age 89. Unlike residential developments, Farber said back then, every shopping center is different.

“We didn’t realize 20 years ago that malls were going to be something of a social experience, that people were going to malls not just to shop. But we saw the retirees doing their constitutionals, stopping for coffee and that sort of thing, looking at the pretty windows. And so the more far-sighted developers — one of which is you-know-who — started to capitalize on that.”

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