Greenbelt, Maryland’s Beltway Plaza Revisited
When I was in grad school at University of Maryland, College Park from 2015-2017, the nearby Beltway Plaza Mall in Greenbelt was one of my go-to shopping locations. It housed a Giant supermarket—uncommonly, inside the mall’s concourse with no direct entrance from the parking lot—a Big Lots (since deceased), and a host of small, mostly non-chain stores.
In 2018, I wrote a surprisingly high-traffic appreciation of the aging, medium-sized indoor-outdoor hybrid mall. Back then, there were almost no vacancies out of over 100 retail spaces, and the mall was bustling, successful in its idiosyncratic way. A proposed redevelopment project to turn the mall into a modern mixed-use development has been conceptually approved, but is not yet actually underway, and may not be for a while. New tenants don’t seem too worried—at least three new businesses have opened, or are preparing to open, since 2018, though the COVID crisis has claimed a handful of stores there. For example, Luv’n Time, the mall’s gloriously tacky alternative to Victoria’s Secret, has succumbed, its mannequins now naked and semi-disassembled in their 70s-vintage alcoves.
Beltway Plaza, according to retail-themed blog posts, old-timer web comments, and occasional news stories, has always been a bit of an unusual property. A comment on a Labelscar post says, “In the early to mid 80’s…Beltway Plaza seemed like a cobbled together collection of second-tier retailers and mom and pop businesses….This mall actually seems better than it was in the 70’s even though it is still largely composed of small businesses and unusual anchors.” Former Washington Post reporter Lavanya Ramanathan wrote a profile of the mall in 2016, in which she relayed the memories of a small hardware store owner: “Almost from the beginning, most of the stores occupying this mall have been mom-and-pops, says Barry Blechman, the proprietor of Beltway Plaza Hardware for nearly 40 years.”
The building itself is at least as unconventional as its mix of tenants. The site was originally composed of a massive new-build S. Klein department store (over 200,000 square feet) and a smaller separate strip plaza housing an A&P supermarket and a few other stores. Beltway Plaza in its present form is the remnants of both original separate pieces with a newer enclosed mall bridging them. It has seen a succession of anchors and semi-anchors over the years, from discount department stores to two movie theaters to a Chinese buffet to a space offering computer workshops. It is now home to a church, several restaurants from Italian to African, one movie theater, a gym, an arcade/fun center, a supermarket, salons, and a variety of budget-oriented smaller stores.
This gives you a keen sense of what a strange, kludge-y building it actually is. While the property is charmingly retro, it would clearly be very expensive and complicated to renovate it while retaining its current form. Nonetheless there’s something striking, even valuable about it. It is composed of many parts and eras, a mall that has evolved, in a piecemeal and iterative manner, almost in the way that traditional neighborhoods evolve. It feels more like an incrementally formed ecosystem than a single, tightly managed property. It is a sort of platypus of shopping centers. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, in other words, might like Beltway Plaza.
In late August, I visited the mall again myself, this time walking the whole perimeter. One thing that’s not so praiseworthy (and that Marohn wouldn’t like) is the parking: oceans and oceans of parking. Even on the most crowded days, and with relatively few vacancies in the mall, this parking lot is oversized. I came here for three years regularly, and never even knew there was parking in the back. During my perimeter walk, I observed a student driver practicing in one area of the back lot, and a fallen street lamp in another. Perhaps in its heyday, when it was one of the first large malls in the region, all that parking served a purpose. But it could disappear tomorrow and nobody would miss it or even notice. Except maybe the student driver.
In addition to walking the property, I tested local opinion on the mall and its proposed fate on a Greenbelt-focused Facebook group (at the moderator’s request, I have not named or directly quoted anybody.) Of all the comments, about 36 percent wanted the mall to remain as is; about 42 percent supported redevelopment but with sadness, reservations or concerns, particularly for the continued viability of its diverse, small-scale, and practical businesses; and only about 22 percent strongly and totally supported redevelopment.
A few commenters noted that Greenbelt’s overall population might be even more supportive of the mall as is, given that many of the people who shop there, particularly immigrants, are probably not members of the Facebook group. Another theme was the practical, everyday orientation of the mall’s stores, as opposed to bland chain retail. Several hoped that some kind of grandfathering could be included, to ensure that the current businesses could hold on in a new, upgraded facility. Many also preferred the indoor layout over an exposed strip mall. Overall, opinion seems that while some kind of update of the property is desirable or at least inevitable, it is an important resource and a sort of colorful, somewhat eccentric landmark. For a suburban mall to inspire these kinds of complex feelings is itself rather remarkable.
The things that make Beltway Plaza, in its current form, conventionally unattractive to many large chains and affluent shoppers—the outdated decor, architectural idiosyncrasies, and jumble of discount retailers and small-scale, immigrant-heavy non-chain establishments—are exactly the things which make it a real place, and give it a certain resilience.
While one can certainly imagine better uses for an aging, parking-heavy, low-rise shopping mall from the 1960s, we should also be wary of the planner’s tendency to view the incremental, bottom-up repurposing of places as disorderly and vaguely suspect, as well as the staid suburbanite tendency to view the results as visual evidence of crime or poverty. Our land-use regime largely suppresses this kind of low-risk, small-scale enterprise, preferring 10-year master plans and rigid zoning codes, which can nonetheless be officially violated by large developers through the granting of a “variance.” But zoning codes do not apply to mall interiors, and all it takes for this process to play out in a shopping center is a hands-off commercial landlord.
It would be simplistic and reductive to cast Beltway Plaza—or its tenants, anyway—as a “little guy” in a story of commercial corruption and greed. No project, not even a very good one, will please everyone, and nostalgia is rarely a good guide for policy. But without any planning, and indeed despite any planning, a diverse community of dozens of small-scale entrepreneurs—whose businesses and customers might well be excluded by a redeveloped property—have transformed this property and kept it alive, in a very different way than the original builders would have imagined. Our built environments in general permit far too little of this, and no matter what the property’s future holds, it would be a shame to lose it.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC‘s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.