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A Suburban Mall Dies in a New Deal Paradise

Greenbelt, Maryland, an early suburb of Washington, D.C. in Prince George’s County, has a more storied history than its appearance would suggest. It was established in 1937 as a planned community under the Roosevelt administration [1], as one of three “Greenbelt Towns.” [2] The overarching New Deal project never quite panned out, but Greenbelt itself was a success. The original planned community is now surrounded by typical commercial and residential sprawl, but “Old Greenbelt” [3] is still there, sporting a vintage movie theater, a community center, and even a coffee shop called New Deal Cafe. In that surrounding sprawl is Beltway Plaza, an exquisitely well-preserved early 1970s indoor mall. Beltway Plaza is vibrant, thriving, and, if a new development plan reaches completion, about to be torn down.

The mall opened in 1963 as a strip shopping center; the indoor portion was added in 1972 and expanded in 1975, and the building has been renovated and rejiggered many times over the years, though with few updates to its atmosphere. A little piece of trivia: it originally housed the largest suburban department store [4] in the D.C. area.

Though built concurrently with thousands of similar shopping centers, today Beltway Plaza is a rare time capsule of postwar suburbia: the kind of mid-sized, middlebrow indoor mall that barely exists anymore, and has not been newly constructed in decades. Most retail today is housed in strip plazas, larger and more upscale malls like the ones in Tysons Corner, Virginia [5], or, increasingly, New Urbanist-inspired “town centers” like those in Reston, Virginia [6] and Rockville, Maryland [7].

The mall’s appearance and decor is even more of a time capsule than its layout. Remarkably, the stores are largely non-chain small businesses, some with completely generic names such as a small hardware shop called…“Hardware.” Instead of Victoria’s Secret, there’s Luv’n Time, complete with mannequins in kitschy plastic alcoves decked out in retro lingerie. Instead of Men’s Wearhouse or Jos. A Bank, there’s Ties Shirts & More. There are carnival-style ice cream kiosks, electro-mechanical rides, and lots and lots of neon. A place like this will never be built again.

Addison Del Mastro

This might sound like a “dying mall,” [8] but it is vibrant and alive, with only a handful of vacancies out of approximately 100 spaces [9]. A retro mall bustling with locally owned small businesses sounds like a community fixture, if not a tourist attraction.

Yet its days are numbered, as a redevelopment plan (the latest of several) has recently moved forward [10]. The building is aging, and having been renovated and altered piecemeal over the years, a full overhaul wouldn’t have been cheap or easy, nor would it make full use of the real estate value of the lot. The mall is also just a stone’s throw away from a large, recently built development called Greenbelt Station [11], which looks like this.

Addison Del Mastro

These are large, spacious, brand new townhomes, and while some merely house wealthier University of Maryland students rather than homeowners or families, most people living in them will not be buying lingerie at Luv’n Time or knick-knacks at Gift Outlet.

Greenbelt is already one of the more desirable towns inside the Beltway, enjoying lower crime than many others, and very little urban blight. It isn’t exactly gentrifying, but it’s not likely to become cheaper.

change_me

The current redevelopment plan, like many similar projects around the D.C. metro area, aims to turn the single-story suburban mall into a mixed use project with housing, office space, and retail [10]. A report from the Urban Land Institute [12] went further, envisioning a transformation of Greenbelt Road—the highway on which Beltway Plaza sits—from a suburban strip to a walkable street. “Greenbelt Road must decide…are you bringing people through you, or to you?”

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Addison Del Mastro

One can imagine keeping the mall and transforming the Greenbelt Road corridor, by turning it into a tourist attraction in its own right. New floor tiles and a new coat of paint would brighten the place up considerably. An old neon sign on the nearby Route 1 corridor was just refurbished [14], and neon is cool again. A lightly refurbished Beltway Plaza would be a lot like a more affordable version of the slick, faux-authentic food halls going up in old warehouses, or the weirdly manicured, movie-set “town centers.” There’s something conservative, in the truest sense, about making do with and appreciating what already exists. Surely a piece of retro architecture built only 26 years after its surrounding municipality was established is a community landmark. It’s even got a community wall of fame.

Addison Del Mastro

On the other hand, whatever replaces Beltway Plaza will be much nicer, and it will also include a lot of housing. With gentrification pushing former D.C. residents into Prince George’s County, that’s a good thing, even if it means losing a neat old building.

Addison Del Mastro

This raises an issue, however, that often goes under the radar: what we might call “commercial gentrification.” Much early suburban retail is now downmarket, worn out, or even derelict. D.C.-adjacent Maryland and even Fairfax County, Virginia are littered with aging strip plazas, full of little hole-in-the-wall places advertising pupusas and Indian groceries on faded signs. But as aesthetically unpleasant as these places can be, they are also a resource. Economist Tyler Cowen has found [15] that some of the best restaurants are junky looking strip mall joints. The Eden Center plaza [16], in Falls Church, Virginia, went from old strip mall to major Vietnamese-American cultural and culinary center [17]—and tourist attraction.

Some assume the immigrants somehow caused these places to become shabby; the reality is that shabby buildings provide poor immigrants a chance to start a business [18] and make their own living. Urbanist Matt Robare notes [19] in a piece about small local business, “As neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.” In an ongoing redevelopment debate in my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey [20], the answer to existing businesses is essentially to move or pay astronomical new rents. In a few cases of strip mall redevelopment, existing retail tenants are grandfathered into new developments or promised below-market rates. Mostly, they move or close.

Addison Del Mastro

We talk a lot about affordable housing, and far less about affordable commercial and retail space; weighing the costs and benefits of building new housing versus maintaining low-rent retail is going to be a major concern as “suburban retrofit” continues and as more and more aging, low-rent retail sites meet the end of their service life.

Greenbelt, Maryland isn’t exactly Georgetown, and whatever stores are built one day on the Beltway Plaza site probably won’t be Coach, Apple, and Papyrus. But they probably won’t be Hardware or Luv’n Time either. Losing those stores, those business owners, and those cheap retail spaces is a kind of gentrification and displacement, too, and it deserves to be part of the calculation. And so does all of that neon.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [21].

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "A Suburban Mall Dies in a New Deal Paradise"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 6, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

This is just…Deplorable!

This is neo-con America: spend and spend some more; tear down to rebuild, keep the churn going so we all get our slice along the way. Then start again.

Just look around at all the ‘Never Trumpers’ from 2016 who read the writing on the wall and are now acolytes of real estate development as the nation’s true purpose and destiny. I guess this is what we get when we vote to remove the ‘conserve’ from conservative within the GOP.

#2 Comment By Sam M On December 6, 2018 @ 10:13 pm

They should save the mall simply for the “that’ve” contraction on that wall of fame. It makes no sense whatsoever. Which is why it’s awesome.

#3 Comment By Derpcicle On December 6, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

@Whine Merchant – Here’s to you, Incoherent Man!

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 7, 2018 @ 12:52 am

Coming soon to America – shanty shack undevelopments like Rio and Mexico City, for those in the precariat.

And think of what will happen, in a secular country that can’t promise them pie in the sky, bye and bye.

#5 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On December 7, 2018 @ 2:58 am

Older malls in mainly local markets are suffering through the prospect of closure because of ignoring economic obsolescence (when the value of a property decreases due to external factors in the neighborhood or immediate area). Internet sales and giant superstores (Walmart) are driving this trend. This will also drive property taxes down in locales that needed the taxes to fund public safety. What happens to the municipal redevelopment bonds on such properties will pose even bigger challenges.

#6 Comment By Iddo On December 7, 2018 @ 7:10 am

Just look at Georgetown, M street once full of local owned businesses. Now you can’t touch a cup of coffee for less than 4 dollars.

#7 Comment By LouB On December 7, 2018 @ 11:50 am

The fate of shopping malls is tied to complex variables and anyone with an axe to grind has a pet theory as to why.
Here in Chicago we had a thriving Manufacturing economy which was clustered in numerous industrial areas. During the post war era through the early 1970’s these smokestack hubs supported a thriving working class population whose employment was tied to the fate of these factories. As has been well documented, the small shopping districts were supplanted by shopping malls which were often anchored by flagship chain department stores within the confines of the mall and large grocery chain stores on the periphery of the mall lot. In Chicago proper, these were located on available large vacant real estate parcels, often relics of WW II defense factories. Additionally, the explosion of planned communities on the suburban outskirts saw the construction of malls adjacent to the home building. Notable amoung these was the Park Forest Plaza, which served the planned community documented in The Organization Man by William Whyte. These contained the everyman stores such as Sears, Carson’s as well as the five and dime stores such as Woolworth’s or Kresge’s. Along with these recognizable stores which provided the majority of shopper pull the apparel and small specialty stores occupied the smaller retail parcels. American consumer society encouraged the cultural universality which promoted similar items being purchased from Boston to Bakersfield.

The early 1980’s saw an abrupt cessation of industrial activity within the Chicago area.

As the factories closed, the populations surrounding them were largely displaced as workers relocated to follow employment. These clusters had often been ethnically homogeneous enclaves such as Berwyn’s Slavic population.

Concurrently, the influx of undocumented migrants began to arrive in sizable numbers.
Chicago, like many other larger cities began to demolish the large scale public housing complexes and relocate the residents to subsidized housing. This happened along with the “white flight” phenomenon.

The malls such as Dixie Square in Harvey were among the earliest to fall to changing demographics. ( Dixie Square’s last hurrah was to be used for the filming of the mall chase scene for ” The Blues Brothers ” )

Some of the malls seem to have a zombie life of their own, shambling along against the current. Chicago’s Ford City mall is a good example of this. Others, such as the Park Forest Plaza have been demolished. In the more impoverished ares the derelict malls remain standing, as there is no money for the demolition nor plans for redevelopment.

It is easy to toss darts at Walmart and internet shopping as being the villains of the mall’s demise, but the real reasons are as varied as the communities which they were located within.

#8 Comment By C.S. On December 7, 2018 @ 4:27 pm

I have memories of Beltway Plaza. As a newlywed in the early 2000s I remember being in the parking lot after 9-11 and listening to the radio as President Bush urged Americans to…go out shopping. I also read in a local paper that the terrorists had worked out at the Golds Gym there. It was sobering to think that I might have brushed elbows with them. To be honest, I don’t have much use for retail shopping. But Beltway Plaza is a landmark to the area, albeit not on par with the Center in Old Greenbelt for historic value.

#9 Comment By Regina On December 8, 2018 @ 8:08 am

The key words for me were “small non-chain businesses” and “it is vibrant and alive”. Hope they dont try to attract more upscale businesses. Believe it or not Georgetown in DC had a slew of small businesses in the late 70s, affordable restaurants, parking was plentiful; exact opposite now. Hope this doesnt happen to here.

#10 Comment By Good Reason On December 8, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

From a former Greenbelt resident:

I find this very interesting – I know some of the background of the owner/landlord – and his mismanagement of it and his other nearby property. I ran 2 stores in Beltway plaza – the Drug Fair and the Bud’s at the further end- and his space utilization ideas were , seemingly , bizarre. He had that ability to irritate you with-in moments of starting a conversation- his percentage cut (of your total gross sales volume) was, at the end , little short of outrageous, as was his outright disdain for the mundane matters of property management( such as , like fixing roofs or AC units).

The crappy stores – of the off-brand quasi Indian knock-off stores type–discouraged any proper brand stores of any nature from renting into the area – which drove the quality of what little foot traffic you did get into being the non-desirable rather poor ghetto-esque type that came for bargain shopping (or air conditioning) only. When he lost all of his larger tenants he reacted by subdividing his spaces so heavily that they all became basically large “kiosk” sized stores with knock-off, cheap goods, and drove the rents – by the lack of any large “anchor stores” -into the toilet. He was holding on for the rise in the value of the land – I always felt that way – and little by little he, through a lack of quality tenants, drove the food stores, the high traffic stores and the high dollar retailers out of the mall. This article was written by someone who walked thru the mall without interviewing a soul there.

I will be very curious to see if Sidney will try to finance and build his own mixed use property there or will simple sell off to one of the big guys. I also think he’s a little early – he should wait until they fill up Route 1 all the way up to the beltway – there are still a few large lots there that are much more valuable than the Beltway Plaza lot both in terms of size as well as proximity to College Park. I get the sense that this is an article being floated out there to see what reaction – and interest- it will generate among the developers lining up for the Hyattsville /College Station corridor that is being developed currently after a very long, recession driven hiatus.

Not that I have any opinions on the matter, of course…:-)

#11 Comment By Wanderer On December 10, 2018 @ 1:44 pm

This kind of thing is the fruit of steepening income inequality. In the 50’s and 60’s, household incomes (within and between regions) were getting more equal. So it made sense to create stores for the middle class, that appealed to a broad swath of the population.

But now incomes are bifurcating (most of the time under both Republicans and Democrats). So, not surprisingly, stores either cater to the affluent (Georgetown) or the low income (rundown suburbs). The middle level malls have been disappearing all over.

It’s all worth remembering that the U.S. has way more retail space per capita than other developed countries. We don’t really need as much as we’ve got, especially with people increasingly buying things on-line. You can see many major national retailers closing stores, even when they’re doing OK overall.

#12 Comment By jay kalend On December 10, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

Greenbelt Station says it all. You can see more attractive and better sunlit row housing in Belfast, Ireland.

And this business about ‘nearby housing’ to new retail: just a utilitarian effort to squeeze more particleboard in less land, with no regard to public transportation, proximity to work, or open spaces.

#13 Comment By steve lewis On December 10, 2018 @ 11:27 pm

There is an underground lake under beltway plaza. Never should have been built.

#14 Comment By Lola J. Lee Beno On December 11, 2018 @ 8:36 am

There are a lot of info here, especially in the comment, including the fact that five people died and several injured during construction when there was a collapse.

I’m a lifelong resident, so I have seen changes at the mall over the years. Not as much as Landover Mall (childhood home was closer to that mall) – now that is a different story.

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#15 Comment By mrscracker On December 11, 2018 @ 10:05 am

“The Eden Center plaza, in Falls Church, Virginia, went from old strip mall to major Vietnamese-American cultural and culinary center—and tourist attraction.”

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Thank you for mentioning that. I’m not really a fan of No. VA, but the Eden Center is amazing & well worth a trip. My son took me to visit there on a Saturday & they had a local Baptist church choir singing outside & all kinds of incredible food available. It was just a wonderful experience.

#16 Comment By Bonnie Staughton On December 11, 2018 @ 11:38 am

As a 46 year resident of Greenbelt, “Old Greenbelt”, and 67 year resident of Prince George’s County, I remember when Beltway Plaza was opened. It was a wonderful mall and it was heavily used by the residents

This article makes it seem as though Old Greenbelt is within walking distance of Beltway Plaza. Actually Beltway Plaza backs up to a large apartment development with a long history of crime and the Greenbelt Metro that brings people from other areas into Greenbelt.

As the years went by, the quality of the stores in the mall went down rapidly. I had heard stories about the owner/landlord and I have no doubt that he is a big reason why the mall is what it is today.

I used to go to the PetSmart over there until it moved out. Now my husband & I only occasionally go to the Mall to use the Giant food store. My husband would never want me to go to the mall by myself as certain elements just aren’t safe.

The part of the article about needing more housing in the area just upsets me. The traffic in the area is already horrible and it seems like not an inch of land is safe from development. I’m glad I grew up in the County when life was slower and not so crowded. I hate to think what the future will bring.

#17 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On December 11, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

Good Reason: I can assure you this article isn’t about real estate development. I’m not a planner or a developer – I’m more interested in the questions of what constitutes a community landmark, what deserves historic preservation, how suburbia fits into these ideas.

Lola – Didn’t see the Labelscar blog on this. I love that website. Half of the anecdotes about retail over the years I probably learned from them.

Bonnie: I grew up in lily white central NJ in a small town. I think the idea that Beltway Plaza is unsafe to go shopping during normal hours is fairly ridiculous. I wouldn’t want to aimlessly walk around some of the places inside the Beltway, but I never felt unsafe going about my business, especially not in Greenbelt.

Perhaps you missed the point about housing – I was talking about redeveloping old retail sites into new mixed-use sites that include housing. Rt 193 isn’t exactly the countryside at this point, and I don’t believe anyone is talking about replacing Greenbelt Park.

#18 Comment By TJ On December 14, 2018 @ 9:57 am

3 Brothers… AMC Academy 6. Teenage year staples in the 1980s.

#19 Comment By Greg On December 21, 2018 @ 9:21 am

How about a comment for someone who’s been there more than once. Vibrant?!? Surely you jest. It’s an unsafe neighborhood blight and has been for 20 yrs. I grew up In Berwyn heights and graduated from the University of Maryland. I currently live 20mins away and still own houses there. I have been a first hand witness to its decline for decades. It’s was safer and thusly had better stores upto the early 80s. Its lovely though for armchair onlookers with no vested interests (or reasonable idea of its true state) to tell us how great our mall is. I personally believe that most of the shops are fronts for laundering money as they do not get enough business to stay afloat. Excepting the hardware store, to be fair I do like that store. I hope it alone reopens in the same area.

#20 Comment By Chip On December 27, 2018 @ 8:13 am

I also like the hardware store. There is also 3 Brothers Pizza. I buy some of my ties from the Ties Shirts and More store. The tailor shop, Mode Custom Tailor, is great. At the other end is Arto’s Shoe Repair, which does good work at a reasonable price. I do like the Target. I don’t shop at most of the other stores, because their merchandise doesn’t interest me. There is also an excellent dry cleaners on the outside facing the parking lot. Giant Food is huge. I don’t shop there often, because there are cheaper places close by. There is a fair amount of crime there, mostly teens and young adults, which I believe is directly related to the crime in the apartment complex behind the mall.