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White Flint's journey points way for other struggling malls

White Flint Mall opened in 1977 as the emblem of Montgomery County's rising suburban affluence, but over time the luxury mall began to show its age. Now located at the center of the urbanizing White Flint Sector Plan area, the mall's transformation into an urban neighborhood is a sign of where the county's going.


White Flint Mall today. All images by the author except where noted.

"It's going to be an incredible project, certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Francine Waters, managing director of owner Lerner Enterprises, which built the mall and others like it throughout the region over the past several decades.

In October, the Planning Board approved a sketch plan to replace the 874,000-square-foot mall and an adjacent office building with 5.2 million square feet of shops, homes, offices and a hotel. The project could take 25 years to build over 3 phases; when finished, it would be the largest development in the White Flint area.

In a 2011 Washington Post article, Michael Cohen of Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects described the project as "making a town, a community."

Enclosed malls like White Flint were popular throughout North America during the late 20th century, but have become less popular as changing demographics and shopping habits have lured consumers to big-box stores and the Internet.

Borders, one of the mall's anchors, filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2011, followed by Bloomingdale's, which closed last year and moved to the mixed-use Wisconsin Place complex in Friendship Heights. Though Lerner won't divulge how many vacancies there are, portions of the mall are now empty.

What can you do to refresh a mall? Some, like Landover Mall in Prince George's County, were simply demolished while awaiting another use, while others like Harundale Mall in Anne Arundel County were turned into a strip center. A few, however, are being turned into something that resembles a neighborhood, with a mix of residential and commercial uses and public open space.

One of the best examples of this kind of redevelopment is Belmar, a former mall outside of Denver that is being redeveloped as a suburban downtown. Closer to home, plans are underway to do the same with Landmark Mall in Alexandria and Owings Mills Mall in Baltimore County.


Photo by Chris Yarzab on Flickr.

To orchestrate this transformation, Lerner hired Elkus Manfredi, which also designed CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Florida, a renowned example of New Urbanist planning principles, and Americana at Brand, a mixed-use project in Glendale, California. Both projects helped revive formerly struggling business districts and became regional destinations.

"We're looking for that exciting compelling story that [the Friends of White Flint and the White Flint Partnership] all have been looking for," says Waters. "Elkus Manfredi is a world-class architect and Americana at Brand certainly reflects a very successful project."


Site plan of the proposed redevelopment of White Flint Mall.

In the proposed design, both department store spacesLord and Taylor and the former Bloomingdale'swould remain, effectively preserving the "memory" of the mall's original footprint. Meanwhile, the center of the mall would be demolished and replaced by a 1.7-acre "central piazza" surrounded by smaller shops with housing above.

The tallest buildings, reaching as high as 200 to 250 feet, would line Rockville Pike and a future extension of Executive Boulevard that would form the site's northern boundary. From there, the height steps down to 100-foot-tall buildings around the piazza and 50-foot buildings on the site's eastern and southern boundaries, where it's closest to single-family homes.

Overall, there would be 1 million square feet of retail space, which would be joined by another million square feet of office space, a 280,000-square-foot hotel, and over 2400 apartments in 14 buildings. Underground parking garages containing 9,300 spaces would serve the entire development. According to the planning department's report, each building will be designed and oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating and lighting, reducing energy costs.

A new grid of private streets would divide the site into blocks and connect it to Rockville Pike and future extensions of Executive Boulevard and Nebel Street. The streets will be designed to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and cars and have extensive landscaping and street furniture.

Meanwhile, 40% of the site would be set aside as public or private open space, including the piazza, a 2.3-acre addition to the existing White Flint Park, and four smaller plazas scattered throughout the development.

Lerner will also set aside 4 acres on the property's southern end for an elementary school if Montgomery County Public Schools chooses to purchase it. County planners estimate that the 14,000 housing units that could eventually be built in White Flint will create demand for new schools in the area.

However, there was a brief conflict last fall when the Planning Board asked the developer to simply give the land away, but they later backed down. At the time, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier argued that the school was necessary to placate concerns about overcrowded classrooms.

Handing over the property "was not in the sector plan," says Waters.


Bird's-eye view of the proposed White Flint Mall redevelopment.

While the redevelopment of White Flint Mall has a lot of potential, some urban design issues stem from its history as a mall. While streets break the site up into city blocks, they are much larger than blocks in other projects in the White Flint Sector Plan area. For instance, the block containing the former Bloomingdale's appears to be over 800 feet long, while the 2 blocks closest to Rockville Pike are subdivided by what appear to be cul-de-sacs that don't connect to the Pike itself.

Not only does this reduce pedestrian connectivity, but it forces drivers onto a series of 4- and 6-lane streets roughly located where the mall's ring road is today.

These larger blocks and road sections may arise in part from county Department of Transportation regulations that discourage blocks shorter than 600 feet. While a series of pedestrian passages cutting through the site help improve connectivity, it may be worth reconsidering how the street grid is set up, and whether traffic can be managed with a more fine-grained grid of smaller streets and shorter blocks.

Though the mall is set to close next year, it's unclear when construction will begin. The Planning Board will need to approve a preliminary plan and a site plan, both of which are more detailed than a sketch plan, before anything can happen. Nonetheless, Waters looks forward to what the property will become.

"It's going to be an incredible project certainly adding to the energy and synergy of White Flint," says Waters. "I am absolutely, positively thrilled with what we're proposing and how it works with the other projects within White Flint."

This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog. For more images of White Flint Mall and its proposed redevelopment, check out this slideshow.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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Looks pretty good, hopefully in later designs we can see something that avoids long blank walls along some of the larger retail spaces.

by drumz on Feb 7, 2013 3:16 pm • linkreport

Like other recent developments in the area it doesn't do much to break the tendency toward isolated pockets of development and a lack of integration with transit. Despite large amount of planned development, it's not clear to me what will draw people here. Is it supposed to draw stores and shoppers away from Montgomery Mall or the rest of Rockvile pike? If so, will it offer more competive rents or other inducements or are they hoping that he development as a whole will draw business? This actually isn't the first effort to do something like this with a dead or dying mall, although the recession has held up or stopped plans in other metros. Even so, do they have models that are working that could guide this? And are any of them less car-centric than this?

by Rich on Feb 7, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

@ Rich

I think the problem is there is a 400+/- acre area around white flint mall that has all been rezoned to allow for urban form development, but there is nothing requiring the properties that do decide to redevelop to actually be next to each other. Eventually the goal would be the entire area takes on an urban form, but right now it's happening in isolated pods. This would be directly across Rockville pike from white flint markets 1, 2 and 3, and it's directly below the white flint gateway, but of course, there are currently major large roads separating everything. I don't see how this is any different than Arlington 25 years ago when Ballston and Clarendon were just getting started.

by Gull on Feb 7, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

@Rich

You raise a really good point. The developers in the White Flint Partnership (which includes most if not all of the folks doing the big projects there) have made some efforts to ensure their projects connect to each other, as required by the White Flint Sector Plan. There's always going to be some tension between connectivity and the desire to keep shoppers/visitors/etc. on their property, but in the end developers should seek more connectivity, since more activity drawn to the area as a whole means more activity for each project.

by dan reed! on Feb 7, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

I agree with Rich on the transportation. I don't have much experience between Rockville and White Flint as a ped but from what I remember it's a pretty hostile environment to walk around in. They need to do some serious pedestrian/bike improvements between the site and the Metro as well as maybe consider a circulator like the Bethesda Circulator that connects to the Metro (and maybe the MARC station.

Re: competetion with other retail I think that's the point. White Flint is struggling because it's already lost that battle similarly to many other malls around the country (check out deadmalls.com). Might not be perfect, but probably a step in the right direction.

by Alan B. on Feb 7, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

FWIW/1, the mall already went through a refresh when it moved away from a focus on traditional anchors, with the exception of Bloomies. It was a proto-lifestyle center, except enclosed, with a health club, Dave & Busters, and Borders as all nontraditional anchors.

FWIW/2, the Bloomies in Friendship Heights is completely unrelated to the one that was in White Flint. When Macys acquired Hechts they decided they didn't need a store as a Macys in FH, when they already had a number of stores in the same area, so they converted it to their other more upscale brand, Bloomingdales. (The store before Hechts had acquired assets from Woodward & Lothrop, had been a Woodward & Lothrop.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2013 6:20 pm • linkreport

Ditto on connectivity. From what I've seen that's the biggest flaw with many of the new developments in White Flint. What White Flint/North Bethesda really needs is a decent street grid. Rockville Pike shouldn't be the only north/south option through the area. Mid-Pike Plaza (imo the most promising redevelopment in the sector) is being constructed with a decent grid, but as others mentioned it'll be totally useless if all of the streets end at 355/187.

by King Terrapin on Feb 7, 2013 6:55 pm • linkreport

Definitely agree that the grid should seamlessly tie in with the surrounding area, or else it's going to force a lot of right and left turns.

Citadel Avenue seems to help on the sketch, feeding straight into White Flint Blvd. On the eastern side, White Flint Ln has the potential feed up to Nebel St. Unfortunately, White Flint Plaza blocks this from being realized.

I'm not sure if this is reflected in the sketch, but I'd like to see traffic from Edson Lane having the ability to enter straight onto White Flint Lane, rather than being forced to turn left onto Rockville Pike to enter the area.

by DAK4Blizzard on Feb 7, 2013 11:30 pm • linkreport

I still don't understand why they are trying to save the existing Lord & Taylor location. Its orientation towards Rockville Pike is totally random once you remove the rest of the mall, and screws up the proposed street grid.

by Frank IBC on Feb 8, 2013 1:06 am • linkreport

I'm not sure if this is the case but sometimes the anchors own their own property rather than renting from the mall owner like the smaller retail outfits inside. If the anchor doesn't want to leave, it would be rather hard to make them go.

by Alan B. on Feb 8, 2013 8:44 am • linkreport

The Lord and Taylor is being saved because as Alan suggested, they own the store. The plans show Bloomingdales being saved also, but the plans may be amendable now with that out of the picture.

I see a lot of people worried about pedestrian connectivity in the comments. While this surely is a short term problem, the long term plan for white flint attempts to address all of this by creating an entire grid of new streets, clearly laid out in the White Flint Sector Plan.

http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/viewer.shtm#http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/whiteflint/documents/WhiteFlintSectorPlanApprovedandAdopted_web.pdf

it's easy to see the plan on maps like map 10 (page 22) for density and height, or on map 46 on page 51, showing the existing and proposed street network. As each development occurs, it has to put in the streets shown over their parcel. An example will be when North Bethesda Market 2 is built, it's internal streets and existing street improvements will play into North Bethesda Market 1, helping create the street grid of south west white flint. There are also more pedestrian connections planned that are not along streets, and a lot of private streets and alleys that are not "master planed".

by Gull on Feb 8, 2013 9:00 am • linkreport

I'll echop others comments that, as standalone projects, much of what is happening around White Flint is a positive change. But that there is a real risk (born out already in the North Bethesda Market development) that what results is, rather than a cohesive urban fabric, a series of disconnected town center-type developments that turn that stretch of Rockville Pike more into a Las Vegas-style strip than a legitimate urban boulevard.

I mention the Strip because, as anyone who has strolled it knows, it is incredibly difficult to simply stroll from one casino property onto the next. Each property is designed specifically to keep you there for as long as possible; connecting to adjacent casino developments seems at times as barely an afterthought. That, in my opinion, is perilously close to what will happen on the Pike if the Sector Plan is not successful in achieving some kind of cohesiveness among all of the developments. Otherwise, developments such as Pike & Rose, north Bethesda Center, White Flint Mall, North Betehsda Market and others will just be standalone, inwardly focused self-contained developments, which is precisely NOT what is being sought.

by Ben on Feb 8, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

'I see a lot of people worried about pedestrian connectivity in the comments. While this surely is a short term problem, the long term plan for white flint attempts to address all of this by creating an entire grid of new streets, clearly laid out in the White Flint Sector Plan."

Yes, and that's much-needed. Someone above used the word "hostile" to describe current pedestrian and bike access along the Pike, and I could not agree more. As someone who walks along the Pike from Montrose to Marinelli practically every day, I can vouch firsthand that it is not a pleasant place to take a stroll. And it seems that things actually get worse when you get to Nicholson with the car lots, gas stations and other interrupters.

Long term, a new street grid for the area will be immensely helpful, but even now there are some small things they could do to improve the pedestrian experience. Widen the sidealks and set them back slightly from the Pike; encourage pedestrian cut-throughs to shopping centers along the Pike; improve intersection safety for pedestrians, particularly at 187/Old Georgetown Road, which I am certain is a disaster waiting to happen; and so forth.

North Bethesda's never goign to be Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill in terms of walkability, but there's no reason for it to be such an unwelcoming and intimidating environment.

by Ben on Feb 8, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

@ Ben

I think the issue is most of the improvements you'd like to see including wider sidewalks and better site to site connectivity are things out of control of any government or partnership. Wider sidewalks require the taking of more right-of-way, and construction of the new sidewalks (which may very well end up torn up in the near future when the site is re-developed), and fixing connectivity between shopping centers is as you said, something the owners don't want to see happen, and is not something the County or Planners can make happen retroactively.

I also agree there is a potential for the projects along this section of Rockville pike to become self focused centers, but that's also a nature of the current development taking place by big developers with big properties. As the place evolves over the next 20-30 years there will be a lot more single building projects that are also built on individual commercial lots, that won't be making their own town center, but will just be adding density and making their own required frontage improvements. That's how Bethesda has/is building, and that's how a lot of Arlington is building.

I guess what i'm saying is things may get worse before they get better, but I think eventually this will turn into a great urban area. Ironically, and sadly, it's the core of white flint (between Old Georgetown and Nicholson) that may be the last to actually 'come online' so to speak, as those properties pose some of the more difficult redevelopment in terms of site size/shape and ownership.

by Gull on Feb 8, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

@Ben, Gull

The improvements you're talking about ARE being done by the county and the White Flint Partnership.

The Partnership worked with urban designer Ian Lockwood (of Glatting Jackson, now part of AECOM) to plan a street grid and reenvision Rockville Pike as a boulevard with BRT, then fought with Montgomery County's DOT, which saw both the grid and the boulevard as an impediment to motorists, to implement it. Check out this this 2009 presentation they produced with some of their ideas, which were incorporated into the WF Sector Plan. Each property owner will pay for the construction of the street grid on their property (and the county's also building a few streets, like the recently-finished extension of Citadel Avenue at Nicholson Lane), and I believe the Partnership will contribute to the building of the new Rockville Pike as well.

I was working for Montgomery County Councilmember Leventhal when the WF Sector Plan was approved, and I saw much of this happening firsthand. As Ben said, there's always a temptation to create self-contained pods where you can keep shoppers and visitors spending money on your property. But at least in the case of the Partnership, there is an interest in greater connectivity.

by dan reed! on Feb 8, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

This was an excellent article by Dan Reed; but he forgot one important point: there is a White Flint Metro station on the Red Line; it's about 2-3 blocks from the shopping center. I have personally used it to get to the White Flint Mall from my home near the Friendship Heights Metro station, also conveniently (for me) on the Red line. However, I rarely went to White Flint Mall because there are more than enough good places to shop within easy walking distance of where I live. However, I hope that the owners of White Flint Mall will redevelop it with Metro in mind and encourage the customers of the new development to use it. If necessary, they should create a free shuttle bus or van service from the White Flint Metro station to the new White Flint development for the people who are unable or unwilling to walk those few blocks. There is already a free shuttle service from the apartment buildings in Friendship Heights, Maryland (where many elderly people live) to the shopping center next to the Friendship Heights Metro station.

by Jeffrey Norman on Feb 8, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

I think you're probably right Gull, although with respect to the pedestrian enhancements that I speak of, perhaps I'm being naive or a bit simplistic, but I would like to think that the local government would be in a position to work with property owners to make them happen. They are, after all, improvements that will benefit landholders and businesses along the Pike--although some may just not really care. And some things--such as intersection improvements--do fall within the County's control. Several major intersections along that section of the Pike really do not work well for pedestrians.

I know that MoCo planners had the Orange Line corridor in mind when they set out to remake White Flint, but as you note there are very real and legitimate differences between the two that will make the task that much more difficult. It's also worth noting that, even with a better street grid, the Orange Line corridor took well over a decade to become what we think of today.

by Ben on Feb 8, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

Local government is not interested in putting up the fight to widen sidewalks when their position is the property should just re-develop, and during the plan approval process, wider sidewalks and street frontage improvements will be dedicated to the County. I think Dan and I are saying a similar thing but using different language. Dan keeps referring to the White Flint Partnership, I just call them developers - same point being improvements happen as part of re-development. I think you will see some feet dragging by the State in building the "Rockville Boulevard" out of 355 just because they'll want as much of it done de-facto by the private developers as they can, and it's done by way of getting those frontage improvements. I know there is a phasing plan that does not allow for the complete build-out of white flint without the 'Boulevard', but it'll be pushed til the last second i'm sure. Roads such as Citadel and Woodglen will be much more pedestrian friendly north/south options for the near/mid term, once more pieces of them are built by development.

by Gull on Feb 8, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

Re: Ballston/Clarendon--very different, esp, the Clarendon part. 20+ years ago, you had strip development, car dealers, a 1940s Sears. The area was basically a series of streetcar strips (many of which survive) and early post-WWII strip centers (some of which survive) capped with a mall and some newish office buildings at Ballston. Ballston Commons comes straight to the street/sidewalk unlike White Flint or almost anything on the Pike. Even 20 years ago, Wilson/Clarendon had no where near the traffic or intensive retail of Rockville Pike. White Flint, in its heyday, was a more regional draw than Ballston.

For some reason, Clarendon is the model for everything, without consideration for it being the strip that connects Ballston (semi-dead area much of the time) and Rosslyn--bad 60s/70s urban renewal but a great tax duplicate. In terms of form it's nothing like Bethesda, Wheaton or SS which are wedges at road junctions, and call for different approaches to the physical environment than an old strip like Clarendon and also have natural ways to keep cars toward the periphery of much of the business activity.

by Rich on Feb 8, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

My first reaction is that this is going to become a driving and parking nightmare. It's bad enough what they plopped some kind of ridiculous highway interchange into the Montrose/Pike intersection. I guess someone lost a bet.

Kudos for at least preserving the Lord & Taylor. Someone's got to keep fighting the good fight against the Macy's tide.

Not sure why Clarendon should necessarily be a model. It's nice enough, but I wouldn't say the shopping options there are terribly compelling. Admittedly they do have a better restaurant selection. The best thing about Clarendon is the surviving classic 50s/60s buildings that give the area character despite the creeping gentrification.

by Chris on Feb 12, 2013 5:20 pm • linkreport

Lipstick on a pig.

Soulless maul becomes soulless yuppie development.

by Mark on Feb 19, 2013 1:24 am • linkreport

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