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How do you fix Ballston mall? Make it less like a mall

Problem: The Ballston Common Mall isn't working very well. Solution: Open the mall up to the surrounding streets, so it becomes the center of a lively community rather than a walled-off separate place.

Concept for the Ballston mall renovation. Images from Forest City.

Ballston is one of the smallest malls in the region. It can't compete well against bigger centers with more stores, like Pentagon City or Tysons Corner. Instead, the mall generally only draws customers from a small area nearby, and thus makes less money than other, bigger malls.

Meanwhile, being an enclosed mall that serves mostly local traffic, it saps sidewalk retail away from Ballston's neighborhood streets. Stores that would otherwise be on the sidewalk are instead bottled up in the mall.

To fix this, developer Forest City plans to face more stores to the sidewalk, and give them more inviting storefronts. It will replace nondescript mall doors with open-air plazas that naturally extend the street into the mall. Capping the building will be a new 29-story residential tower.

Concept for the open-air plaza.

Forest City still needs to work with Arlington County to finalize and approve plans. For now, these are just concepts. But if all goes well, the 1980s-style Ballston Common Mall will transition to become the contemporary Ballston Center in 2017 and 2018.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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There will still be an interior mall, though. From what I can tell, the east-west part of the mall (along Wilson) will be removed, but the north-south part (to the movie theater) will remain. The dour Glebe Road frontage will remain.

I guess that retaining the interior space will also provide an opportunity to keep many of the local businesses that operate there -- although I'm really not sure how they stay in business.

by Payton Chung on Jul 1, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport

I dont think malls are dead per say, see Tysons as one example, but also see the success of Gallery LaFayette in Paris as well as other malls in urban areas. It can work, its that they often dont because they are too cookie cutter. The middle ground of malls is dead, you are either a unique destination or treading water compared to online or regular ground floor retail. Ballston malls biggest problem has always been, whats the point of going there? Its got nothing that you cant find elsewhere, its unusually small, never any events, its really just a movie theater which happens to have retail.

I think more important than the ground level retail addition, is the captured population they'll be adding with that high rise tower. 29 stories? Is that a new tallest for Ballston?

by Navid Roshan on Jul 1, 2014 12:04 pm • linkreport

Malls still have a market at the truly regional level. The biggest ones, that genuinely serve the entire region, are doing fine and I think will continue to do fine.

It's the more local ones that are slowly disappearing. Ballston has necessary retail for people living in the R-B corridor, especially the car-free ones, but nobody goes there from further away. It's really just the local sidewalk retail that happens to be bottled up in a mall (plus 1 anchor department store, which predates the mall anyway).

by BeyondDC on Jul 1, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

Attaching residences and street retail is a good step. But attaching a high-end hotel, and a direct Metro entrance are better, like Pentagon City, which is so successful that it's expanding.

by Brett on Jul 1, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Will the stores that are inside the mall now be able to afford to be part of the new development? While Ballston Mall is definitely not a destination shopping experience, I do stop in there frequently to pick something up when I get off the metro. In the past month, I've stopped at CVS, Radio Shack, the small toy store, and Bath and Body Works- vs having to drive out to Seven Corners/Baileys Crossroads after work to run the same errands. If the new retail that goes in is all upscale clothing stores and restaurants, it will actually force me to spend more time in the car to run daily errands.

by LJW on Jul 1, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

Plan looks good...that tower will be impressive across a rather narrow street from, which is under construction and a bit shorter from this building. I wish they had a better rendering of it posted (i.e. not a picture of a picture of the rendering).

by xtr657 on Jul 1, 2014 12:31 pm • linkreport

"The building is expected to have four floors of underground parking and two floors of retail space below the studio, one- and two-bedroom rental apartments. The apartment building and attached parking will have a separate entrance from the restaurants and remaining mall.
Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the main Macy’s store — which will fold in the furniture store on its ground floor — the Sport&Health Club and the Regal Cinemas will all remain in the closed-air section of the mall, which is being rebranded as “Ballston Center.”
Along Wilson Blvd, parts of the mall — which originally opened as the Parkington Shopping Center in 1951 before it was rebuilt and reopened as Ballston Common Mall in 1986 — will be torn down and replaced with an open-air, town center-like plaza. Demolition is expected to begin by late 2015."

So they are tearing down half the mall. What about the restaurants on the Glebe side - are they staying? It also looks as if the AES office building stays. the metro parking garage?

The problem with Ballston mall is that it in Ballston, which is proving that we don't do tall buildings in neighboorhoods that have a lot of appeal. On paper it should be one the best places to live in the region. In reality....

by charlie on Jul 1, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

@charlie - AES is in a separate office building that is not connected to the Ballston mall. The Coast Guard and eTrade office buildings are built into the mall and will not be affected. The garage will stay because Kettler is built on top of it. This will be great for the Wilson side but will do nothing to liven up the Glebe side.

by Sam on Jul 1, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

@Sam; thanks. Just saying it would be easier to picture "we're tearing down the Macy's furniture store and half the mall and replacing it with a tower."

by charlie on Jul 1, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

I agree that the indoor mall is not totally dead. Rather, it's where supercomputers were in the early 1980s during the transition to PCs. Supercomputers continued to occupy a niche, they just were no longer the dominant form of computing.

Similarly, indoor malls will likely exist for a long time to come but they will increasingly just occupy a niche in the retail market. Open air malls like Mosaic, Pike&Rose and Bethesda Row are the future and the more that Ballston Mall can become like them, the better off they will be.

That said, Ballston Common has a big problem in that not only is it an indoor mall but it's also a vertical mall. Vertical malls have not done well even during the heyday of indoor malls. My suggestion to Forest City would be to convert most of the building to condos, save the ground floor for retail, and maybe keep the movie theater.

by Falls Church on Jul 1, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

Something similar should be done with City Place in Silver Spring. City Place is, ironically, the least urban place in DTSS.

by Falls Church on Jul 1, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport

Let Ballston Common go the way of Rockville, Landover, Springfield, White Flint and Landmark malls.

City Place started out as a department store (Hecht's). Maybe it needs to return to that format.

by Frank IBC on Jul 2, 2014 6:27 am • linkreport

I'm surprised that Macy's is still there. Northern Virginia is saturated with them - Ballston, Pentagon City, Landmark (mall awaiting redevelopment), Springfield (mall demolished except for anchors) and Tysons.

by Frank IBC on Jul 2, 2014 6:32 am • linkreport

@Frank IBC: don't forget the *two* Macy's at Fair Oaks.

by Mike on Jul 2, 2014 8:16 am • linkreport

@ Mike - I didn't mention Fair Oaks because it's farther out, but yes, the two Macy's in one mall are a bit much.

by Frank IBC on Jul 2, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

@Frank IBC - The only reason there's a Macy's there is because there was a Hecht's there when Macy's took Hecht's over. And the only reason that there was a Hecht's there was because Hecht's had a buying office there in the office space above the mall. I presume there may still be a buying office there.

And whoever is the landlord for the Ballston Mall has got to be the worst developer/landlord ever. For over a decade, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has had the densest population of young professionals anywhere in the country, and they haven't done anything ever to attract the surrounding population to shop there other than the Victoria's Secret. I've never understood why they didn't try to attract stores like Gap, Banana Republic, etc. A couple of big name stores 10 years ago would've changed the character of the mall. And now, I guess their only solution is to completely redevelop the property. Talk about a lack of property management skills.

by Janel on Jul 2, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

Oh, and there is Tysons Corner itself, too. Tysons I and II each have their own Macy's. Macy's was one of the anchors of The Galleria (Tysons II) when it opened in 1988. Macy's took over the Hecht's site in the original mall but both stayed open.

by Frank IBC on Jul 2, 2014 10:22 pm • linkreport

We've had this debate about the Ballston mall several times on this blog. In all the years of debating, this is the first time I've seen an actual concept/plan that seems doable and appears like it might actually happen--although I doubt it will get approved and built that soon. 2017? Come on...prob. more like 2025.

In any case--I agree with others who have posted that this area has been waiting for a redev. for decades and it's absolutely a crime that it has taken this long! The huge number of young people that are desperate to live along the Ballston--Rosslyn corridor need a place to shop, eat and live that they can afford! I can't understand why it's taken this long!

I mentioned several years ago on this blog, that what they should do is look at recent developments in the Mosaic District and in Columbia Heights as models for this upgrade and it sounds like that's what they did somewhat.

As someone who has lived in this corridor for 15 years, I can tell you that if they just added a Target (the closest one is now way out on route 50)and demolished that ridicilously poorly designed parking garage, they'd be halfway there!

by LuvDusty on Jul 3, 2014 8:43 am • linkreport

I've lived near this mall (from 1 block away to 1.5 miles away at various points) for 12 years. This plan is a great start. People nowadays want to stroll outdoors when they go shopping or on a date (with the exception of places with weather extremes, like Texas and Minnesota) or visit malls with super-exclusive stores, like Tysons II.

What will really help at Ballston is if they add more nice restaurants on the ground level, in addition to the storefronts--like Shirlington. And replace the food court with an area for food trucks. And make sure there are plenty of shade trees and other greenery.

It's surprising not to see any mention of the low-income vibe of the current mall, given how that topic dominates comments on ArlNow whenever this mall comes up. The fact that so many stores seem to be downmarket has in fact been a large part of why the affluent nearby residents largely avoid this mall--too many sad little kiosks selling junk, along with stores like Payless Shoes and Things Remembered. But mostly, people just don't want to wander around in fluorescent light anymore. And Macys? Please. They didn't carry flat-front trousers till 2005 or so.

At any rate, this will be a huge improvement. Even with the additional residences on top. (I know my friend Navid will be surprised to read that! Nice to see you here.)

by Carlingtonian on Jul 4, 2014 8:07 am • linkreport

I may be in the minority here but I rather like malls over outdoor town centers and similar designs as I would rather not be exposed to the elements when I could just go to one place and stay cool or dry depending on the weather outside. Plus its easier to find restrooms and food in malls vs a towncenter

It also helps during storms if you have ever been to an area mall after a storm and there is a power outage the place is packed.

Its not the mall that is causing the failure but the stores inside of the mall as can be seen by looking at Mazza Galleria, Fashion Centre plus others around the area and country which are doing fine.

The only reasons I go to Ballston are for Macy's, Chickfila, McDonalds, CVS & Footlocker.


Some of those stores have to be doing business otherwise they would be closed just because you dont shop at Payless Shoes doesnt mean other dont and it serves a need for those people unless you would rather have places such as Target or Walmart expand in the area.

by kk on Jul 8, 2014 1:35 pm • linkreport

As a nearby resident for 15 years, I offer a few suggestions. Making it a trendy town center will give it a modern look. But this is a walking urban area, not a car-dependent area like Reston. So go with these strengths. Improve the bicycle share access. Add a satellite IKEA so people can buy apartment and condo furniture (including delivery and set-up for large items.) Add a post office! Install some recycling bins in the mall (Last time I checked, there was no place to recycle plastic bottles.) Improve the flow between the Metro station and the mall. Improve the elevated walkway system (like Minneapolis.) Add a rooftop park and atrium (like Calgary.)

by BlueCritter on Jul 8, 2014 8:53 pm • linkreport

I've been here since the 1950-60's as a tiny kid, then the 1980's when the mall was really built, and throughout the rest of the years. This mall, in my mind, suffers due to the meddling of the Arlington County Board. During the years of the mall's demise, the ACB toyed with developers to the point that Arlington wasted years and acres creating off-beat retail spaces. Still suffers throughout the county and only succeeds when normal market strengths are so strong they prevent even inexperienced county elected officials from destroying a project. Ballston was all wrong, all along, and has little chance of being much more. The previous comments include all the reasons this "mall" isn't really going anywhere. Too late based on the infrastructure, location, lack of imagination, and dreadful county approach to urban development. Good luck though--especially for the folks who live there.

by JB on Jul 10, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

The top picture is bogus. That view will never be realized. You would need to expand Wilson Blvd and knock down buildings on the near side of the street to have this vista. Please, Forest City, your credibility suffers when you present misleading information.

by BlueCritter on Jul 10, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

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