Norfolk mall’s precarious status shared by other malls around Virginia

February 2, 2023 12:02 am

Norfolk’s downtown mall opened its doors in 1999. It’s now up for sale. (Roger Chesley/Virginia Mercury)

The announcement that Norfolk’s downtown mall is up for sale isn’t quite a death knell for the complex, but it’s surely a worrisome clanging. It’s naïve to think otherwise, given the track record of malls across Virginia and nationwide in recent years.   

The news about MacArthur Center in Norfolk, though, is especially dispiriting. The three-story mall opened in 1999, making it a mere adolescent (in mall years), compared to similar behemoths elsewhere in America. Norfolk officials waited decades to bring the formerly vacant site to fruition, when they could’ve wagered on other development projects instead.  

MacArthur Center has coped with the closing of retail outlets, the relentless shift to online shopping – turbocharged during the COVID-19 pandemic – and a general saturation of malls and other consumer options. Occupancy at MacArthur Center is only 62%, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, which handles real estate and investment management services.  

“They have been closing nationally,” James V. Koch, economics professor at Old Dominion University and founding director of its Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, told me this week. “It’s not a problem native to Norfolk, Virginia at all. Lots of malls [must] repurpose themselves, or they’re going to go out of existence.” 

The land the mall sits on is leased from the city’s housing authority. Local officials have put on a brave face following last week’s news.  

“We are hopeful that this move is the first step in reimagining the MacArthur Center property,” City Manager Chip Filer said through a spokesperson. “The city looks forward to working in partnership with any potential new owners should the property sell.” 

That’s a very rosy view. 

The struggles MacArthur faces, of course, aren’t unique. The same story has played out around the state.  

Virginia Center Commons in Glen Allen, operating since 1991, closed last year. The site is part of a redevelopment plan that includes a new sports and convocation center. 

Home Depot bought Charlottesville Fashion Square Mall last year, The Daily Progress reported. The mall, built in the 1980s, “has struggled for relevance,” the newspaper reported then. 

Military Circle Mall in Norfolk, which opened in 1970, closed just this week. Back in 2010, I’d written how it was doing a poor job of attracting customers and that its hotel had already been closed for a year. Current negotiations have stalled between the city of Norfolk and a private development group to overhaul the sprawling 75-acre site, The Virginian-Pilot reported recently.  

I visited MacArthur Center midday Tuesday. I noticed several shuttered stores festooned with artwork to make things look less drab – and vacant. Customer traffic was light; you could’ve thrown a baseball down some corridors and not hit anyone. 

One of the main atriums inside MacArthur Center was nearly absent of customers Tuesday. (Roger Chesley/Virginia Mercury)

While trying to interview merchants and customers, two security guards told me the mall is “private property” and such Q&As were prohibited. One guard ordered me to leave.  

As if my walking through the mall and talking to idle store employees was MacArthur’s biggest headache.  

Pamela Katrancha owns Garden Gazebo, which sells garden-related merchandise. She’s operated a variety of shops for more than 30 years and has run the mall store since 2015. She isn’t worried about news that MacArthur is for sale, yet she’s heard the rumors the mall could,  eventually, be torn down. 

“Nobody really knows the answer,” Katrancha told me in a phone interview. She credited mall management for its support of merchants.  

“I’ve hung in there at the mall,” she added. “It changed when Nordstrom left.” The departure of that original anchor store, in 2019, was a big blow.  

The success of MacArthur, or whatever might take its place, is tied psychologically to the overall prospects for downtown Norfolk. That’s partly because of the lengthy debate about what should’ve gone there and the long road to opening mall doors. 

Local leaders exhibited huge patience over the decades in building the site, which is near a memorial to the same-named World War II general. The mall sits on a footprint of a much-ballyhooed “17 Acres” downtown. Newspaper archives tell the story:  

The tract had been slums and warehouses in the 1950s. Those structures were eventually razed during urban renewal. The site spent many years as a parking lot. Various development proposals rose and fell; one even included an amusement park.  

The mall finally gained consistent momentum – and financing – in the mid-1990s. Its construction coincided with other changes that spurred downtown Norfolk’s rebirth: the arrival of a community college campus; and the opening of stores and restaurants on Granby Street, a major thoroughfare.  

The mall eventually encompassed roughly 23 acres. It has 934,000 square feet over three stories.  

Over time, MacArthur has faced escalating challenges. Shootings, including one in 2020, scared off customers. Major retailers that occupied several floors, including Forever 21, departed.  

Nor did anyone foresee the colossus that online retailer Amazon would become. It opened in 1995, a few years before MacArthur served its first customers.  

“Unfortunately, it was developed at a time when many of the trends nationally and economically speaking were moving against it,” ODU’s Koch said.  

After waiting decades to open MacArthur, the city and mall leadership must feel snakebit by the upheaval in shopping habits. Still, they have no choice but to regroup, adapt and plot a new course. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]