If you drive by the intersection of Interstate 95 and Franconia Road in the city of Springfield in Northern Virginia you will see the gutted remains of what was once the Springfield Mall. The mall that opened in 1973 had once been visited by Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1985 and included the DMV where the 9/11 terrorists received their licenses has gone through a series of developmental stages.
The mall originally opened in 1973 under Franconia Two LP management but was later purchased by New York based real estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust for over $100 million. The mall featured anchor stores Sports Authority, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward (later replaced by Target) and a Macy’s added in 1991. The mall included numerous salons and barbers, two movie theaters, a food court, a carousel, an arcade, a DMV and over two hundred fifty stores. Essentially this mall had something for everyone and at its peak was nearly synonymous with the notion of weekend family outing.
This mall was more than a consumer dream during the prosperous and peaceful years of the Clinton era; it was a symbol of assimilation into the American suburbs for my family. The mall’s DMV is where my parents would receive their new Virginia licenses after living in two different countries. Shopping excursions is where my immigrant parents were immersed into the most potent form of popular American culture in fashion and technology trends, current movies and various restaurants. My parents would spend their disposable income participating in the most American thing: capitalism.
As a kid walking through Springfield mall with my mom and sister I was overwhelmed. I would carefully watch my small feet step from the glossy gray tile onto the tremendous escalators leading to a new floor where I would be greeted with bright store displays that seemed infinite along the long walkway. Different stores would introduce me to youth subcultures and soon I would encounter different shoppers from the mall-bred goths to the typical gangster and skater mall rats who would be embedded in the mall’s decline.
As I reached middle school and was of age to attend the mall with a group of friends something had changed. The mall was gradually becoming a target for crime. Theft was on the rise and gang violence was becoming rampant. Patrons stormed for the exits before six o’clock and groups of five or more teenagers were forced to disperse by security guards to prevent gang activity. My family no longer wanted to visit Springfield mall unless it was to visit a store quickly and only out of its proximate convenience.
As years passed the criminal transgression shifted from petty theft and public defacement to more serious crimes like carjacking and murder. The mall would constantly be shut down with crowds gathering out front wondering what had disrupted their shopping again. As local news teams covered numerous stories of gang activity with clear subtext of warnings to stay away the mall’s overtly negative and only media coverage would taint its former glory. Some patrons will blame the concentration of the predominantly El Salvadorian gang MS-13 in Fairfax County while most bitter Springfielders will say the mall’s decline was due in most part to the construction of the Franconia-Springfield metro in 1997 that connected Washington, D.C. and Maryland to Northern Virginia and brought in less than reputable people.
As attendance steadily declined due to shopping becoming a risk on one’s life, shops unable to sustain themselves began to close rapidly. Attractive cheap leases would bring in new stores but these too would fold because of the mall’s eminent death sentence as a crime infested ghost town. Eventually, a decade later, crime died down as the mall became nearly abandoned and New York-based Vornado Realty Trust bought the mall’s mortgage for $115 million with ambitious plans to restore it to its former state. With new management the fewer than thirty stores that could just barely subsist with loyal customers boarded up as they were told they would be moved to the other end of the mall during construction. Vornado soon after defaulted on their loan and many of the stores waiting for the next step in reconstruction became defunct.
At twenty years old, a junior in college, I brought one of my friends to Springfield mall to make a quick stop at Target. We tiptoed through the mall entrance and were met with a heavy silence and emptiness that was contradictory to the setting. At this point ninety percent of the restaurants and shops were boarded up by drywall with little trace of their presence. The skylights that once illuminated the gray tile only emphasized a vast dull void of hopelessness for the few remaining merchants and patrons.
By 2009 Vornado had paid back their loan and moved forward with new plans to tear down most of the mall (but keep anchor stores) and create a Springfield town center that would emulate the success of nearby Kingstowne and Tysons Corner. Currently, on the surface the mall is a desolate portrait of a gutted metal cube with rusted ore beams surrounded by chain link fences, mounds of dirt and relatively empty parking lots.
Upon searching Springfield mall several Yelp reviewers have used the words and phrase: “decay”, “demise”, “decline” and “on life support” to describe the mall’s most recent state. Despite the changes I’ve found in between destruction and inception there is subtle beauty. When viewed from street level the mall is a steel nest of intersecting parallel horizontal and vertical beams. The lines are uniform in length and width and have a steady rhythm. The building’s form made up by the beams take the shape of a tall rectangle. The mall is made up of rectangle forms of different heights containing the different sections of the mall that include the movie theater, food court and anchor department stores. The variation in heights creates an asymmetrical whole that is unbalanced in its spread mass. During the day the sky that fills the negative space in the bare beams and creates a contrast of light contained by sharp contours. These sharp contours operate as frames for the changing scenery that peers through. Because the mall is still being torn apart, old bricked up entrances and storefronts create disproportion in form and inconsistency in surface.
When I drive by at night the glowing construction lights inside the skeletal frame highlight the negative space created by the beams. And when I am driving north on Loisdale road the sunset casts a new contour shadow it couldn’t have before. The formal remains entice passersby with the possibility of new beginnings while sustaining the mall’s history in its next incarnation.