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A Failed Plan for a Failed Mall

Kevin H. Posey of the Alexandria Transportation Commission says the city needs a better plan for Landmark Mall.

As some readers may know, I supported the Beauregard redevelopment plan put forward by JBG Properties and other developers because the design called for a first-class pedestrian environment. I even said nice things about the Waterfront plans which also embodied Council’s commitment to less car reliance, though that stance put me at odds with quite a few individuals in the city. So, I’m hardly in the camp of those opposed to any and all development in Alexandria when I say that I oppose the current plan to redevelop Landmark Mall.

Let me make it clear that I support redeveloping the old, tired relic of mid-20th century commerce that squats on the site now. It is an antiquated example of car-based, regionally oriented retail shopping that no longer has a place in communities where walking and biking are in ascendance. It deserves to meet with a wrecking ball.

However, it is on the issue of transportation that Landmark’s redevelopment fails, for it is a plan that leaves the Mall as cut off from surrounding areas as it is today. Worse still, it effectively sabotages the City’s multimillion dollar effort to build speedy mass transit for the benefit of West End residents.

Let’s start with the site’s current isolation and how it will continue. Decades ago, a flyover ramp was built from eastbound Duke Street into the mall property. Obviously, the ramp didn’t cater to local shoppers, as its entry point was only accessible to traffic coming in from outside of Alexandria’s city limits. Mall owners saw themselves as having a regional destination, which was once true. However, as competing malls opened up, that regional traffic died away. So now we have a ramp that really serves no purpose today, but the developer wants to keep it in place. That ramp is getting old and will someday need to be repaired or replaced. Guess who gets to pay for that? You, the Alexandria taxpayer.

Aside from maintenance, the ramp’s continued existence poses another problem. This one is more serious, though, as it places citizens at risk in an area where pedestrians have been killed and injured. The crossing at S. Walker Street and Duke Street, directly in front of Landmark Mall, has a faded crosswalk in place, but it is far too unsafe to be used because of the width of the street and the speed of the traffic. Neither the developer nor the city’s own Transportation and Environmental Services’ staff has expressed willingness to make any improvements to this crossing in the initial, and most likely to occur, phases of the redevelopment. This is a direct contravention of Council’s Complete Streets Resolution, which was passed in 2011.

It gets worse. The redevelopment plan calls for lots of commercial space for restaurants and so forth, similar to what is in Shirlington. However, Shirlington is well-connected to surrounding neighborhoods. It even has a pedestrian overpass connecting it with the other side of Shirley Highway (I-395). No such bridge is proposed in the Landmark plan. As a result, those living across Shirley Highway from Landmark who dare to walk or bike will have to make their way across the deadly Duke Street interchange, site of a pedestrian fatality. Those who live in the enormous EOS 21 complex of condos and apartments on Van Dorn will have to make their way across the interchange at Duke Street and Van Dorn Street, which has no sidewalk on the overpass at all. Again, neither the developer nor City staff has expressed any intention to address this situation in the initial stages of the plan.

So what’s wrong with making those who live nearby get in their cars to reach the reborn mall? Well, if you live in the West End, the idea of generating more car traffic nearby cannot be appealing. More traffic means slower commutes and more pollution. That’s not going to help home values. But, it may not come to that, because the redevelopment will likely fail.

Think about it: if you live close to the new Landmark, but can only reach it by car, would you go there? Once you’re in your car, hugely vibrant and appealing areas such as Shirlington and even Old Town are accessible. Why go to a complex that will struggle because it caters to a nonexistent regional clientele (via the ramp)? Once the patron is in the car, the mall site has a lot more competition.

Even if the mall site fails a second time, though, traffic in the area will increase sharply thanks to the crippling of the city’s planned Corridor C Transitway, which will initially be bus rapid transit. The current plan calls for a bus barn in the garage at the very back of the property. That means a rider traveling from Van Dorn Metro to the Beauregard area must tolerate a long, looping detour onto Landmark's grounds. Would you put up with that? Odds are that ridership will be suppressed, which will yield a big spike in West End car traffic.

The main reason the city wants a big bus depot is a desire to tie all bus lines together on this property in a quest for system efficiency. The appeal is clear: one transfer point is better than several, if there are a large number of transfers. What good is efficiency, though, if ridership is low?  The rider making the through-trip to and from Van Dorn Metro is the one that matters here, especially as the Beauregard area redevelops on a much larger scale than anything envisioned at Landmark. Corridor C must be analyzed from a customer-level view, not merely an overhead, systemic view.

Another reason City staff prefers the garage-based bus depot came up earlier this month during the first public presentation of the initial phase of the redevelopment. City staff claimed that a BRT stop directly on Van Dorn would be too far away from the structure. Transit users would have to walk the equivalent of perhaps two city blocks while exposed in the elements. This provoked some mirth among those in the audience who walk several blocks every day to reach Metro, something BRT is intended to emulate (the “R” in BRT does stand for “rapid,” after all). Riders will walk substantial distances to reach speedy mass transit, but they expect to get to their destination quickly once they are on it. A prolonged period idling in a garage will not appeal.

To be fair, city staff is attempting to reach a compromise with a developer who initially wanted an all-retail, by-right development with no attempt to incorporate the city’s original plans for the site. These plans included a routing of the BRT to what would be the main entrance, with no looping to the back of the property. The developer’s excuse for this refusal was supposedly a lack of cooperation from both Sears and Macy’s, who own their parcels, to allow any changes to the internal road configuration and street crossings. That may seem odd, given the amount of cooperation they must give to allow any redevelopment to occur at all.

So, what if the city refuses to cooperate further in this flawed scheme? Can the developer not simply proceed with a commercial-only proposal and leave out the residential component and bus depot? Yes, they can, but what chance do they have of success? Looking beyond the competitive issues I mentioned earlier we see scruffy shopping centers all around, plus a Best Buy that’s morphed into a Big Lots. No offense to Big Lots, but they seldom locate in upscale, vibrant areas. How can even more retail miraculously succeed?

We don’t need another failure on the Landmark site. What we as a city need is a new, vibrant nexus of a walkable, sustainable community in the West End. However, the current plan sacrifices the safety of Alexandria’s residents, workers and visitors while also threatening taxpayers’ very expensive investments in transit. Alexandria’s taxpayers are under no obligation to subsidize or cooperate with a developer that can’t do better than this.

Kevin H. Posey April 30, 2013 at 12:16 PM
David- Unfortunately, the amount of residential going into the site will not be enough to sustain the retail within it. The new Landmark will have to draw from the surrounding area to survive. But even if this weren't true, the new development might be enough of a temptation to lure a few hardy souls into trying to walk to the property. Under Council's Complete Streets Resolution, developers and staff must try to accommodate them. However, both parties have thus far chosen to ignore this requirement. This raises troubling questions about who really runs Alexandria: our elected officials or unelected staff and developers? If the former is true, then I would expect a significant change to the plans by the next public meeting on 5/1 at Landmark Mall.
James Durham April 30, 2013 at 04:35 PM
Kevin. Thanks for articulating key components that City Council, Planning Commission and City Staff need focus on to help ensure the success of this development. Look at Cameron Station as an example of insufficient numbers of residents to sustain the retail businesses envisioned. The crossing improvements at S. Walker and Duke and a Pedestrian Bridge across I-395 should be at the top of the list of changes needed in the plan to help ensure success of the retail component of this plan. Lots of us are interested and supportive of a successful redevelopment of Landmark Mall, particularly those of us in the West End! Thank again!
Jonathan Krall April 30, 2013 at 05:06 PM
Looking at the satellite view, it seems there are great huge piles of condos and apartments to the east, southeast (across Duke and Van Dorn) and northeast (across 395). The key to success is to put in the needed pedestrian and bicycle connections.
Kevin H. Posey April 30, 2013 at 08:39 PM
Excellent example regarding Cameron Station. The thinking was that the commercial strip would be supported by the residential areas within Cameron Station. It didn't really work. There are a few businesses that serve the community, but it's nothing like the architectural renderings depicted. The new Landmark will be similar, but with even fewer residents to pull from. As Jonathan points out above, a mere look at Google Earth reveals large residential areas that Landmark should be able to pull from, but can't due to an outmoded road network that Hughes and City staff have not addressed in the first, and most critical, stages.
Max May 02, 2013 at 06:14 PM
Shouldn't the New High Street Bridge handle the pedestrians? How about a pedestrian bridge from EOS21?

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