Vision and Visions at Lexington Mall by Andrew Wyllie

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This is the first time in a decade the “best use for Lexington Mall” hasn’t appeared in the Best of Lex Readers’ Poll. (The winner in past years was “year-round Farmers’ Market.”)

According to the Lexington PVA, the Lexington Mall site is worth about $8 million in its current dilapidated state which represents close to $100,000 in property taxes collected by the city. Of course if Southland Christian Church builds on the site, these tax revenues would be forgone as churches don’t pay property taxes but this is not the whole story.
When I talk with people about potential infill developments around Lexington I have often pointed out that Lexington Mall would be a great location for a mixed use development similar to the project suggested by local developer Phil Holoubek.

If the site were fully developed into a high end shopping destination, it could easily be worth two to three times its current value. A quick look at the Lexington PVA website reveals that many of the properties situated close to the Lexington Mall property average over a million dollars an acre which means that the site could easily pull in $250,000 in property taxes if developed properly.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a large retail center offers a lot more employment opportunities, and hence collects a lot more in local employment taxes, than the proposed church which is expected to have roughly only 25 employees. Indeed, if the site is developed as mixed use, with space for professional services, retail and even condos not only would the site be somewhat self sustaining, with the retail outlets generating business from the people who live there. While a religious institution can be valuable to the surrounding community, one wonders whether it would be able to compete on economic grounds with the type of mixed use development being proposed, which would be all inclusive for the community as well as a big tax generator for the city.

Lexington Mall, no longer on the fringes of the city, is located at the intersection of New Circle and Richmond Roads, both of which are major thoroughfares. The location is also advantageous due to its proximity to downtown and the more affluent Chevy Chase and Ashland neighborhoods. The immediate reaction to a mixed-use development proposal is that it would never work, that Fayette Mall and Hamburg are the destination malls right now, that everyone moved out of Lexington Mall, so why would they want to move back. Besides, why would anyone want to rebuild in a location that failed so miserably in the past?  Indeed, these are the main concerns about the property from the owners, Saul Center Properties, as to why they have not developed the property. There is no question that all of these things are true, but simply saying that it will never work without understanding why it failed in the first place is very short sighted. 

It’s ugly. It looks like a mall built in 1975 (which it was). It may have been state of the art back then but retail shopping centers need to keep up with the times.  Many retailers know this as they continually invest money in the way they look and care about how they are perceived by their clients. If no investments are made to keep the look of the place fresh and appealing, people will go somewhere else. 

The mall was mismanaged. When mall competition in Lexington started heating up in the mid 90s, management did not upgrade the mall to stay competitive.  As a result, many of the stores in the mall moved out or just closed up permanently.  W.L. Mynk’s review of Lexington Mall on deadmalls.com suggests that the mall’s ongoing legal battle with Home Depot may have had a big impact on its bottom line which resulted in them not having enough money to perform the necessary improvements.  If we look at some of Saul Center Properties’ other properties, we find that they are all really just glorified strip malls.  Many of their malls are anchored by big name stores like Rite Aid, Blockbuster and Family Dollar and most of their malls are unremarkable in every way. There are a number of malls like this all over Lexington already, nothing terribly exciting or much of a destination. Their lack of vision with respect to what a great shopping experience can be is uninspiring unless your idea of a great day of shopping is renting a movie and buying a jar of aspirin. It’s really no surprise that Lexington Mall has been abandoned. On the other hand, people obviously like going to Fayette Mall and Hamburg, just look at the traffic. Try to find a parking spot at Fayette Mall on a Saturday afternoon.

Lexington Mall is not unique in its ugly abandoned state. An estimated 20% of the largest malls in the U.S. are in trouble.  When I first moved to Seattle in 1997 there was a shopping area that looked to be in trouble called University Village. The owner’s response was to build a new shopping center and finding new trendy anchors to bring in customers.  Before the construction started there was not much there, a post office, a bank, a bowling alley and a grocery. The new parts of the mall included a large Barnes & Nobel, Eddie Bauer, Starbucks and The Gap as well as a number of smaller locally owned stores.  It was enough to get the ball rolling. Even though there were other large popular malls in the vicinity, the new mall was able to capture a share of the market and became a force to be reckoned with.  As time went on, this new mall expanded a number of times and became one of the big destination malls in the city now hosting a Crate and Barrel, Restoration Hardware, an Apple Store and many others including a large number of locally owned stores and restaurants. 

One of the unique things about University Village is the fact that it is not enclosed. You can see the storefronts from the street similar to a strip mall but unlike a strip mall there are many pedestrian only pathways through the mall which make great outdoor spaces, some of which protected from the weather so you can sit and relax, maybe get something to eat.  They even have live music in some of the common areas. 

Like Lexington Mall, University Village is situated on a 25 acre lot and has plenty of parking. It’s just one example of how the site could work. 



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