I consider the empty parking lot at Azalea Mall “suburban blight” and an environmental wasteland. I wish that it could be bulldozed and replaced by a park with nice trees and grass.
The old mall opened in 1962 and closed in 1995 and the property was razed in November 1999. It’s been 10 years of a decaying parking lot, with weeds growing through its cracks and decaying pipe infrastructure underneath it. See more details & photos on NBC12.com: 15 years and counting for Richmond’s abandoned Azalea Mall.
Besides the long-standing Azalea Mall Garden Center, all that remains on the 48-acre property at Brook Road and Azalea Avenue is a rusting sign, litter, weeds and a decaying parking lot.
The beautiful Northside could use more green space and less unwanted asphalt, right? Build a park? I’ve got the perfect person to honor. Historically, the property was part of the Westbrook plantation owned by none other than Major Lewis Ginter — the man responsible for developing the Northside.
Parks are fun right? Spend several million dollars to rip out the parking lot and infrastructure and plant trees, problem solved!
Not exactly. Parks cost money to build and maintain. Plus, there are several parks nearby — namely Bryan Park and Pine Camp in Richmond, and tiny Spring Park just down the hill and across Interstate 95 in Henrico County.
The owner, Atlanta-based Dewberry Capital Corp., had the old Azalea Mall torn down in November 1999. It originally had planned to build a 420,000-plus square-foot strip shopping center in 2000. It didn’t happen.
Dewberry’s Steve Cesinger said the real estate development company is not in a rush to develop, in part due to the downturn in the global economy.
I asked Cesinger about the cracked and pothole-filled parking lot and the underground piping. Would it help them sell or develop the land if it were cleaned up and more presentable?
“You’ve got to do things in today’s economy that make sense dollarwise,” he said, adding that it would not make the property more attractive to potential investors if it were to be completely stripped down. “It’s not worth the dollars to invest more into tearing out the existing parking lot.”
There goes my dream of green space, but at least I got a free lesson in landholding.
Probably the best thing the Northside can hope for is that the neighboring upscale retirement community of Westminster Canterbury buys the land. Since it purchased the adjacent 24 acres for an expansion completed in 2005, it would only seem logical and suitable for it to obtain the remainder of the property bordered by Westbrook Avenue and Brook Road. It currently leases part of the parking lot for its employees.
Mike McLaughlin thinks Westminster Canterbury would be the best option, saying that “they could protect their flank” and that the retirement community has been good for the neighborhood.
He might know better than anyone else about the area. He and his family have run the Azalea Mall Garden Center on the southwest corner of the old mall property for 16 years. Before that, he had been a manager at the Woolworth’s until the mall closed.
He clearly has his finger on the pulse of the mall’s afterlife. He said he gets questions every day about the mall and the consensus from his customers is they’d rather have it left undeveloped. Traffic is already a problem on Westbrook and there doesn’t seem to be a need for more retail space.
“People are content to have it empty, rather than a development they wouldn’t want to have,” said city council member Chris Hilbert, who represents the Northside 3rd District.
Hilbert agreed that traffic is a problem on Westbrook and said his constituents have been asking for traffic-calming measures and improvements on the avenue, which many drivers treat as a cut-through from Brook Road to Lakeside Avenue and I-95.
There is another stumbling block to acquiring or developing the land. Hilbert points out that only about 15 percent of the Azalea Mall real estate (fronting Westbrook Avenue and Brook Road) is in Richmond — the rest is in Henrico. That creates the need for regional cooperation, and extra complications.
So maybe what I call “suburban blight” in this case is better than a crime-infested ghost town or another poorly attended strip mall?
Bottom line, we need fewer dead malls and less “dumb growth.” Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams wrote in 2007 after taking a city-sponsored bus tour with Partnership for Smarter Growth:
Few sights are sadder, or less attractive, than the decaying remains of a dead shopping center. Malls don’t leave a good-looking corpse….The inner suburbs are graying gracelessly as sprawl devours the connective tissue of our region.
I don’t have a pony in this race, but if everybody is happy to just keep 48 acres of asphalt nothingness sitting there, maybe it really is the best option — until Westminster Canterbury makes the next move.