This story was originally published in Henrico Monthly.
By James A. Bacon
As a teenager growing up in rural Hanover County, Andrew Moore remembers Regency Square Mall in Henrico as the place to go. He played the trumpet in Christmas concerts there with his junior high school band. Later, equipped with a newly minted driver’s license and the family car, he hung out with friends, circling the two-level shopping promenade and sampling the edgy and exotic wares of places like Spencer’s Gifts. “In a very real sense, Regency was the center of a regional community,” Moore recalls. “For a teenager, it was the cool place to go on a Friday night.”
Today Moore lives in the Westham neighborhood in Henrico, a mere five-minute drive from the mall. He’s been to Sears a couple of times to buy some Craftsman tools; otherwise he doesn’t recall visiting Regency Square in the last seven or eight years. “I have no reason to go there. There’s nothing there that I need,” he says. With all the congestion on Parham Road, he adds: “Frankly, it’s a pain in the butt to get there.”
And that’s a shame, he says. If the southwest corner of the county has a natural civic center, it would be Regency Square. But the mall has been supplanted over the past decade as a retail destination by newer, open-air shopping centers such as Stony Point Fashion Park south of the James River and the super-successful Short Pump Town Center off Interstate 64. Retail sales at Regency Square reportedly have declined by two-thirds.
By 2012 the mall was faring so poorly and bogged down with so much debt that its owner, Taubman Centers Inc., turned it over to its lenders. The lender group has kept the mall open, but the complex continued bleeding tenants. Now the banks are attempting to sell the property at a price said to be at a discount to its $23.5 million assessed value. In late January, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that two local real estate companies, Chesterfield-based Rebkee Co. and Thalhimer Realty Partners Inc., were in negotiations to buy the mall by the end of January. Further details weren’t available by Henrico Monthly’s presstime.
So what comes next? Will a new buyer continue to operate the mall on the cheap? Will another developer repurpose the mall, perhaps bringing in a medical facility or an educational center, to generate traffic and anchor the stores? Does the 48-acre property, if redeveloped, have a future as a walkable “town center” that sparks the transformation of the neighborhoods and shopping centers around it?
Andrew Moore, president of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, says Regency Square has struggled to remain relevant as a mall. He envisions the property being redeveloped into a walkable shopping district such as Carytown.
As an architect at Glave & Holmes Architecture and president of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, Moore has high hopes for the mall and the surrounding commercial area. Despite the relative walkability of Westham – his children can walk to the local elementary school – he thinks Henrico could be more livable. He is looking for somewhere pleasant to hang out, walk around and spend time with family and friends, with connections that don’t depend solely on the automobile. There are places where he can do that but they’re mostly in Richmond, like Carytown. Henrico desperately needs something comparable, he says.
“It has lots of potential,” Moore says. “But not as a mall.”
Opened in 1975, Regency Square was designed as a classic enclosed suburban mall surrounded by vast parking lots. The business model was predicated on people driving to the shopping center in their cars, parking and spending time inside protected from the elements. Enclosed malls helped define post-World War II American suburbia and the auto-centric lifestyle. They were the closest thing to public gathering places that many suburban communities offered.
Over time, tastes evolved. As Americans became more aware of environmental issues, many became disenchanted with the idea of driving to every destination in their automobiles. Concerned about the lack of exercise in their sedentary lifestyles, they placed a premium on walking and biking. As a practical matter, the suburbs were impossible to redesign as walkable communities. Zoning codes separated land uses – houses here, offices there, retail over there – by distances too vast to walk. Most streets and roads were inhospitable to pedestrians in any case. In the early 2000s, developers emulated walkable neighborhoods by building open-air malls such Short Pump and Stony Point. They are oases of walkability, but they didn’t create organic communities. They are disconnected from surrounding neighborhoods; people still have to drive to get there. The only things to do are shop and eat. Continue reading