Steve Crow's Commentary:

Posted November 20, 2006 (user submitted)

I've been telling myself for a while now that I'd go visit Fairfield Commons. It's taken me a while to make it over there despite the fact it's actually the closest mall to me (about 5 miles, versus about 10 miles to Virginia Center Commons). Fear over what might be on the other side of the doors outweighed any concern over whether it was worth the gas needed to make the five-mile trip.

Fairfield Commons opened in 1968 as Eastgate Mall in the eastern end of Henrico County and was Richmond's third shopping mall, joining Willow Lawn (1956) just west of the downtown area, and Azalea Mall (1963-1999) about 15 minutes away in Richmond's northside. Fairfield was originally anchored by Sears and a former local department store chain called Thalhimer's.

Other malls would soon join the Richmond retail scene, with Cloverleaf Mall (1972) setting up shop in Richmond's southside, and Regency Square serving the west end.

The creation of Sixth Street Marketplace (1985) in downtown Richmond and the opening of Southpark Mall way down in Colonial Heights (1989) had little impact on Fairfield. It wasn't until Virginia Center Commons (1991) came along that Fairfield (still Eastgate at the time) started having serious problems.

The area around Fairfield Commons isn't as ghetto as many people believe. Once you're off Nine Mile Road or Laburnum Avenue (the two roads that intersect next to the mall) there are a lot of pleasant, even upscale-looking neighborhoods. There's certainly plenty of people here, and Fairfield is much more readily accessible than Virginia Center Commons (VCC) or any of the other malls in Richmond, including the newest additions, Short Pump Town Center (2003) and Stony Point Fashion Park (2003).

But the mall has lost almost all of its national and regional chain stores.

Regional retailers Peebles and Maxway has occupied the former Thalhimer's and G.C. Murphy spots for years, and GNC, Foot Locker and Footaction represent the extent of national chains in the mall. To their credit, the Peebles store is well maintained, though it has an awkward layout, and the Maxway is one of the nicer (if you can call it that) Maxways I've seen. No worse than any of the stores in the related Roses chain.

The mall is reasonably clean, and I'd estimate that at the time I visited, around 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, the parking lot (excluding that around the vacant Sears space) was about 40% full. Respectable. Inside, there were a fair number of people shopping in the mall, and I found that the mall had a surprisingly low vacancy rate.

The stores in the mall were mostly single-unit local establishments catering to ethnic apparel and beauty supplies, and there were a few unique specialty shops. I remember seeing at least two hair salons/barber shops, though I believe there were probably more, and the two I remember seeing were full of people.

The far end of the mall, toward the former Sears space, was having the most trouble attracting tenants. The old RadioShack space, abandoned in the mid to late 1990's, is virtually untouched. Slotwall and display fixtures are still in place, and you can see the shadow of the former sign. Getting closer, it even still smells a bit like a RadioShack.

A few stores down is an abandoned Sam Goody music store that still displays its sign. I can't remember the last time I saw a Sam Goody (used to be one in Regency way back when, that's the last one I remember) but research reveals this one was in operation as recently as 2003.

CVS/pharmacy pulled out just recently, as well. I don't remember if that's a CVS or a Walgreen's across the street from the mall, but it undoubtedly influenced the decision to leave the mall.

Adding to the real "stuck in time" feel of the mall is the number of stylized, wooden "M's" that are on the exterior walls of the Maxway. Those were a part of the old G.C. Murphy store (look at the "M" in the word "Murphy's" on the wall in the restaurant photo at the bottom of this page). That's damn cool and an unexpected find indeed.

The stores all looked rather healthy. Frankly, I was impressed. Other than Peebles (and maybe a bargain or two at Maxway) nothing in the mall right now would appeal to me personally, but I was truly amazed to find the mall in as good a shape as it was in.

Structurally though, the mall is in decline. Just look up. The roof leaks are everywhere. In some places, especially abandoned storefronts and one particular area toward the Sears end it looks like the ceiling is actually coming down, or maybe already has and has been patched. I can't imagine the mall has a big budget for repairs. I'd venture a guess that the grass-infested pavement in the parking lot dates back to at least the 1980's.

There's no food court. This mall was built before the age of food courts, and even in the early 90's remodel that brought the Fairfield name in preparation for Virginia Center Commons, the eateries in the mall (Shoney's, Mayberry Ice Cream, and of course, the lunch counter at G.C. Murphy) kept their original locations. Today, only a dirty-looking chinese joint called the Far East Café remains.

The old Sears building is listed in this leasing brochure as "not a part of the mall" but appears to be only recently drywalled-over. There is some construction going on in the old Sears building, and apparently space is being made for various smaller shops. Wait a minute! They're adding more space for small shops, but the existing spaces at that end of the mall can't be filled?

(UPDATE: 11/13/2006: The old Sears space is now an "Ample Storage" storage facility.)

I do think there is hope for the mall. There's a new development going in just a couple miles away which will bring several large retailers and provide yet another open-air shopping mall to Richmond. However, I think that rather than drive a final nail in Fairfield's coffin, this may be the economic boost the mall needs.

The small specialty shops that exist in the mall won't fit into the upscale environment being promised by the new mall down the street, and they serve a clientele that is interested in their services (otherwise they'd be driving a few more minutes to VCC or Willow Lawn). There will likely be quite a few national retailers which could see value in being in that part of town but also might not fit into the mold (or available space) at the new mall, and may turn to Fairfield as an alternative, bringing more life to the mall.

We still don't know which major national retail anchor is going into the new mall. Many say Target, though some of my sources within the company say it's Wal-Mart. In any event, with neither chain having a store in the immediate area, I could see one going into the new mall, and the other taking up residence in the vacant Sears space, across the street from a highly successful K-Mart. Or, even Sears may contemplate a move back to their old home, if the new mall pans out and brings a better retail climate to that area. As it turns out, though, the mall apparently has other plans for that old Sears space.

I regret that I didn't take my camera phone with me today, but I will be sure to bring it next time and capture some pictures. Considering the potentially bright future in that part of town, I think it would be foolish for the property owners to allow the mall to collapse into "dead mall" status (which I thought previously it already had!). The property definitely needs a facelift before pitching it to potential tenants (I sure as hell wouldn't go in there with it looking the way it does), and there will need to be at least some incentive to give the mall a chance… in many cases, a second chance.

If you're in the area, stop by the mall and take a look. It's not as bad as you may have been made to believe. It'll be interesting to see what happens from here.


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