The Annapolis Mall Is For Sale (Again)… Now What?

As Eye On Annapolis and The Capital are reporting, the Westfield Annapolis Mall is for sale (again). This should come as no surprise given the changes in the retail scene over the last 20 years, the 2007 economic crisis and the latest effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The big question is “Now What”?

The place was always unremarkable, but the 2007 expansion was terrible. The second parallel hallway is only accessible through another store – I think of it as the Harry Potter “Room of Requirement” because you don’t know it’s there unless you know it’s there – and the bolted on additional parking garages on the perimeter made it an ugly hodgepodge mess. Clearly this mall is failing and we are seeing the quintessential glide slope: the retail starts “filtering” where the national top tier tenants leave and are replaced by national discounters followed by local retailers followed by bankruptcy because the rents aren’t high enough. This trajectory is written about at length by my fellow and extremely insightful blogger over at American Dirt. That along with the fact that these buildings were not designed for other uses such as residential and would way too expensive to retrofit them to be anything except a mall, I think something different needs to happen. Rick Huztell had an interesting take in his new platform Meanwhile, In Annapolis. I think he’s onto something.

And what about the mall? Would I buy it if I had a spare billion or so laying around?

Yes. Because I don’t think it’s done yet.

The Annapolis Mall has constantly redefined itself since it joined Montgomery Ward on the site of the old WB&A Railroad Bestgate Station in 1980. It’s not ready to be carved up and redeveloped, although that day could still come. But not today.

While I agree with him “not today” I do think this mall is done sooner rather than later. Not only is the design terrible as noted above, the US has at least a billion square feet of excess retail space and even if it were to fill with low rent retail stores as is the latest incarnation the Beltway Plaza Mall in Greenbelt, there is just not enough demand for the space we have. We can see this everywhere in this area as there are many vacancies in all typologies, new developments like Annapolis Town Center, autocentric strip development like along upper West Street and in traditional downtowns like Annapolis. What we desperately need is residential development. But we don’t need more “Smart Growth” (ie another Parole Town Center). Sorry Mr. Glendening, while I agree with the goals of Smart Growth America at a 10,000 foot view, I greatly disagree with their concept of implementation because it creates just somewhat newer versions of malls, the so-called town centers which as I have described are just inside out malls. We need traditional, real, mixed use neighborhoods with a variety of housing options at a variety of price points, all the stuff that was built before World War II. Locally, we have West Annapolis, Eastport, Germantown/Homewood and Murray Hill that have withstood the test of time; all the places that are loved in the city, and as such are in high demand and hard to afford. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of what people really like so it ends up being expensive. You know, macro economics 101, supply and demand…

The question is how do we get there? If I were king for a day and owned this property, this is what I would do:

  • Create a form-based code and regulating plan that determines the built environment.
    • This can be very prescriptive with very simple rules that are easy to follow for any developer. It would contain a wide variety of housing styles from single family to missing middle (duplex, triplex, quadplex, townhouse) to small apartment buildings (less than 10 units). These styles would be dispersed throughout, not in “high ” and “low” rent districts. I would not have anything larger as there are plenty of 50-100+ unit developments in the area. We don’t need any more of that.
    • A wide variety of commercial uses would be allowed and integrated with the residential. Essentially, this would be allowed to change with market conditions and not set in amber to never change. What would be fairly fixed is how it looks and how the buildings address the public realm.
    • The internal street layout would be mostly a grid pattern with redundancy, alleys behind etc and would be well integrated with the surrounding streets (really STROADS) and hopefully that would lessen the effects of those STROADS.
    • Walkability and bikeability would be key. Automobiles will be tolerated, but not the dominant feature. Walking and biking would always be easier. If there is any structured parking it would not be prominent and no “Texas Donuts“!
  • Subdivide all of the buildable lots into various sized plots and offer them individually to small developers who will all do something a little different at different times. Because the form based code is quite prescriptive, lengthy development reviews (and the typical fights!) are not required. This allows smaller players without deep pockets to participate. Do not allow large players to aggregate and assemble lots.
  • Create a long term organization that exists to allow the place to change with time. I don’t know exactly the form this would take, but suffice it to say this would be an “anti-HOA” as HOAs typically exist to prevent change. I am sure there is a model somewhere.
  • Let it flourish incrementally!

While I think an incremental model would be messy, it would yield the best long term result. However the realities of the modern real estate machine, the wall street financing model available to only big developers, the desire for development to happen quickly and the lack of resources by the county to purchase/manage the process outlined above will prevent a “Strong Towns” like incremental development of the area. The chances of this happening were aptly and crudely expressed in Wayne’s World:

All joking aside, I believe the best realistic model is right in our own backyard: Kentlands in Gaithersburg MD (community association, available real estate).

Kentlands was built in the early 90s as a “New Urbanist” community designed to mimic the traditional development pattern. The design was done by Andres Duany, the “Godfather” of the New Urbanist movement. While it was built “all at once to a finished state” typical of master planned developments which is not the incremental, over many years way traditional development was done, the built environment is the traditional pattern and takes advantage of all the positive attributes of that pattern. From a Congress for the New Urbanism Article:

Built over 30 years ago, the Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was designed to be one of the first New Urbanist towns in America. In 1987, local developer Joe Alfandre bought 352 acres of Otis Beale Kent’s vast farm estate and decided to convert it into a neighborhood similar to those found in DC. To design and construct the town, Alfandre enlisted the work of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Duany and Plater-Zyberk held a five-day workshop that brought city officials together with community members to discuss how the new Kentlands neighborhood should be designed. They settled on a walkable, mixed-use development that would build residential units close together to facilitate regular contact between neighbors. Kentlands would incorporate a variety of historical styles including Victorian, Colonial, Craftsman, and Neoclassical; they felt that this would give the town a more organic feeling, as though it had developed over time.

Kentlands does not make use of the cul-de-sacs typical to suburban sprawl, but instead relies on a connected street plan more similar to downtown urban planning. The relatively narrow streets are lined by houses built close to the road, mostly eliminating personal front lawns from the neighborhood. The plan also makes extensive use of mews—a type of alleyway between houses—to connect automobiles to garages built in the back; this removes the need to insert garage doors into the facades of the houses and keeps them from dominating the streetscape. Although the original design placed a shopping mall at the center of the town, this was replaced with a more traditional Main Street, lined with small shops and easy to walk to. Key to this plan was Kentlands’ mixed-use developments that incorporate shops, offices and apartments into neat three-story buildings.

Unlike existing developments in this area such as “Monticello” across Bestgate Road that are a conglomeration of suburban typologies (large detached single family houses and separated nearby strip malls), Kentlands includes multiple housing options with integrated mixed use. It has stood the test of time over the years as described by the Washington Post and according to the developer Alfandre himself:

There is much about Kentlands that can be criticized for falling short. Unlike the City of Enoch, it is not perfect. But perhaps the most important thing of value I have learned that was created there is simply when good design is paired with freedom of spirit, behavior is affected in extraordinarily positive and uplifting ways. A sense of ‘ownership’ of the community is claimed and taken to creative heights in its own way by every resident, merchant, and tenant occupying their space within the boundaries of the place.

This kind of development is a reasonable compromise between my Shangri-La and the realities of modern real estate development; and it is certainly better than a failing suburban mall full of schlock retail or worse a data or distribution center. But will the County move in this direction based on its Parole Master Plan or will we end up with the same old, same old high rises or single family houses? We can only hope…

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