15 years and counting for Richmond's abandoned Azalea Mall

Published: Apr. 7, 2010 at 2:22 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 12, 2010 at 12:25 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - By Phil Riggan – bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – It's been more than 10 years since the barren expanse of asphalt appeared in Richmond's Northside where the Azalea Mall used to be, and still no signs of life.

Azalea Mall opened in 1962 and closed in 1995 and is remains Richmond's only mall to be completely torn down. 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 opening of Virginia Center Commons in 1991 – located seven miles north – was the symbolic end of Azalea Mall, which was originally developed as a joint venture on the edge of the Richmond-Henrico County line. It included the adjacent Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital, now part the neighboring upscale retirement community of Westminster Canterbury.

The owner, Atlanta-based Dewberry Capital Corp., had the old Azalea Mall razed in November 1999. It originally had planned to build a 420,000-plus square-foot strip shopping center in 2000. It didn't happen, and the property sits largely unused.

The mall is the real estate development company's only Richmond property, according to Dewberry's Steve Cesinger. Its core business is retail real estate and it focuses largely in landholding. It is one of largest land-holders in Atlanta and its portfolio covers holdings from Jacksonville, Fla., to Richmond.

Cesinger said the current plans remain for the development of a "fairly sized mixed-use lifestyle center." He said Dewberry is not rushed to develop, deferring to the downturn in the global economy.

"We do have interest in the site," he said. "When you develop something, you want to do it right. We build as an owner -- want it to stand the test of time."

Mike McLaughlin and his family have run the Azalea Mall Garden Center on the property for 16 years. Before that, he had been a manager at the Woolworth's until the mall closed.

McLaughlin leases his tiny corner and as the longest-running tenant, he looks after the Azalea Mall property for Dewberry and Westminster Canterbury.

"We stop a lot of dumping and people dropping things off – like abandoning vehicles, trailers," he said.

He said customers ask him about the Azalea Mall every day.

"We spent 16 years building the business and growing up with the neighborhood," he said, adding that he has watched customer's kids grow up, and even learn to drive in the vacant parking lot.

So the property sits and waits. But while it is deserted, it might not be the worst thing for the Northside.

"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.

Tearing down the mall improved the crime rate in the area, he said. There had been a reputation for prostitution and drugs at the site before its demolition.

"Ginter Park is one of the more well-to-do neighborhoods in the city," he said.  "It's near one of the wealthiest senior developments in the city."

Hilbert also pointed out that Westbrook Avenue is about to undergo extensive traffic calming measures, and having less development on the road at the southern boundary of the Azalea Mall property can only help.

"Clearly the area [around Azalea Mall] has gotten better with time," Cesinger said. "The development of Westminster Canterbury is proof of that." The retirement community completed a major expansion in Fall of 2005 after purchasing a 24-acre plot adjacent to Azalea Mall.

Dewberry periodically gets inquiries from developers but there hasn't been much recently, Cesinger said.

The company isn't interested in allowing short-term events, citing insurance liabilities. That would include events like the UniverSoul Circus, which had a handful of runs in the empty parking lot since the mall was razed.

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