As national tenants continue to vacate amid bankruptcies spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, urban planners behind a proposed update to Richmond’s master plan are not giving up on Stony Point Fashion Park.
The struggling shopping mall at the heart of its namesake hub that includes office, medical and residential buildings has suffered a string of tenant departures that has picked up in recent months, amid the pandemic’s economic effects and the mall’s fall into the hands of a special servicer in late April.
But the roughly 60-acre mall site remains a priority for city planners, who list it among a group of “priority growth areas” in the recently released Richmond 300 plan, a draft update to the city’s master land-use plan that’s intended to guide growth in the next 20 years, through the city’s tricentennial in 2037.
The plan envisions refashioning the fashion park site as a sort of urban village with mixed-use buildings supplementing the existing mall, and a mix of residential development filling the parking lots around it.
A central park and open area along Chippenham Parkway would add greenspace, and an expanded street grid would enhance connectivity within the site and with nearby trails and greenways. A conceptual plan included in the 200-plus-page document shows one such connector road bisecting the mall site, via its internal courtyards between Saks Fifth Avenue and Sur La Table.
That latter store is the latest to announce plans to leave the mall, following its filing this week for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The announcement followed the recent closures of Stony Point’s Panera Bread and H&M locations, and national gym chain Life Time’s decision to nix a planned location there.
Richmond Planning Director Mark Olinger, who is guiding Richmond 300’s development along with consultants with national engineering firm AECOM, cited Life Time’s about-face while discussing the challenges that face Stony Point in a presentation. It was one in a series of virtual summits that planners have used in recent weeks to roll out the plan and highlight priorities.
While he said it’s no secret that the mall had been struggling years before its owner was forced to let the mall go, Olinger said Stony Point still has “a lot going for it,” with several retailers and restaurants that do good business there, recent development of additional apartments and medical office buildings, and the involvement of the Richmond Economic Development Authority, which owns about 40 acres that make up the mall’s parking lots.
“We have a very dynamic residential environment that has been developing around it over time; we have strong office – a couple of those buildings related to VCU and VCU Health – that are in the vicinity of the fashion park,” Olinger said.
“We believe that it still has a strong future as a destination in and of itself. We want to continue to build on that destination and see what that might be.”
Malls moving to mixed-use
Noting Chesterfield County’s investment in the former Cloverleaf Mall site’s transformation into the Stonebridge development, and similar efforts by Henrico County with Regency mall and Virginia Center Commons, Olinger said a comparable transformation is due for Stony Point. He did acknowledge several challenges, its ownership status among them.
Noting talks in recent years between the EDA and the mall’s then-owner, Starwood Capital Group, about potential enhancements to the site, Olinger acknowledged the transfer to a special servicer that followed Starwood’s default on loan payments throws a wrench into those plans. Connecticut-based Starwood purchased the nearly 700,000-square-foot mall, which opened in 2003, from original developer Taubman Centers for $72 million in 2014.
“We had discussions with the ownership interest in Stony Point over the last couple years about doing some things that I thought were pretty interesting,” Olinger said in the presentation. “The market realities have made some of them not moving ahead now, but it’s worth having that discussion further on.”
Other challenges planners noted include the site’s low visibility for retailers and its one-way-in, one-way-out reliance on Chippenham Parkway, with no connectivity to established residential neighborhoods nearby. Past proposals have faced opposition from neighbors who have likewise challenged other aspects of the site’s development, such as the addition of the James River at Stony Point apartments.
Olinger also cited the process involved with amending the city’s community unit plan for Stony Point, which he noted involves more than 500 acres beyond the mall’s roughly 60-acre site. According to Richmond 300, 72 acres in the vicinity of the mall were vacant or underdeveloped last year, representing 27 percent of the site’s total land area.
The draft plan recommends rezoning the mall site and developing a small area plan with community input to encourage redevelopment and creation of streets, parks and greenways. A marketing plan is encouraged to attract businesses and potentially a corporate headquarters, and the plan calls for a mix of housing options with low-income and market-rate housing blended together.
Expanding transit service to the site is listed as a priority, and the plan also suggests improving connections with Huguenot Road and the nearby Larus Park, which lies between the mall and Stony Point Shopping Center, which recently landed the region’s second Trader Joe’s grocery store.
Olinger also noted the community unit plan for Stony Point has a site set aside for a hotel. He said such additional uses could further enhance the site as both a neighborhood and a destination.
“There has been a significant investment made by the private sector in this; there has been a significant investment made in this area by the public sector,” he said. “Our goal is to try to make sure that that investment is used to its fullest extent, to create something different if the opportunity presents itself over the next few years.”
The draft Richmond 300 plan can be viewed on its website. Public comment on the plan is being accepted through Monday, July 13.