Minutes into an hour and a half tour of the region's most depressed, sprawl-inducing shopping centers — which starts, appropriately, at vacant Cloverleaf Mall — the white charter bus veers down Belt Boulevard, and past Southside Plaza.
The Plaza opened in 1957 and was the city's second suburban shopping center, boasting the region's first big-box, detached Miller & Rhoads, a year after the Shops at Willow Lawn on West Broad Street opened in 1956. Unlike Willow Lawn, which survived long enough to capitalize on a residential resurgence in the West End, the Plaza is often trotted out as exhibit A in the thoughtful planner's guidebook to what's wrong with Richmond.
“Cloverleaf, this was the place to go,” says tour guide Bill Pantele, the former city councilman, lamenting how Cloverleaf, which opened in 1972, sucked the retail blood out of the Plaza. At various points during the bus tour sponsored by the Partnership for Smarter Growth, Pantele instructs the group to look out the windows and witness the decay: “I hope you'll remember all the asphalt you saw today.”
What they probably won't remember is Southside Plaza, with its stream of cars crisscrossing its massive parking lot and most of its storefronts occupied, its sidewalks brimming with customers. There's no Target or Ukrop's, but there's Maxway and Farmer's Foods, a grocery store with spotless floors and shelves so well-manicured that it's hard to imagine the building is more than half a century old.
Rodney Saunders, the store's manager, used to work here when it was Community Pride, which went belly up five years ago. Farmer's Foods, a nine-store chain based in Chase City, saw the market potential at Southside and quickly took over the space. “Mr. Farmer said ‘This is your store, make it work,'” Saunders says of the owner, Johnny Farmer, who contacted him in 2004 about taking over as manager.
Saunders brought back the shuttle service for which Community Pride was known — spend at least $40 and get a ride home — and he passed out flyers to get the community to come back. It didn't take long. “The secret is catering to the lower-class people,” Saunders says, meaning the mostly lower-income households that make up the surrounding neighborhoods. “You have to be a neighbor.” So far it's worked: The store's been profitable for three years, Saunders says, and sales this year have increased 15 percent despite an economic recession.
At the Maxway, the store manager says business is as good as it's ever been. After taking over the store three years ago, he cracked down on shoplifters ($120,000 a year in merchandise was disappearing from store shelves) and after two decades at the Plaza, Maxway regularly began making money.
Dense demographics — within a three mile radius of the plaza reside more than 75,000 people, according to the most recent census figures — and median household income of $37,000, the Plaza is uniquely positioned to serve the kind of lower-end retail that government planners often treat like the scourge. Chesterfield County, for example, spent more than $10 million to gain control of Cloverleaf to keep it from becoming a permanently low-end shopping mall. Richmond spent millions to tear down Sixth Street Marketplace when it became clear it's only viable tenants were dollar stores, hair salons and retail shops that catered to low-income shoppers.
In late August, Morton B. Gulak, longtime urban studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, sent his students to Belt Boulevard to begin working on a revitalization plan for the area, part of a class project. Within a few weeks they were reporting an unexpected phenomenon.
“I thought Southside Plaza was dead also, until the students started doing some research and observations and found that it is quite vibrant,” Gulak says, explaining that the vehicle traffic along Belt Boulevard, between Hull Street Road and Midlothian Turnpike, was much higher than they expected. “There is a lot of traffic. We're trying to figure out where it's all going.”
McGuire Veterans Hospital is nearby, which helps explain some of the traffic, Gulak says, but there are larger forces at play as well. While the area still has its share of problems — crime and used-tire shops, for instance — the Plaza appears to be doing what any successful retail center should do: serving its market.
The Plaza just might offer an important lesson for hands-on government planners prone to enforcing their own retail visions on older centers — typically destination retailers that attract shoppers from outside the area — which can lead to government-fed “gentrification of shopping centers,” Gulak says.
Owned by Saul Centers, based in Bethesda, Md., the Plaza has been luckier than most not to have an absentee property owner. LeeAnn Feltman, the Plaza's property manager, visits at least once or twice a month, and has in five years overseen more than $800,000 in renovation work, including repainting the green faAade. Last week she was in town to check on the $700,000 renovation of the new Shoe City store, damaged in a fire earlier this year. New tenants are on the way to fill three of the six vacancies, Feltman says, and she envisions a pizzeria and a pharmacy in the not-too-distant future.
“To me, it's a great center,” she says.
Part of its success has to do with more than retail. The city located social services and health department offices in the old Miller & Rhoads, which generates considerable foot traffic, and in the strip center there's a VCU Medical Center health clinic and a Kool Smiles pediatric dental practice, which accepts government insurance.
The out-parcels are healthy, too, including a renovated Radio Shack and a high-performing McDonald's. Even the old duckpin bowling alley, Plaza Bowl, has seen a revival of late, becoming a popular live music venue.
But mostly, it's succeeding by catering to its customers. Taiwo Ogungbade, manager of Shoe Show, says his store is the top performer among nine locations in the Richmond area. This year, in fact, sales have increased 6 percent, he says, and would be up even more if not for Shoe City's fire. “Every year it is increasing,” he says.
Back at Farmer's Foods, Saunders, the store manager, says he's managed to stay ahead of his competitors — including a new Save-A-Lot on east side of Belt Boulevard, the fastest-growing discount grocery chain in the country with more than 1,200 stores — with superior customer service that caters to his very specific market. His store's meat section, for example, stretches for several aisles, larger than most Food Lions, which attracted whites, Hispanics and blacks — all comers — last Thursday afternoon. He even gets regular visits from former Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, whose picture is on the wall.
“They can go to the beautiful Kroger, the wonderful Food Lion, but they come here,” Saunders says. “And I really appreciate that.”