Shoppers sometimes walk into Black Rose and look around, confused.
"You guys have really made some changes," they tell owner Towanda Dyer. "You're going to a younger crowd."
"This isn't Ann Taylor," Dyer has to tell them. Her shop, a specialty women's clothing boutique, recently moved into the space Ann Taylor occupied for years on the first floor of Regency Square mall.
When Ann Taylor left earlier this year, along with culinary gadget purveyor Williams-Sonoma and video game store GameStop, some thought Regency Square was doomed. Other recent departures include shoe store Nine West, fancy soap shop Crabtree and Evelyn, and Abercrombie & Fitch, home of the $60 distressed T-shirt.
But retailers haven't given up on Regency yet. Despite the flight of the upscale chains, there aren't many vacant storefronts. Instead, small businesses — many locally owned — are moving in.
Black Rose was doing well at Stony Point Fashion Park, Dyer says, but bad weather meant bad business. One Sunday, when she saw "literally one person" at Stony Point, she went over to see how Regency was doing. "The foot traffic was just ridiculous," she says. When the mall offered her the prime Ann Taylor spot — twice the square footage as her old location for about the same rent — she was sold.
River City Body Jewelry, owned by tattoo mogul Jessica Simmons, has had a presence in Regency since 2007. In moving there, Simmons considered the fact that Regency was an indoor mall, she says, as well as customers' loyalty: "People really, really like that mall." However, traffic has "definitely declined" recently, she notes.
Lisa Heyward and Rauiesha Lewis brought their kids' salon and spa, La Petite Pazzazz, to the Crabtree and Evelyn space in April 2010. The salon specializes in party packages with tutus, karaoke, glitter makeup, manicures and diva hairstyles.
"I just think it's great that they give a lot of people an opportunity ... to have equality and have a business, right beside these stores that are major chains," Heyward says.
The salon owners are happy so far, they say, with plenty of walk-in traffic and regular customers. They also like how Taubman Centers, which manages the mall, upholds strict rules for all tenants. Mall management inspects stores monthly to see if their glass is spotless, their shelves are stocked, and the décor is appropriate.
Still, Heyward acknowledges that "it's not as busy as it used to be, when I was coming up." Regency, she says, was her "mom's favorite mall."
Being mom's favorite mall is tough. Despite an extensive face-lift in 2003, Regency is still a 36-year-old lady competing with two young twins: the open-air lifestyle centers Stony Point and Short Pump Town Center.
Several possible fates await smaller malls in older suburbs, such as Regency Square, according to June Williamson, an architecture professor at the City College of New York and co-author of "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs."
"There are still too many malls ... so they won't all survive," she says. Some are torn down and redeveloped into clusters of big-box stores, she says. Others are having their roofs removed to transform them into trendier lifestyle centers. (That's what's happening at the Shops at Willow Lawn.) And yet others undergo a "true downtown retrofit," Williamson says, in which they become urbanist blends of housing and commercial uses.
Malls that stay malls, however, will increasingly take on lower-rent, unconventional tenants, Williamson says: community colleges, library branches, studios for arts groups, places of worship and mom-and-pop shops.
The appearance of small businesses doesn't always herald the immediate decline of the mall, Williamson says: "It depends on who owns the mall."
Right now, that's up in the air. Last year Michigan-based Taubman, which had owned the mall since 1997, decided to stop its financial support of Regency, says General Manager Joe Frye. Taubman and its lender are still talking about what to do with it, Frye says.
If the property were purchased by a local owner without a pressing need to recoup his or her investment quickly, Williamson says, it could succeed as a lower-rent mall. "It's not necessarily the death of the mall," she says.
Good local operators can extend the life of an older mall, says Brian Glass, a commercial real estate expert and senior vice president with Grubb & Ellis | Harrison & Bates. And Regency still enjoys a great location in a densely populated suburb. "Of all the older malls that have come and gone, probably geographically, Regency Square could hang on longer than the others," he says.
Regency still has three major anchors: Sears, J.C. Penney, and a two-part Macy's. Sears and J.C. Penney will most likely stay there as long as they're making money, Glass says, because there's nowhere better for them to go in Richmond.
"Macy's is a different story," he says, because the chain already has three other locations in the area. Jim Sluzewski, Macy's senior vice president for corporate communications and external affairs, says the retailer currently has no plans to open or close stores anywhere in the country.
"I won't worry until I see Macy's worrying," salon owner Heyward says. "We're going to ride it out." S