Military Circle Mallmanac, ca. 2000. View the full PDF version here.
Our suburban dwelling family never had much of a reason to venture out to Military Circle. We were by no means regular patrons at any of its anchors and knew that we could find the same selection of smaller shops at closer destinations, so we usually passed it up. The only time we ever ventured into the immediate area was to browse the extensive hardware selection at the antiquated Montgomery Ward outlet of the JANAF (Joint Army Navy and Air Force) Center located across Virgina Beach Boulevard. I remember being fixated on the hulking structure laying in wait just beyond the busy ten lane thoroughfare, beckoning me to explore the brutal monolith punctuated by the out of scale anchors and a high-rise Sheraton Hotel.
The Gallery at Military Circle from the air. (Source)
During that bygone decade of feathered hair when we were living in the southeastern Virgina region, Military Circle and Lynnhaven Mall were locked in a struggle for market dominance. The latter place, in the midst of the explosive growth of Virginia Beach, was preferred by the suburbanite and the younger crowds, while Military Circle catered more to the urban and more established populace. But as the years passed and the hair metal of the eighties was exchanged for the grunge of the nineties, Military Circle's once contemporary and cutting edge edifice was showing its age and vulnerability. Lynnhaven had long since proved victorious in the war for shopping supremacy while the older center was finding itself in a long running fight for relevance against lesser opponents such as Chesapeake's Greenbrier Mall and the beach's Pembroke Mall. And it was losing.
L- The Military Circle with which I was familiar during the eighties. R- Military Circle during the latter part of the nineties.
Military Circle Mall opened in what was then the suburban environment of southeastern Norfolk in 1970 as the Southside's second enclosed shopping mall. It was plotted just a few miles west of Pembroke Mall on the very same east-west boulevard, bringing with it the fear that it would destroy its merely four year-old competitor. But despite opening with four major department stores, Leggett, Thalhimer's, JCPenney and Norfolk-based Smith & Welton, none overlapped with Pembroke's offerings, leaving the two facilities to complement each other. Eventually, however, the newer destination emerged as the region's preeminent retail corridor.
Through the eighties and most of the the nineties, despite increased competition, Military Circle was able to hold its own. But the late nineties and the new millennium brought numerous changes to the market. Smith & Welton closed in 1990 and remained vacant until 1999 when Sears constructed a smaller "infill" store on the site. But further retail rivalry was to come as the lavish, triple tiered MacArthur Center opened that same year in central Norfolk. Its impact on the extant center was downplayed, however, as MacArthur was expected to attract a more regional, upscale clientele, with Military Circle's remaining focused on a more proximal and middle class urban target. Thus far, the two have been able to coexist as one rarely pulls from the other's demographic.
The Gallery at Military Circle as of this writing.
The construction of the MacArthur Center has brought a plethora of new growth to Norfolk, mainly in its central business district. Unfortunately, little of that reinvestment has made its way to the area surrounding Military Circle. With the shuttering of Sears in 2012 and their space's remaining unoccupied, the old classic is again at a crossroads. It could see either a resurgence or a retrenchment at this point. Will it continue to survive on its often unstable and unreliable inner city demographic, or will even those crowds move on as Norfolk's oldest extant mall remains stagnant? Only time will tell.
7 January 2015