22 May 2013

Extant Assets - MacArthur Center, Norfolk, VA

When I moved to Virginia's Hampton Roads region in 1985, Virginia Beach, the huge resort-slash-suburb, was one of the fasted growing cities in the nation while Norfolk, the historic urban center, was in a steep decline. The latter locale, with a population apex of almost 310,000 in 1970 would only be home to around 260,000 residents by the 1990 census. Its downtown, a picturesque collection of a few skyscrapers rising in the midst of many mid-height towers, was going through a rennaissance of sorts with the development of Town Point Park and The Waterside on the Elizabeth River, but, as was the norm in the decade of expanding hair, sprawling suburbs were where most preferred to reside.

By the late nineties, The Waterside had lost its novelty as well as much of the luster that had successfully drawn in patrons through much of the previous decade. The city was once again faced with making serious decisions about their fading urban core. This time, they focused on the historic Granby Street corridor a few blocks from the Elizabeth River where a large piece of real estate was cleared years before in the name of urban renewal. For quite a while, there had been discussion of developing some sort of urban retail project on the property, but everything seemed to come to fruition during the latter part of that decade when Taubman, as developer and Nordstrom, as an anchor, decided to join the development christened the MacArthur Center.

 
MacArthur Center Mallmanac, ca. 2000. View the full PDF version here.

The complex was named for the tomb of General Douglas MacArthur, lying in close proximity to the project's location. With a compact three level design, it would be the first tri-level shopping center in the region. Dillard's signed on to join Nordstrom in the mall, one envisioned to offer an array of upscale retailers to rival those at the region's leading facility, Lynnhaven Mall. The construction of the privately owned venture was not without controversy, however, as the host municipality provided approximately 100 million dollars in improvements and incentives.

Amidst much anticipation and excitement, the MacArthur Center opened in March of 1999 to almost universal accolades. In addition to the two anchors, there was also an 18 screen Regal cineplex located on the third floor, stores exclusive to Hampton Roads such as White House Black Market, Rainforest Cafe and Coach, and a vacant patch of land for future construction of a third anchor. While still unoccupied, the empty pad has hosted community events as well as an outdoor ice skating rink in the wintertime.


MacArthur Center's location in downtown Norfolk. (Source)

The first time I saw the MacArthur Center in person was from the window seat of a USAirways F-100 as we decended into Norfolk International Airport. It was early 2000 and I had not been to the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area since moving away ten years before. I was excited to see all of the changes that a decade with my absence would bring, but none brought more anticipation than experiencing downtown's MacArthur Center in person.

The airport shuttle dropped me off at The Waterside and I was really dismayed at the state of the old place. The blue roof was faded and the windows needed a thorough washing, but the inside was really depressing. In the late eighties, our family had enjoyed many an evening of seafood dinners or maritime-themed shopping in the festival marketplace, but by then the steel laced interior was empty and exposed as my footsteps echoed eerily off of the concrete floors and walls. I left The Waterside in shock and disbelief before making my way toward the MacArthur Center, first taking a quick detour through the Seldon Arcade, a classic early twentieth century enclosed shopping plaza. Now home to D'Art Center, the little known gem was exceptional.

 
View of the Monticello Avenue side of MacArthur Center including Dillard's.

Though without the charm and history of the landmark Seldon Arcade, the MacArthur Center made quite its own impression on me. The red brick facade displayed a harmonious hybrid of modernized elements with more than a slight influence of revolutionary and colonial architectural styles, while arched and columned porticos underneath second level vernadas offered striking views of the city's blue waterfront and growing skyline.

The interior was dramatic as it was lavish. Vaulted skylights ran the entire length of the complex, bathing the concourses in springtime sunlight. Taubman had utilized every shade of white imaginable on the common areas, with varying, almost dizzying arrays of lines and layers on both the mezzanines and ceilings surrounding the glass casements. The look of these combined elements, while both modern and vivid, left me concerned that this particular style may not age well. In fact, looking at pictures of the enclosure today, it already seems a tad dated.


MacArthur Center as of this writing.

Today, the MacArthur Center is credited as one of the main reasons for an overall reinvestment in Norfolk, in particular the city center. The city's population is now growing and much of the blighted areas are gentrifying. Several new high-rises have been built since the opening and Granby Street has been the beneficiary of a resurgence in retail development in the form of the renovation of decades old storefronts lining the main avenue. The city's new light rail line makes a stop right in front of the facility while new residences and lofts are rapidly being developed in close proximity.

History has shown that investment in downtown shopping malls can be quite the gamble, most often with bankruptcy inducing results. The MacArthur Center seems to be bucking this trend and, after fourteen years of existence, is still going strong while the rest of Norfolk's central business district and waterfront flourishes around it.

MacArthur Center's official website

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