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Death of the Hilltop Mall

Hilltop mallNot a shocker by any means, but it appears that Hilltop Mall in Richmond has finally met its fate. It was just announced that logistics giant Prologis purchased the mall, which has been more or less closed since last year (although anchors Walmart and Macy’s were mostly open during the pandemic.)

Hilltop’s a weird one for me. I wrote about my first visit there in 2017, and covered the basics: built by Taubman in 1976; four anchors; a million square feet. Bought by Mills, it ended up in Simon’s hands in 2007, who completely ignored the property, and defaulted on their loans in 2012. It had a Walmart as an anchor, which is bizarre because it used to be a Macy’s, and it looks like Walmart spent fifteen minutes remodeling this mid-70s Macy’s into a Walmart by slapping on a set of signs they printed at Kinko’s and painting various trim blue.

Since I wrote that last post, the mall was purchased by a group that was going to do a full renovation and go with an Asian theme: stark white and chrome interiors, a Ranch 99 grocery store, a food court with various sushi restaurants and boba tea places and poke bowl vendors, etc etc. There were lots of fancy renderings with stock art pictures of white people walking around shopping, and lots of pretty landscaping and this futuristic space village look to it. They put up a ton of white-painted plywood with stickers and banners of the big planned reopening in 2018 2019 2020 late 2020. There were no signs of progress, except a constant hemorrhaging of stores. JCP closed, then almost every national chain (except Foot Locker) closed, and then the mom and pop places started quickly vanishing. I think when the pandemic hit, they were at something like 16% occupancy. I don’t know if they ever got money for this big remodel, and I think every store they said was going in never materialized. And then the pandemic hit.

I never knew Hilltop when it was alive and thriving, in the 80s/90s. It once had all the big national stores, and two movie theaters inside the mall, an ice skating rink, three toy stores, and lots of places to eat. All the various posts I’ve been seeing this week are filled with memories about this era, and I’m a bit jealous to never have seen this place in its full splendor.

I went to Hilltop maybe a couple times a month in the last few years. It was the closest indoor mall to my house, and I’m an old man mallwalker, so that’s what drew me. I had a fond relationship with the place because I love empty malls, love going walking in them in the middle of the day when nobody is around, and Hilltop was perfect for that. It also had that weird Taubman Logan’s Run-looking architecture I love, futurist-in-1976. It was like my secret spot, the place I could retreat when it was rainy out or the December weather went south and I wanted to hear loud holiday Muzak echo through a large, empty building.

There’s a nostalgia reverberation point for me with Hilltop that I can’t fully explain. It is a Taubman mall and has the same look as old Taubman malls like Woodfield in Schaumberg, Illinois, so it reminds me of the few times I visited in the late 80s and saw that astounding place. I remember going there with my friend Larry in 1989 and walking a lap around that place, which is double the size of Hilltop, and I think the biggest mall in the world back in that pre-Mall of America timeframe, and wondering when it would ever end. Hilltop looks exactly like Woodfield’s baby sibling, minus the stores and remodel.

But the thing Hilltop really reminds me of is Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, Indiana, the pre-remodel Scottsdale of the 80s. First, it’s a two-story mall, which was rare in Indiana, and had a second story with a balcony walkway that overlooked the courtyard on the ground floor. And before they redid Scottsdale in 1993 with bright whites and garish neon vaporwave colors, it still had this 1972 color scheme of brick and wood and hexagonal burnt umber floor tiles and a general dreariness, like a bad regional campus of a commuter college or an office park complex you went to make a car insurance payment or take a urinalysis test.

The 1990-1991 school year is a bad nostalgia point for me, because I attended and worked at a commuter college (IUSB) and only had a couple of friends there and really missed the main campus I went to the year before in Bloomington. Every payday, I would pick up my check at 9 AM, not have to be to work until noon, and would shuffle off to the largely empty Scottsdale to walk around, buy stuff I didn’t need at Target, and play Tetris at the Aladdin’s Castle. (I had a Tetris problem back then. Still do.) It had the same vapid, bleak feeling that Hilltop had, and I loved it, because it perfectly matched my emotional state. I had a lot of problems that school year, with money and dating and where I was going in life, and of course my brain goes back to those points in life more than those boring years when I didn’t have struggle.┬áSince Hilltop was never changed, and still had that time machine back to 1990, that’s what I took from it.

(Scottsdale is long gone, demalled in 2004. I recently did some research on it, and I probably need to do a much longer article on it. Someday. These write-ups are getting more frequent and more redundant as the retail world implode. Maybe I need to stop writing this stuff.)

So, Prologis. They redeveloped the old Oakland Army Base a few thousand feet to my west, making it into logistics warehouses for the Port of Oakland. It was sort of amazing, because they tore down these old World War II-looking barracks buildings, and almost instantly, these large white and green warehouse buildings suddenly appeared. They would truck in giant concrete panels and put them together like Lego bricks. Seriously, it looked like a million square feet of brand new, modern warehouse would be teleported into place in like a week.

I know there’s a lot of talk about them redeveloping Hilltop with all the latest buzzwords people want to hear, and that they’ll have low-income vegan housing and live-work space and dog parks and a farmer’s market and whatever the hell else they can put in their fake renderings. I fully expect them to either completely demolish the mall and put in two million feet of generic warehouse space that looks exactly like every other Prologis warehouse. (Go do a google image search on “Prologis warehouse” and you’ll see hundreds of absolutely identical white buildings with green trim. It’s almost creepy.) If the building is structurally sound (it probably isn’t) maybe they will just paint the outside white, shut the entrances, gut the interior, and use that for storage. Or they’ll spend years in arguments with the Richmond city government, and end up bowing out in three years with nothing done.

Anyway. Fun while it lasted. I should probably buy a treadmill so I can walk during the rainy season. Here’s a Flickr album with a dump of my 2017-2020 photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHskQsQ4P1