Travel south from Asheville on Hendersonville Road and, as with almost any other American thoroughfare, you can track the evolution of the strip mall. The United States hosts more than 88,000 of these shopping centers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — some are thriving, some are more empty than full, some are old and outdated, some are new but nonetheless of all-too-similar design, lining major roads like Monopoly pieces. For better or worse, strip malls are permanent fixtures in the American landscape.
“They've endured because during that whole period in between World War I and World War II — when what we now call suburban sprawl started — the nucleus of downtown evaporated and essentially got displaced,” explains Brandon Pass, an Asheville architect.
Whether stores are arranged in a single row, an L-shaped plaza or other configuration, these shopping centers proliferated in the United States after World War II, when returning GIs needed homes and businessmen like William Levitt responded with a burst of 1950s preplanned, prefabricated subdivisions — so-called Levittowns — paired with groceries, department stores, schools and other hallmarks of the comforts of modern American life, all just a short drive outside traditional city centers.
Close to Long Shoals Road, one strip mall hints at how far these centers have come since Levittowns popped up outside New York City, Philadelphia and other metro areas: Built in 2004, it features a Mediterranean grocery, a computer-repair shop, a nail salon and Stone Bowl Korean Restaurant. Like many modern-day centers, it’s a melting pot of flavors. Blink as you drive by, though, and you might have missed it — just another nondescript shopping plaza.
But look more closely. Beyond the typical tanning salons, pawnshops and big-box stores, you will find other complexes that, like Stone Bowl’s, feature small, independently owned businesses with a flair for the unique. Call it manifest destiny, suburban style. By being accessible, original and part of a diverse cluster of storefronts, these local establishments ensure that the American strip mall may continue to thrive in today's fickle economy.
"Strip centers are proven … for the last 50 [to] 60 years as a place for commerce," says Wes Reinhardt, vice president of FIRC Group NC Inc., a commercial real-estate company that manages the Westgate Shopping Center anchored by natural foods grocery Earth Fare. Reinhardt says that strip malls are "successful in incubating businesses — in establishing businesses — because they provide convenience, high traffic and good synergy with other tenants."
Strip malls offer business owners certain quality of life conditions not always available in thriving, popular downtown districts: affordable rents, ample parking and a relatively hassle-free start up. What a strip mall may lack in charm and architectural interest, it makes up for in value.
Nowhere is this more evident than along Hendersonville Road in south Asheville. Downtown hot spots Thirsty Monk, Green Sage and Tupelo Honey have all parked second locations along this corridor, bringing some of the city’s vibrant food scene to the 'burbs.
But before Tupelo Honey South opened its doors in 2010, the comfort-food favorite invested heavily in market research. "This was a way to say, ‘Will our brand transfer to a strip mall?’" says Tupelo's Director of Marketing Elizabeth Sims. It didn't hurt that the space was already outfitted and fully renovated, not to mention affordable. In fact, their downtown rent is about 15 percent higher. According to Sims, what Tupelo Honey South customers notice is that “parking is easy and the food is the same.”
Stone Bowl co-owner Rita Chen says the Hendersonville Road strip mall was not her first choice of locations but one that she's happily settled into almost a year and a half later. "We looked and looked," she says, adding that the site search took a couple of months. Chen and her business partner, Kristina Im, agree that north Asheville, where they had first looked, was crowded enough with restaurants that it was worth giving the south side a try. "I like that you have enough parking spaces for the customers, and … the space is just right," Chen says of her 50-seat restaurant. "Not too big, not too small."
Stone Bowl Korean Restaurant owners Rita Chen and Kristina Im; photo by Max Cooper
Head farther south, as Hendersonville Road becomes known as U.S. Highway 25, and other strip malls tell a different tale. There are ones with pot-holed parking lots and drooping exteriors; some spaces have been empty or under-occupied for the better half of a decade (if not longer). The fact is, earlier boom periods and the most recent recession have left America with an abundance of shopping infrastructure, especially as traffic patterns change, demographics shift and development turns toward New Urbanism.
Think Gerber Village on Highway 25, or Biltmore Park off Long Shoals. Located near Interstate 26, the latter imitates an urban center complete with residences, sidewalks, shops, restaurants, a hotel, a movie theater and a YMCA branch. Biltmore Park aims for “a strong sense of place, a main-street feel,” says Jack Thomson, director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. Rather than competing with the downtown, such projects fit into places with growing population densities, like south Asheville, he explains, and “nearly all are within a ‘desirable’ proximity to interstate highways.”
But while many local proprietors have set up shop in these developments, many others apply their creativity and business-savvy to bring back even the most Jurassic-era plazas.
Follow Highway 25 to Hendersonville and you find one such space. Vogel Plaza is a 1980s, speckled-brick, beige-trimmed shopping center. Of its seven units, one is available for lease. The plaza has maintained longtime tenants like a used bookstore, a tattoo parlor and The Ugly Mug — a coffee shop that anchors the right end. On the other end is the plaza’s newest addition, Monte's Sub Shop.
A few months ago, husband-and-wife co-owners Dan and Monique Ruiz moved into Vogel after growing out of their original 900-square-foot location a few miles down the road. Dan Ruiz says he had been eyeing the location for a while and finally got a good price for it. "I can tell you right away our business doubled," he says of moving. "And I feel like the potential is much higher because we haven't really even marketed the business since we moved in, because we've been so busy."
Dan and Monique Ruiz, owners of Montes Sub Shop; photo by Julia Ritchey
One of the deciding factors for moving to Vogel Plaza, besides the obvious parking and affordable square footage, was having good neighbors, says Ruiz. He and his wife were already friendly with The Ugly Mug owner Leatha Schulze, who had asked them to move into the building. The Ruizes and other business owners are considering cross-promotional events to attract customers who may not always venture from one side of the plaza to the other.
"It's important to have good neighbors that complement your business. Customers at a small coffee shop would also likely be customers of ours,” says Ruiz. “It helps to have like-minded businesses that offer a good product with good service."
This is one of the more unique elements of the strip mall: A rag-tag band of storefronts with little in common can share a building as well as a customer base. Chen agrees. "I've seen a lot of customers walking from the other side. They come to get their nails done and they wonder, ‘What kind of food is that?'’ We all help each other," she says.
Yet strip malls are not without their detractors. The very term carries negative stereotypes of urban sprawl, including automobile dependency, corporate-chain homogeny and the oceans of asphalt designed for more cars than ever seem to actually fill them — not to mention, they all seem to look the same.
According to Pass, strip-mall aesthetics are highly controlled. Often, developers will take existing blueprints and make minor tweaks, lending to the centers’ homogenous appearance from coast to coast.
“It's a white box,” he says, explaining that the anatomy of a modern strip mall consists of simple and inexpensive components. Typically, developers will use concrete blocks, prefabricated materials and a brick cladding to envelop the exterior. Another commonly used material is a cheap form of stucco called EFIS — an “exterior facade insulating system,” which is “essentially Styrofoam,” he explains. Its use isn’t limited to strip malls; it appears in buildings like the Aloft Hotel in downtown Asheville, Pass notes.
“It's a very, very cheap form of construction, and it's very fast and it doesn't require a lot of skill,” he says, admitting that he is “not a big fan” of shopping centers in their current form.
"Although we all complain about strip malls, we all still use them,” he says. “If you put something out there that's highly creative and highly modern, it becomes unfamiliar to people. I think [developers] don't want to run the risk of challenging a model that already proves to make them a profit,” says Pass.
A new identity
There’s another conundrum for strip malls: When a larger anchor store moves out or shuts down, the other businesses suffer or follow suit.
Ruiz points out of Monte's window across the street to an older shopping center, Plaza North, which has yet to rebound after a Bi-Lo grocery store moved out several years ago. The complex hosts a Goodwill, CVS and — where the grocery was — Fred's Super Dollar. But the parking lot is usually half-empty, and signs still hang above now-defunct businesses. And large yellow "Store Closing" signs now line Fred's windows. Of nearly a dozen units, five are vacant.
Steve Patrick, vice president of Blue Ridge Capital, the Atlanta-based firm that owns the complex, reports that three new local tenants recently signed leases. But he acknowledges that, ideally, a major grocery should take over Fred’s 18,000-square-foot space.
Plaza North shows the common lifeline of a strip mall, going from successful to struggling in a few years.
Liberty Bikes President Mike Nix knows the challenge firsthand. Leaving a standalone building further south in Skyland, the retail and repair shop moved into its present location next to the former Harris Teeter on Hendersonville Road in 2011. The primary draws for Nix, beside the larger space, were the rise of a younger demographic, a well-maintained building and plaza, and proximity to cycling heaven — the Blue Ridge Parkway. “We weren't excited about being in a strip mall, but being next to Harris Teeter was really good,” says Nix.
In Liberty’s first year in the shopping center, sales were 25 percent higher than at the old store, he reports.
Liberty Bikes owners Claudia and Mike Nix; photo by Max Cooper
But last summer, Harris Teeter vacated the property to establish a new location — and build a new strip mall — on Merrimon Avenue at Chestnut Street. Lowes Foods moved in but closed just a few months later. Since then, Nix says foot traffic has dropped though sales have held steady. “This is our first test,” he says. While disappointed with how long it’s taken to fill the space, Nix says his fingers are crossed that whatever goes in will be a good fit for the entire center, home to Eddie Spaghetti and Asheville Cotton Company.
For both Nix and Ruiz, a strip mall's reputation matters as much as its location. "If [Vogel Plaza] was just cycling through tenants every few months, then I definitely would not have made a move like this," Ruiz says.
From a landlord’s perspective, Reinhardt says it's important to have a good mix of tenants, both big and small. "A rising tide tends to lift all boats," he says.
Still, Pass remains skeptical of changes to the status-quo concept of strip malls but supports the theory of recycling them. For an example, he mentions an older Highway 25 shopping plaza anchored by Diamond Brand, Frugal Backpacker and Carolina Furniture in Arden. “I like the idea that you can co-opt these places or these existing structures that are just abandoned right now and turn them into something that is the next generation of what a strip mall can be. Kind of pushing against that boundary and saying, “OK, this isn't just a Starbucks, Target, CVS or the usual suspects, but is something that is a little bit more homegrown — that has a little bit more character and identity based on a specific place,” says Pass.
Sure, the aesthetics may stay the same, but some businesses are proving the old adage that beauty isn't always on the outside. It's really what's on the inside that counts.
— Julia Ritchey can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 122, or firstname.lastname@example.org.