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According to Santa, business at Landmark Mall is “slooooow.”

Kiddies aren’t exactly clamoring to have their pictures taken with St. Nick at Landmark’s holiday display, which is run by contractor Santa Plus, home of “the real Santa.” Kris Kringle and Santa Plus staffer Bridget Neal are hoping that things will pick up once area schools close for winter break.

In the meantime, the folks at Santa Plus have implemented a gimmick in order to make up for the missing kids—namely, Pet Night.

A testament to holiday commercialism, Pet Night is when owners bring in their animal companions, with the exception of squirming rodents and sharp-toothed lizards, to have their pictures taken on Santa’s lap. Only three nights were planned initially, but the event proved popular enough for the mall to extend its run to four. Neal says that mall management has worked hard to promote Pet Night, passing out fliers and even advertising the event on the mall’s large marquee:

SANTA ARRIVES 11/19

BRING YOUR DOG/CAT 11/21, 11/28, 12/5

6-8 PM CENTER CT.

Behind the pet-night appeals lies Landmark’s quest for childless professionals. It stands to reason that if people have enough extra money to put toward a package of pooch portraits, they might also pop into the Lord & Taylor just a few feet away and pick up some gifts.

As Neal tries to assist a woman struggling to place headbands with Santa hats affixed to them onto the heads of her two cocker spaniels, folks who work on the second floor of the mall come out of their shops to watch. They lean over guard railings, some shaking their heads and laughing.

This is the first year that Landmark’s Santa display has catered to pets. And according to Neal, it’s the only event of its kind in the area, at least among nearby shopping centers. It’s an important distinction: Although Landmark is a downscale mall in a neighborhood, a city, and a region that have become increasingly prosperous, it has managed to gain an advantage in the world of holiday pet photography.

“PetSmart has a Pet Night with Santa, but I heard that Santa is a woman with a fake beard,” says Neal.

Landmark Mall, Alexandria’s only enclosed shopping center, has been stagnant for some time. A 2005 report, commissioned by the City of Alexandria, on the center and its surrounding area states, “Landmark Mall has experienced declining sales in recent years and is—like many older shopping centers around the country—coming under scrutiny as the retail world and consumer preferences continue to evolve and change.”

The mall’s current owner and manager, Chicago-headquartered General Growth Properties, wants to modernize Landmark, which was built in 1965. The company is seeking to turn the structure into a town-square-style mix of shops, eateries, and residences, called Landmark Village, as part of a larger plan to revitalize the city’s entire West End. The city is expected to make a decision in early 2006. General Growth Properties declined to comment for this article.

It’s about time for another grand reinvention of this sprawling commercial space at the crux of I-395 and Duke Street. After all, it’s been 15 years since the last one. In 1990, planners turned the lifeless outdoor Landmark Center into the enclosed, glass-ceilinged Landmark Mall. Now, they want to remove the structure’s ceiling in the name of revitalization. But grand plans have never stopped the mall from eventually backsliding, as evidenced by the steady desertion of chain stores—including Old Navy and the Gap in the past few years. Now the mall depends on retail tenants such as D7 for Men and Tobacconist Essentials, sandwiched between anchors Sears and Hecht’s.

If you believe the mall’s owners, this lineup will eventually yield to a more lively mix featuring condominiums and perhaps even a movie theater. The cycle raises a pressing question: Why can’t everyone just be happy with a second-class shopping mall?

With no customers to wait on, Chris Jang, a seasonal employee of the store Fan Club 2, stands in the establishment’s doorway and watches kids playing just outside of it. On a Monday evening in December, two boys are messing around with a projected-video-display system, hung right near the entrance of the store, called “Reactrix.”

The Reactrix is a giant machine suspended from the ceiling that projects interactive images onto a floor mat, to the delight of young people trapped in marathon shopping expeditions with their parents. By hopping on the Reactrix floor, Dance Dance Revolution—style, they can kick a flat soccer ball back and forth, splash around in a digital pond and scare fish, or stomp on animated golden kernels until they blossom into popcorn.

The games are supposed to encourage shoppers to linger and spend more money—the displays can even be customized with ads from stores in the mall, a step Landmark has failed to implement. The Reactrix Web site calls its product an “irresistable [sic], new, interactive advertising medium!” But, having witnessed the machine firsthand, Jang is not impressed. He says the apparatus hasn’t brought any additional business to Fan Club 2.

“That brings more people to play, not shop,” says Jang. “We need people to shop, not play.”

Fan Club 2 holds the distinction of being the only mom-and-pop operation in the mall that has a sister store under the same roof. The flagship Fan Club, which also sells the toys and candy that dominate at Fan Club 2, is just an escalator ride away. Jang, a family friend of the owner who pitches in at the store during times of peak sales, says Fan Club has been here three years now; Fan Club 2, less than a year.

Having twice the presence at Landmark doesn’t mean much—Jang says both stores suffered from disappointing sales on Black Friday. That’s the day after Thanksgiving and the official opening day of the holiday shopping season, when, legend has it, retailers’ balance sheets move from red to black. “It was not what we predicted,” he says of the poor sales on that day. Jang blames the mall’s decreased traffic on the disappearance of chain stores.

“Our other stores do better,” he says, noting the heftier sales numbers of outlets in Springfield and Frederick.

Jang says he watched as different retailers packed up and left the mall—his uncle had a store in Landmark, Delta Electronics, but he eventually bailed in search of greater profits.

“[My uncle] left to go to another mall, but that mall was even worse, so…”

In the Aug. 30, 1985, issue of the Alexandria Gazette Packet, an Alexandria newspaper, a picture of a futuristic mall with the caption “New Shopping Palace” appears on Page B3. The piece was run in anticipation of the 1990 transformation. The article goes on to brag of 150 shops—“a real jump from the existing 43.”

Landmark Mall hasn’t dropped back down to 43 stores—yet—but it no longer feels like a contemporary retail complex. Landmark currently has more than 120 retail tenants, but that figure includes kiosks, service providers such as beauty salons, and nontraditional renters such as a dance studio and a community-policing site. Some shoppers have clear memories of the its heyday.

“What happened?” asks shopper Patty Winters as she approaches the Santa Plus area. “This display used to be magnificent!”

Winters has alighted on the Christmas scene at around 8 p.m. on a Monday night. The Santa Plus people have already begun winding down; they don’t officially close up until 9 p.m., so they use the slow time to straighten the holiday display, brushing away pet hair and such. Santa pops Vitamin C drops and rubs on antibacterial hand gel.

The cordoned-off area just in front of Lord & Taylor’s first-floor entrance holds a big green cage and an oversized plush red chair, and it’s decorated with empty boxes wrapped to look like presents. “This display used to be right in the center—it was magnificent,” Winters continues. “It’s a shadow of its former self.”

Santa further horrifies Winters by pointing out that the green cage, the dominant feature of the display, is not even supposed to be up in the mall at this time of year.

“That’s the Easter Bunny’s cage,” Santa says.

“You’re right!” Winters says, amazed that the mall has recycled its spring display.

The Santa setup is indeed a huge letdown compared to displays of Christmas past. A 1999 Washington Post Weekend-section piece on holiday shopping discussed the Landmark holiday display, saying that “[a]s children wait in line, they can phone elves in Santa’s workshop and see an elf hologram in the new, interactive Santa Land set.” The story also spoke of brand-new decorations such as “white curtain-style lights and a ‘wonderland’ theme.”

Landmark earned even greater approbation earlier in the decade. A Post story from 1991 described Landmark as possessing the “mother of all Christmas trees: a towering, 56-foot artificial tree decorated with red and gold bows, pine cones, berries” and “strangely hypnotic candles.” The author gushed about a tree “so big and so beautiful that it almost takes your breath away.”

The tree wasn’t put up this year—its normal spot in the mall’s center atrium, where it stretches through all three floors and nearly touches the ceiling, is now occupied by various kiosks, including a calendar stand. “This is a cursed location,” Winters says.

“This is terrible,” Winters says, “but right after 9/11, I remember driving by the mall, and it was closed. There was a cop sitting out front, and I stopped and asked him, you know, ‘Why is the mall closed?’ He said that, because of the attack, a lot of places where a lot of people normally gather are closed. I said, ‘Again, why is Landmark Mall closed?’”

There is no surer sign of a healthy mall than the existence of a Things Remembered. Although most shopping malls carry necessities at a relatively high price point, an argument can be made that one can’t live without shoes, clothing, and certain housewares. But no one truly requires paperweights, gunmetal money clips, and stainless-steel flasks. And we damn sure don’t need them engraved with our initials.

A branch of Things Remembered can survive only in a place that generates retail delirium. And so, on the second floor of Landmark Mall’s mostly empty Sears wing, lies a vacant, forgotten Things Remembered.

The Sears wing is the most barren section of Landmark. The majority of the former storefronts surrounding the appliance mill either have been walled over or sit abandoned and gated. It’s a grim but well-trafficked corridor—buses serving the mall drop off and pick up passengers outside the entrance to this area, meaning most anyone coming to Landmark via public transportation will travel through the passageway to get to the shops.

Along the way are a vacant Subway, Burger King, and shoe-repair place called Cobbler’s Bench. The Subway and Burger King are no longer functional, but passers-by can still peer inside and see the innards of the closed fast-food restaurants—plastic booth seating, signage, and all. They both are well-preserved and look as if they’re closed for the day rather than permanently.

The old Cobbler’s Bench site is also open to view, but it’s in disrepair. A sign near the entrance says that the shop moved to a new location closer to Landmark’s center court on Nov. 15. But what remains of the store makes it look as if the proprietors fled in the night; the space resembles a crime scene that no one has bothered to clean up. There is paint strewn everywhere, and bits of trash litter the stained carpet. On a recent Thursday evening, a woman passing through stopped to survey the damage. Spotting a huge smear of red paint on a far wall, she clutched her hand to her mouth.

“¿Accidente?” she wondered aloud before moving along.

Just a few feet away from the trio of the most dilapidated retail spaces in the shopping center is a sign that asks: “What Brings You?” Similar signs are in several places in the mall, usually used to decorate a plain white wall that is covering the front doors of a dead space. Each one answers its question by rattling off the benefits of a trip to Landmark, trying to convince shoppers of a fact that was once quietly conveyed by the presence of an operational store in the same site: that Landmark Mall is a worthwhile place to shop.

This sign is focused on Landmark’s many events: Little bubbles advertise different mall happenings, such as a monthly senior’s event, yoga, and a children’s reading program. Another sign in the Sears wing, just feet away, again asks shoppers why they insist on showing up. This one ticks off the most popular remaining stores: Sears, Chick-Fil-A, and Petite Sophisticate.

The sign faces the unmistakable frame of the abandoned Old Navy, a vacancy that mall management can’t seem to patch over. The space temporarily housed a dance studio for a while until the business could move into a renovated former sporting-goods space on the other side of the complex. Now that footwear warehouse the Shoe Dept. has fled to a more prominent mall location, the only retail stores between the mall’s entrance and Sears are Radio Shack and a portrait studio called the Picture People.

Although the Sears wing has essentially collapsed, mall management appears to be doing everything possible to make the center hold. The mall’s core is often the first area glimpsed by those desirable shoppers who arrive by car. Here, things aren’t being walled over or left to sit exposed and ugly. And management seems to be struggling to keep every retail space in this area occupied. But where magnets once ruled, mom-and-pops now reside. Eddie Bauer is now A Dollar Store. Brentano’s has become Kelechi African Imports, which sells imports from the motherland out of a place that still looks very much like the stuffy bookstore, complete with lantern sconces outside and cream-and-green trim. The Gap is now bargain lingerie store Body Basics.

Although many of the businesses that have left Landmark can now be found at other nearby malls, the flight of others is harder for shoppers to bear. Food is an especially touchy subject.

“There’s no pizza!” laments shopper Ken Crupa. “You can’t have a mall without pizza. And Burger King! The King is done.”

According to those tasked with Landmark’s revitalization, the mall’s problem is that it’s surrounded on all sides by major roadways and is, therefore, inaccessible to pedestrians. It also suffers stiff competition from nearby Springfield Mall, Pentagon City, and Tysons Corner Center. Not only does it lack a stable of sought-after chain stores that don’t exist in other area malls, but it’s less convenient. Disembarking at the nearest Metro station still requires a five- to 10-minute bus ride—not like Pentagon City, where shoppers can step off of a train and into the upscale mall without the outside air ever touching their faces.

Neal says she isn’t necessarily opposed to what could be the second major overhaul the mall has undergone in just over 15 years, but she likes the place as is. “Why don’t they just leave it alone?” she wonders. “But—if they put a Wal-Mart in here, it’d be slammin’!

Employees have a lot of free time to discuss Landmark. With few customers, the mall has become a place where workers can slack off in ways that employees of other malls only dream about: chatting on the phone, long smoke breaks—you name it.

Inside of Jewelry & That, which is soon closing up shop and has been conducting a 20 percent “retiring sale” for a couple of weeks, the elderly woman who runs the place is almost always in a chair, covered in a flowered blanket, her feet propped up. One guy in a housewares store blares rap music, and, on a recent Monday evening, a woman working the Deep South Snow Shakes sits on the counter, cross-legged, eating a bag of tortilla chips. On a slow Friday afternoon, all of the on-duty manicurists at Nails & Spa crowd around a single workstation to play cards.

But when faced with customers, the employees perk up. The swaddled jewelry-store employee throws off her covering and offers a cheery “May I help you?” when the store’s doorbell sounds. The rap fan clicks the station over to classical when people enter his establishment.

Jang, of Fan Club 2, blames management for the languor. He says that once word spread that the mall may undergo a renovation, tenants began leaving in droves. He believes that if mall management hadn’t publicized the proposed renovation as much, it might have been able to renew the leases of some of the key stores.

“They had it on their Web site!” Jang says of the overview of the plan for Landmark Village. “I think they still have it on their Web site. I mean, that’s like saying, ‘Don’t come to Landmark no more, we don’t have anything for you.’”

Niza Nemkul, an assistant manager at the clothing store GQ Casual, which has had space in Landmark for a year and a half, says that small retailers aren’t experiencing the traffic that they expected to by operating in a full-fledged enclosed mall.

“A lot of stores are leaving now, and the mall is slow because of that, I guess,” Nemkul says. “Hecht’s, Sears, they’ll stay…but people are looking for certain stores, Gap, Old Navy. They’re not here, which makes people go to another mall.”

Joyce Alston, who works at Casual Corner Annex, the former August Max Woman, is indifferent to the fate of the mall she’s worked in since 2002. “Some days are better than others,” she says of business at her store. “It’s slow sometimes. It just varies.” Alston says she doesn’t know much about the history of the mall or the proposed renovations—they don’t really affect her. “We’re closing in January. The company is gone—not gone, but it won’t exist anymore. I’m leaving no matter what they do.”

On Black Friday, shopping-center lots across the country are filled with cars, and Landmark’s is no exception. But then, Landmark’s lot is always full. The unsheltered top tier of parking holds row upon row of automobiles—Cadillacs, Acuras—the sort of rides that reflect the kind of customer that every mall hopes to attract.

Unlike the cars parked at other regional retail monoliths such as Montgomery Mall, Pentagon City, and Springfield Mall, however, most of the vehicles on Landmark’s upper deck lack license plates. They are covered with removable white sheets of plastic, put on at the factory to prevent sun damage, and many have sticker prices affixed to the insides of their windows. They have never been driven.

Because many of Landmark’s 4,900 parking spaces go unused on any given day, local car dealerships have been using the third level, and part of the second level, of Landmark’s enormous parking structure as a holding pen for new cars. Apparently, car sellers such as Passport Nissan, Lindsay Cadillac, Landmark Honda, and Radley Acura are desperate for storage—and what better spot than Landmark Mall?

There may come a time when Landmark could surrender its entire garage to dealerships and still provide enough parking spaces for those who love to shop there.

And there are still those who enjoy patronizing Landmark. One man seems to speak for Landmark’s entire small-but-loyal patron base as he shouts out his reason for coming while dashing out of the mall: “There’s never anyone here—it’s so easy to get in and out,” he says. CP