Talking the walk: Is Antiquer's Mall salvageable?

In a recent full-page advertisement in the Daily Progress, the new owners of the Riverside Mall, more popularly known as Antiquer's Mall, announced a "Stop, Shop, & Stroll Day." Under the mournful slogan, "You Drive By Us Every Day," the ad invited shoppers to "stroll" the mall and visit the various shops, much like shoppers are encouraged to stroll around the Downtown Mall or the Barracks Road Shopping Center.

It would seem like a normal holiday promotion for a shopping mall, except for one thing: there's precious little place to "stroll" at Riverside.

As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, "You have some 'splainin' to do!" Unfortunately, Riverside Group LLC.– the current owners who paid Wendell Wood $12.5 million for the 9.7-acre property in May– did not return the Hook's phone calls by press time.

But according to commercial real estate broker Stu Rifkin, the beleaguered mall, which Wood developed in the 1980s, could be on its last legs. At one time, says Rifkin, Antiquer's Mall took up most of the space at Riverside and was a real destination for antiquers.

"It was great," says Rikin. "It was like Circa on steroids." Now it's uncertain whether there'll be an Antiquer's Mall at all. According to Antiquer's owner Mike Woorley, they're breaking ground for a new place further up 29 North in a few months.

"I think the landlords have done more advertising for Wal-Mart than Riverside by always referring to us as 'the place near Wal-Mart,'" says Woorley. "It would have been nice to have a sign for the mall, too."

Still, Woorley says he has no hard feelings and is looking forward to cheaper digs up the road. Of course, that leaves the mall without its signature store. But somehow it survived the several years-ago departure of Federal Express. (Before that, doomed Internet retailer Value America filled some retail frontage with offices!) Today, the mix includes a pizza joint, luxury spa and wood stove purveyors, and gymnastics and tae kwon do lessons.

Riverside faces design and location challenges beyond their mix of neighbors. For starters, people "drive by" them every day because, as Woorley points out, no sign exists to identify the space as a mall, and because access from Route 29 is so confusing.

The entrance for people heading north is at the Wal-Mart intersection– well before Riverside is even visible, visually confusing no matter which way you're headed. Even folks hoping to get there by bus face a death-defying run across the wide, high-speed 29. Charlottesville Transit Service's Route 5 goes all the way to Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, but the bus comes in from Berkmar Drive and stays on the Wal-Mart side of Route 29.

And even for the intrepid shoppers who mange to find the place, an array of design features make it less than ideal for a stroll when compared to some better-known shopping venues.

The Downtown Mall, for instance, provides strollers with a car-free zone and acres of brick, and Barracks Road has broad sidewalks ranging from 12 to 20 feet wide. There's even a fountain in a courtyard.

The sidewalks at the Riverside? At the widest spot measured by the Hook's trusty tape-measure, they're a measly 5' 9" inches wide. That's barely enough room for two people to pass each other.

In addition to the shrunken sidewalks, there are no places to sit and no gathering points (except for lines of eager wood-stove buyers thronging to relocated Acme Stove Co.) that might encourage a stroll.

In contrast to the wide Barracks Road sidewalks that circle around and weave through the place, Riverside's unconnected pavement leads to lots of dead-ends.

As last week's column noted, the proposed streetcar project– which former mayor Maurice Cox said would "structure Charlottesville's growth for the next 25 years"– rests upon a vision of pedestrian-oriented development. But how far outside the urban core between the Downtown Mall and the Corner can that vision realistically extend?

Cox includes Barracks Road as a future stop for the streetcar, but beyond that, it's hard to imagine an area not ruled by the automobile. Still, the growing emphasis on promoting Charlottesville as a pedestrian-friendly city may prove to be contagious. In September 2003, Charlottesville City Council rewrote the city's zoning laws to allow for more pedestrian-oriented development, and the recent Court Square renovation was made possible in part by a federal grant to make it more pedestrian friendly, with wider sidewalks and underground utilities.

Now it seems the Riverside owners are experiencing delusions of pedestrian grandeur. What's next? "Stop, shop, and stroll day" at Hollymead Town Center?

The marketing folks are undoubtedly working on it right now.

A bold claim