Barracks Road Shopping Center’s go-to location for bird feeders, peacock wind spinners, and outdoor furniture is nearly empty now. Plow & Hearth will end its 30-year-plus run at Barracks Road March 1, and increased rent was a factor in the decision to shutter the store.
“Our lease was coming to term and it had some economics that didn’t work for us,” says Paul Abugattas, Plow & Hearth director of retail operations. “Our online business is healthy while retail continues to decline.” The company has closed five of its 23 stores in the past year, and plans to invest more in its Madison properties, including a flagship store there, he says.
Ten or so employees at the Barracks Road location will soon be out of jobs.
The area’s oldest shopping center once boasted a zero percent vacancy rate, but about 6 percent of Barracks Road’s square footage currently is unoccupied, according to its website. That includes the still-empty, 16,000-square-foot former CVS store and Brixx Pizza.
The Brixx space is available for an eye-popping $25,000 a month, according to Jerry Miller, CEO of VMV Brands and I Love CVille Real Estate. “Two different restaurateurs told me that,” he says. Asked to confirm, Federal Realty, which owns the shopping center, says it does “not share details pertaining to leases.”
“Because the rents are getting to be so high,” says Miller, “the local mom-and-pop and brick-and-mortar stores are priced out.” Those establishments, he says, will filter to midtown (West Main) and downtown, where former Barracks Road tenants Shenanigans and Lynne Goldman Elements, respectively, have migrated. He predicts Barracks Road will become a “bastion of national brands that have very little ties to this community.”
Many retailers across the country are struggling and closing stores, despite the strong economy. The New York Times reports 9,000 shuttered in 2019, with another 1,200 closings announced so far this year. Fashion Square Mall has seen a steady stream of vacancies, losing anchor Sears and most recently Gap.
At Barracks Road, “Our business is down from a year ago,” says HotCakes co-owner Keith Rosenfeld. The gourmet café and bakery has been in the shopping center since 1992, and he doesn’t remember seeing so many open spaces.
He says Barracks Road is “still the best, most established shopping center in town,” with Stonefield in that same high-end niche. But if local specialty shops can’t afford to be there, “you get more schlock, more national chains.”
And restaurant chains make it tougher for establishments like HotCakes, which makes everything in-house and employs around 50 people earning double-digit hourly wages.
With the rise of e-commerce, the trend in the shopping center industry is more “lifestyle experiences,” says Rosenfeld, because “visitation and spending in malls is going down.” Some, like Stonefield, have a movie theater to draw people, and there are more restaurants.
“Unless the industry can figure out how to get people to eat two to three lunches, it’s very hard to grow sales,” says Rosenfeld.
Many locals have wondered about the viability of Stonefield, which is losing Pier 1, and saw the closure of Travinia and Rocksalt last year.
But others say business is just fine. “Stonefield has worked out great for us,” says third-generation retailer Mark Mincer, who opened a Mincer’s there in 2013. “We’re reaching a lot of area people who don’t necessarily come to the Corner.” And his business has gotten better since L.L. Bean opened next door, he says.
Mincer notes that his rent goes up 3 percent every year at both the Corner and Stonefield. “I don’t love it,” he says. “If we want to go to Ruckersville, we could find something cheaper.”
The Times attributes the decline of retail not so much to e-commerce, but to factors like big box stores and income inequality, which mean retailers catering to high- and low-income customers are seeing growth, but those targeting the middle class, which has seen an unrelenting decline in income, are suffering.
HotCakes’ Rosenfeld agrees, noting Charlottesville’s “extremely high rents and cost of living.” Would-be shoppers paying $1,200 a month in rent for an apartment don’t have as much disposable income, he says. He also thinks the number of centers that have opened in the past few years have impacted existing stores.
The upcoming opening of Chick-fil-A in Barracks Road Shopping Center is expected to generate traffic to the mall—although that isn’t likely to help establishments like HotCakes.
Federal’s VP of asset management, Deirdre Johnson, says the center has recently added Zoom and Club Pilates “in response to the demand for boutique fitness.” Spring Street Boutique and a Mahana Fresh franchise will be opening soon.
“Most of the new stores are locally owned, providing Barracks Road a healthy mix of local, regional, and national merchants to best serve our community,” she says.
Spring Street owner Cynthia Schroeder is bucking the trend of area retailers exiting Barracks Road. “I think it’s the first place people think of to go shopping,” she says. “It’s one of the best malls in the country. It’s where people go to go clothes shopping.”
She declines to say what her rent is, but acknowledges: “It’s not inexpensive.”
Schroeder will close her Downtown Mall store and expects to open the new one in the spring. She isn’t worried about the empty storefronts at Barracks Road. “I think they’re going to fill those.”