University Mall’s facelift nears completion

The long-awaited renovations to the University Mall will be open to students and the Fairfax community this November. The construction is updating existing storefronts and adding new businesses, a large outdoor courtyard and a community gathering room.

According to a presentation by University Mall Owner Richard Wolff, the new businesses will include a Tropical Smoothie, an ABC store and a new branch of a Virginia restaurant chain, featuring mostly Italian entrees.

According to Rosemary Ryan, a land use aide, the mall’s owners led the drive for the renovations.

“By and large, the communities that surround the Mall, with the exception of Mason, were staying pretty stable,” Ryan said. “But the growing and changing needs of the Mason students caused the mall owners to realize they needed to really do some major updating and so this was their initiative.”

While the construction has been going on for almost two years, there have been some delays due to environmental precautions and inclement weather.

According to Ryan, Giant Food’s slow decision to renovate also delayed the process. The decision finally came after Braddock District Supervisor John Cook wrote a letter explaining that the existing Giant was undersized and poorly serving the students.

“Finally, when Giant looked at the demographics of Mason, they decided that it really did fit their profile,” Ryan said. “But then the two-story addition that they originally looked at, which had elevators in the building and had lots more storage for goods in that store itself, came back way too expensive.”

While most of the mall will be completed by November, Giant will not begin construction until 2015.

“I don’t think they were aware of the fabulous economic opportunity that focusing on the Mason students and that campus community would have for their business model,” Ryan said.

During the process, some of the mall’s businesses experienced difficulties with the ongoing construction. An inconvenience for customers and business alike was loss of parking spaces, University Mall Theatre owner Mark O’Meara said.

Though many customers found their way around the construction to use the theatre, some periods were more difficult than others. According to O’Meara, construction used the theatre parking lot during University Mall Theatre’s popular $2 Tuesdays, which negatively affected customer traffic.

The renovations to the Theatre will include a larger front door entrance area and three more bathrooms near the entrance.

Despite some financial inconveniences, including raised rent and a necessary digital upgrade to theatre equipment, O’Meara said he’s optimistic about the effect of the renovations on business.

“I don’t like having pressure on my prices. I like to be a bargain house and family oriented and thrifty,” O’Meara said. “But I’m the optimist. I think it’ll be better.”

Local restaurant Brion’s Grille experienced the loss of some regular customers due to inconvenient conditions in the parking lot, Manager Jordan Doss said. Despite the difficulties presented by the construction, Brion’s Grille is also updating the restaurant interior and gaining an outdoor seating area.

“Our thought was it’s going to be a new facade,” Doss said. “We’re going to have this new, great looking exterior,  a new sign to bring in some people and people are going to say ‘hey, Brion’s got a facelift, let’s come on in,’ and we want to show them something.”

This story was originally published in the August 25, 2014 print edition of Fourth Estate.