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roanoke-salem plaza

 

Roanoke-Salem Plaza opened in 1962 at the intersection of Melrose Avenue (US 11/460) and Peters Creek Road (Route 117) in the northwest section of the city near its border with the city of Salem.  RSP was the third large shopping center to open in two years in the Roanoke Valley, after the enclosed Crossroads Mall, three miles east and two-level Towers Shopping Center, five miles south.  Its developer was B.F. Saul.  Original anchors were Leggett and Miller & Rhoads department stores, G.C. Murphy and Woolworth’s variety stores, Winn-Dixie supermarket and Peoples Drug.  Other stores from the early days include Hofheimer’s Shoes, Radio Shack, First National Exchange Bank, Sidney’s (women’s apparel), Thom McAn, and Lerner Shops. 

 

RSP’s deign was innovative for its time.  The Y-shaped center faced Melrose Avenue and featured a long landscaped pedestrian promenade along its main axis.  At the bottom end of the Y was Leggett, the mall’s largest store.  The east end of the Y featured Miller & Rhoads and G.C. Murphy, which had both street and mall entrances.  The west end had Peoples Drug and Winn-Dixie.  Peoples had a prime corner position at the intersection of the Y.  Winn-Dixie was next door and faced two parking lots on opposite sides of the store which gave them maximum exposure and led to a unique design featuring two banks of cash registers.  Woolworth’s was in a prime position midway through the mall, with its large luncheonette visible to shoppers through the plate glass windows.

 

Despite being an open-air shopping center in a largely residential neighborhood, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was designed in the manner of an enclosed mall.  It did not lend itself to a convenient shopping experience.   Except for Winn-Dixie and Leggett, the stores at RSP had precious little storefront parking.  Shoppers, in theory, would park in the front, rear or west side of the mall and leisurely walk down the promenade past the various shops, leading to uncontrolled impulse buying along the way.  The design ideas made sense for a regional shopping center like Crossroads Mall, where shoppers came from as far away as southern West Virginia, but never quite worked for RSP, which had a more “local” tenant mix and customer base.   The novelty factor of the mall worked for only about five years, and then the problems started. 

 

By the late 1960s, “white flight” had led to most of the target shopping audience moving away to avoid the blacks that were settling in to the neighborhood.  It should be noted that the blacks were displaced from other areas of Roanoke by urban renewal, and Northwest Roanoke was the easiest and least hostile place to relocate.   A silent, largely racist, boycott of the center by white middle-class citizens helped cause store closures starting in the early ‘70s.  The pace accelerated when the enclosed “state-of-the-art” Tanglewood Mall opened in 1973 and Leggett, G.C. Murphy, and Miller & Rhoads all opened stores there, making RSP less of a regional retail destination. 

 

The writing was on the wall, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was in trouble.  As the ‘70s progressed, every aspect of the mall began to suffer.  Stores continued to leave, the landscaping and maintenance went to pot, and crime went up.  People were afraid to walk down the promenade, especially at night, for fear of being mugged.  Extreme heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter led many to choose the enclosed Crossroads and Tanglewood malls rather than “rough it” at RSP.  Were it not for the initial determination of Leggett and Miller & Rhoads to stay at the center (they still did decent business), the mall would surely have been dead by the late ‘70s.

 

In 1978, developer Henry Faison proposed Valley View Mall, a substantial new shopping center that would be built on a large tract of land at the intersection of I-581 and Hershberger within three miles of RSP.  Miller & Rhoads was one of the first stores to sign to Valley View and announced plans to close their Roanoke-Salem Plaza and downtown Roanoke stores when the new mall opened.  Valley View was located in the “clear zone” for the local airport and was hotly contested for many years but by 1982, Faison had won approval for his plans and prepared for a 1985 opening. 

 

By the early ‘80s, it was clear that RSP would not be a viable retail location for much longer.  G.C. Murphy pulled out in 1981, leaving a 55,000 square foot vacancy that sat empty for half a decade.  Not long after, Leggett announced it was moving to Valley View.  Many tenants complained that the mall’s owner B.F. Saul was intentionally letting the center go to pot.  Saul countered that the mall would be renovated when Peters Creek Road was extended along the west side of the property.  Previously, Peters Creek Road terminated at the west end of the mall near Winn-Dixie.  The road project, proposed in the early ‘60s, was not completed until the late ‘90s, and Saul never renovated the center, even as substantially all of the anchor and chain tenants pulled out in 1985.

 

In 1986, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was sold to Walt Robbins, a developer who specialized in distressed shopping center properties.  Robbins had renovated a similar center elsewhere in Virginia and turned it into a popular destination.  He had a challenge on his hands with RSP, to be sure.  Winn-Dixie, Peoples Drug and Woolworth’s were still there, but little else.  Robbins renovated the center, adding a clock tower at its main entrance and new signage throughout, bringing in closeout chain U.S. Factory Outlets to replace G.C. Murphy.   The name was inverted as well, to “The Plaza of Roanoke-Salem.”  He based his renovations on what he thought was the impending Peters Creek Road extension, promising to bring in more new stores and even more enhancements when the road was completed.  But the road project continued to stall, Robbins eventually sold the center and the factory outlet store closed almost as soon as it opened.  The three remaining anchors were gone by 1991, leaving little more than a shell of a building.

 

A funny thing happened on the way to obscurity.   Roanoke-Salem Plaza became a de facto “power center,” due in no small part to the Peters Creek Road extension which finally happened circa 1998.  Now called Roanoke-Salem Business Plaza, it was brought back to relative life by a series of outlet and parts stores which all grouped along the highways for maximum visibility.  Around 1995, Office Outlet, a used office furniture store, moved into the former Winn-Dixie.  Business was good enough to justify an expansion into the former Peoples Drug a short time later.  The former Miller & Rhoads became a fireplace accessory shop and then an appliance parts store.   Woolworth’s became a carpet outlet, while Leggett briefly became a business college and then an auto parts warehouse.  A series of smaller spaces were combined to create a space for Harbor Freight Tools in 2002, and smaller spaces are occupied by a computer store and a free-distribution paper

 

Roanoke-Salem Plaza missed out on being Roanoke, Virginia’s first large mall but it certainly became the area’s first dead mall.  Even though is partially occupied, all is not well.  The area still has crime problems and the promenade is still deserted.  The whole east side of the center is empty and looks much like it did in 1981.  Even though the Peters Creek extension has turned the site into a high traffic intersection, the neighborhood is too poor and too close to Valley View Mall to justify the development of chain stores.  Unless something changes, Roanoke-Salem Plaza’s fate will be to limp along as a shadow of its former self. 

 

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