Lakeforest Mall, January 2023 by the author.

Gaithersburg’s Lakeforest Mall will close in March, the latest casualty in a long line of once-bustling malls that lost their place, and business. The mall is nostalgic for me, and so, wanting to see it again while I still could, I took a few hours on a recent Saturday to visit Gaithersburg and walk the mall.

And whoa, I was not prepared for the wash of emotions and memories that walked with me.

The mall I grew up with

Lakeforest is just about the same age I am, dating to, uh, around 1980. We spent our youths together. When the mall was exciting and busy, I was a kid, enchanted by its color and vigor.

I remember playing in the pebble pit lounges, buying pretzels with high school dates, riding that neon-outlined glass elevator, and feeling like an absolute 11-year-old king as it rose above that luxurious amphitheater fountain.

The best store the mall ever had was Natural Wonders, but I spent more of my hard-earned babysitting money at Lids, Vie De France, and Waldenbooks. When Cinnabon first opened it blew my mind.

Lakeforest's glass elevator rises above its central court, which was once a fountain.  Image by the author.

I graduated high school in 1999, and it was right around then that Lakeforest’s slow decline began. Town Centers like Rio and Kentlands were becoming the new gathering spots, and if you wanted a mall, well, Lakeforest was no Montgomery or Tysons.

The food court was added around that time, as an early attempt to stave off decline. It worked for a while, but only a while. Sbarro’s draw has its limits.

So it’s been clear the mall’s days were numbered for years. Decades really. Typically, enclosed malls have a lifespan, and Lakeforest has already passed its. But to know a thing intellectually is different than to see and feel it.

Hate to admit it but

As I walked Lakeforest’s cleverly designed circuit, meticulously laid out to make every visitor want to pass by every shop, I was stunned to find myself tearing up at what soon will be gone. That feeling of remembered love took me by surprise because the fact is I don’t love malls. In fact, I hate them.

I hate how they steal a community’s most walkable environment, its de facto vibrant downtown, and wall it off behind private ownership and an ocean of asphalt for Black Friday. I hate how fake they are, and how controlled, and how one-minded, and how completely the opposite of what I value about cities.

The town center that will replace Lakeforest, still in its early stages of planning, will surely be better on all those terms.

But damn if I’m not sad at Lakeforest’s end. It turns out I love that magical place.

I typed the bulk of this post sitting alone in the nearly dead mall, in one of those weird stone lounge pits at the end of every hallway, where I played as a kid, made out as a teen, and forgot about for years at a time as an adult. It seems unlikely I’ll ever sit there again. Goodbye, Lakeforest, and thank you.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.