On Tuesday, the Tacoma Mall will mark half a century as the city’s crossroads.
When it opened on Oct. 13, 1965, the mall gave Tacoma the latest must-have in shopping and simultaneously shifted the city’s retail core away from downtown.
The four-day-long grand opening drew 400,000 people — equal to Pierce County’s entire population at that time.
The sparkling new mall brought enclosed shopping to Tacoma with 71 stores, 1,500 jobs, 900,000 square feet of sales space and parking for 7,200 cars. Fireworks, singers and dancers provided entertainment during the grand opening.
Today, the mall has grown to 1.4 million square feet and employs 2,500 to 3,000 people in 150 stores. While malls have faltered and closed across the country, the Tacoma Mall still functions as it did 50 years ago — but with a few role changes.
In 1965, businessmen had cocktails at Johnny’s on the Mall, housewives picked up groceries at the Thriftway store and teens ambled down the main corridor after school.
Today, businesswomen power-lunch at the Nordstrom Cafe, men watch their kids in the play area and those 1965 teens are now 2015 retirees who sip coffee after their early morning mall walks.
In 1965, the heart of local retail was downtown Tacoma, but the exodus was on.
Interstate 5 had opened the month before, and J.C. Penney, among other stores, was preparing for its opening at the mall. Eventually downtown retailer Sears moved. The Bon Marche (now Macy’s) moved from downtown to the mall site in 1964 — a full year before the rest of the mall opened.
Over the past five decades the mall has weathered booms and busts, shifting demographics, social change and the ever-mutating shopping habits.
Many other downtown retailers wanted to join the mall movement when it opened.
The list of businesses that moved to the mall in 1965 included Andrews Women’s Apparel, Bernie’s Men’s Wear, Children’s Bootery, Klopfenstein’s, Leed’s Shoes, Lyons Apparel and Mode O’Day.
Today, few would recognize the mall of the 1960s. Buildings have been expanded, remodeled, torn down and rebuilt. Stores have come, gone or changed names.
Of the original 1965 mall stores, J.C. Penney, Hallmark, Motherhood Maternity, Zales Jewelers and Weisfield’s Jewelers are the last survivors.
Today the mall teems with shoppers lined up outside the Apple Store, getting deals at clothing purveyor Forever 21 or bellying up to sandwiches at Panera Bread.
Contrast today’s list of stores with those at the mall when it opened. Back then, only two of the mall’s three large anchor stores — the Bon Marche and J.C. Penney — were part of national chains.
The other anchor, Best’s, was part of the Nordstrom Co., which had yet to go national.
In between those behemoths were a variety of locally owned stores. A freestanding movie theater was added in 1968.
With the Bon Marche store built and open, filling the rest of the building — especially one large space at the far end — was the challenge faced by the mall’s first general manager, Lloyd Beaulaurier.
“The big thing was getting Penney’s after the Bon opened,” said Beaulaurier, who retired in 1987 and, now 93, lives in Federal Way.
When J.C. Penney signed a lease, he said, “That established the mall.”
That retail move, like in many cities, nearly brought downtown to its knees.
It’s impossible to say what downtown would be like today if the mall had never existed. But what the exodus did lead to was 25 years of struggling retail property along Pacific Avenue.
“Tacoma was no different than any other (city),” said Josh Parnell, vice president and principal at Tacoma brokerage firm First Western Properties, which finds locations for businesses. Starbucks is among its clients.
“When malls were getting going, lots of downtowns died or suffered — even downtown LA and Seattle,” Parnell said.
Downtown’s woes started turning around in 1990, when the University of Washington began building its branch campus across from the former Union Station. It utilized many of the empty storefronts on Pacific Avenue that had once been the scene of Tacoma’s commercial core.
Since then the area has become the city’s civic center with more than $1 billion spent on museums, a federal courthouse, the UWT campus and other projects.
The northern end of Pacific Avenue is now home to a burgeoning restaurant and bar scene.
THE AMERICAN ICON
The Tacoma Mall is owned by Simon Property Group, the world’s largest retail real estate landlord with $100 billion in assets, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm.
In Washington state, Simon — headquartered in Indianapolis — also owns Northgate Mall, Seattle Premium Outlets, North Bend Premium Outlets and Columbia Center in Kennewick.
About the time Simon acquired the mall in 1997 through a merger with The DeBartolo company, it was one of 30 major mall owners. Now, more consolidations have created a market of about 10 major mall owners.
Simon has the second-highest number of malls at 112. Chicago-based General Growth Properties, owner of Westlake Center in Seattle and Alderwood in Lynnwood among others in the region, has 121 malls but a lesser value of total assets.
Lynn Castle, Simon’s West Coast marketing vice president, said the Tacoma Mall is in the top third tier of its properties. And that’s a portfolio it considers the best in the country.
“That’s our philosophy: Let’s own the best mall in the market,” she said.
Castle has been with Simon for 17 years, shortly after the company took control of the Tacoma Mall in 1997. Previously, she was director of marketing at Sea-Tac Mall, now The Commons at Federal Way.
“We always paid attention to what Tacoma Mall was doing,” Castle said.
Enclosing 1.4 million square feet of retail space, the mall gets 13.5 million shopper visits annually. Over the years, I-5 has provided a constant stream of potential customers.
“Visibility of the freeway is key,” Parnell said. “That is a retail fundamental.”
Exiting the freeway and parked, 1965 mall-goers could walk through a re-imagined downtown where streets were pedestrian-only and the weather was a hermetically sealed 76 degrees.
“It was a protected urban existence,” said Ali Modarres, a professor of urban studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.
And that helped bring in tenants.
One of them was Robert Hammar, who operated Hammar’s Apparel, a small department store on Tacoma’s Hilltop.
His uniform department was doing quite well, with the store in a neighborhood rife with hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices. Those were the days, he said recently, when nurses wore white uniforms, white caps and white hosiery.
Business was good and getting better when he heard about the new mall. Interested in leasing a space, he found that only one storefront remained in the first mix of merchants.
“When I went out there and saw the traffic pattern, and the other local merchants, I literally begged for that space,” he said.
Hammar eventually got a spot and moved in.
In the beginning, he said, it was more than just money that made doing business more of a pleasure at the mall. There was the feeling of kinship among the merchants.
“It was camaraderie from Day 1,” Hammar said. “We all helped each other, we all looked out for each other.
“There was an unwritten rule that you didn’t try to steal each other’s good people. If they had outstanding sales clerks, you didn’t go in and make them a better offer.”
Hammar retired in 1993, and sold his business to a national company.
“They offered me the kind of money you didn’t want to turn down,” he said.
SUCCESS BY THE NUMBERS
Today, the Tacoma Mall isn’t a solitary figure on the local retail and entertainment landscape, said Modarres, the UWT professor.
It has fostered the development of hundreds of stores, restaurants and services that surround it, most densely along South 38th Street and on Tacoma Mall Boulevard.
That area, of which the mall comprises the majority of the real estate, accounts for 7 percent of Tacoma’s employment, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council.
“You’re essentially getting all of Pierce County drawn into the mall at some point,” said First Western Properties’ Parnell. “That why businesses like Chick-fil-A land where they do. (The mall is) a regional draw.”
Parnell’s company finds locations for businesses, both local and national. They constantly ask for locations near the mall, he said.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand, actually,” he said. “If I had 20 acres of flat land near the mall, we’d have a lot of fun.”
Though the idea of the dead or dying mall is a popular topic in national media, writing an obituary for the American mall might be premature.
About 80 percent of the country’s 1,200 malls are considered healthy, according to The New York Times. That includes any mall reporting vacancy rates of 10 percent or less.
In 2006, the number of healthy malls stood at 94 percent, according to CoStar Group, a provider of data for the real estate industry.
2014 was the best year for retail since the Great Recession, said Jesse Tron, director of communications and media relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade group.
“(Malls) are doing incredibly well, despite what you might hear,” he said.
According to Simon’s most recent annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tacoma Mall had an occupancy rate of 94.3 percent.
In its SEC report filed at the end of 2009 — during one of the worst years of the recession — the occupancy rate was 87.5 percent. In early October of this year, three stores at the mall were closed or being repurposed.
Green Street Advisors’ criteria for assessing the health of a mall includes a mix of high-end and national tenants, a high occupancy rate, a strong demand for space and good demographics.
The Tacoma Mall rates in the “A” or top category of malls, according to Green Street.
Simon would not disclose sales data — the most consistent indicator of a mall’s vibrancy — to The News Tribune. However, sales figures can be estimated based on national averages for some of the tenants at the Tacoma Mall.
GameStop’s sales per square foot is roughly $1,000. American Eagle, Buckle, Foot Locker, Aeropostale, Abercrombie and Fitch, Zumiez and Gap range roughly from $400 to $600 per square foot, according to a January Green Street report.
Another measure of mall health is employment.
The Puget Sound Regional Council tracks employment in the mall area, which is bordered by I-5, South Tacoma Way and South 48th Street.
In 1997, the area employed 7,792 people. By 2010, that number had dropped to 7,171. Businesses at the mall account for 2,500 to 3,000 of those jobs depending on the season, according to mall representatives.
Regional downturns and population decreases can affect and outright kill malls. So can a landlord who isn’t interested in reinvesting in his property, said Tron of the industry trade group.
To prosper, a mall must keep reinventing itself to avoid appearing dated, Tron said. Industry standards require malls to renovate on average once every 10 years, he said.
Renovations can include updated lighting, flooring, paint and the big push: letting in more natural light, Tron said, all in the hopes of getting more people to come and shop. (The Tacoma Mall’s skylight project took place in 2005 and 2006.)
Malls “follow the tempo of their times,” said UWT’s Modarres.
The mall first expanded in 1973, with 25 stores added to the west end, along with an anchor store that opened in 1974. The Sears wing was added in 1981.
In the 1990s, enclosed malls began to feel dated to some consumers.
Developers responded by creating open-air malls, called lifestyle centers.
In Puget Sound, University Village, near the University of Washington in Seattle, is an example of a lifestyle center. Other developers opted to start over, razing the malls entirely as the Lakewood Mall did in 2001 to become Lakewood Towne Center.
The Tacoma Mall’s food court was built in 1999 and seats just over 465 shoppers.
Another round of renovations took place in 2008, with the Lifestyle Expansion and Nordstrom relocation. The result was a grand reopening of 100,000 square feet of new retail and eateries.
Simon estimates it has spent tens of millions of dollars on the mall, including the food court, skylights and store relocations.
Today’s visitors to the Tacoma Mall can plug their electric cars into charging stations in the mall’s parking lot and attach their cellphones to charging stations inside the mall.
“We are basically taking the mall and flipping it inside out.” said Simon’s Castle. “I think that’s what you’ll continue to see (with further renovations). The vibrancy of the south side is something we’d like to replicate.”
THE RIGHT MIX AND ONLINE SHOPPERS
The stores that make up a mall are not chosen at random. Mall owners carefully consider the mix of existing tenants and the interests of shoppers when choosing a new store.
“You want to have that right blend of retailers,” Tron said. “Apparel will be No. 1 but there’s all sorts of other kinds. That might include department stores, movie theaters, luxury items, bargain stores and dining options beyond the food court.”
By those standards the Tacoma Mall has done its job.
Anchor stores Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney’s, Nordstrom and Forever 21 place the mall into a super-regional status, Castle said.
In between those are inline stores that range from high-end Michael Kors to bargain-centric Old Navy. While the food court is still going strong there also are free-standing sit-down options, including Blazing Onion and BJ’s.
The decisions on the mall’s tenant mix are made at Simon’s national level. But local managers have input.
“We definitely share our thoughts on what our customers want,” said the Tacoma Mall director of marketing, Sarah Bonds.
Though the Tacoma Mall has competitors from Olympia to points north, it remains a regional draw, Bonds said.
“We definitely have great regional stores that attract people from Vancouver (Washington) and Olympia,” she said. “You can’t find a Nordstrom south of here until you hit Portland. There’s no Apple Store south of here (in Washington state).”
Unlike Bellevue’s upscale malls, the Tacoma Mall still serves a general constituency — but that is changing.
Recently added luxury goods retailers such as Lush Cosmetics, Michael Kors, The Art of Shaving and White House/Black Market are pushing the mall into a category that the industry terms “aspirational or near luxury,” Castle said.
In its 2015 “U.S. Mall Outlook” report, Green Street predicted online shopping will continue to take up a larger share of retail sales but said better quality malls are adapting.
“The impact is difficult to quantify, and the line between physical and online retail has become increasingly blurred,” the report stated.
Customers “do all the research online and then go into the store to make the final purchase,” Tron said. “They’re sussing out the different price points, the color comparisons, but they need to come in and try it on or interact with it if it’s a device.”
“The shoppers here want to look, touch, feel and have immediate gratification,” she said.
TODAY’S SHOPPERS AND THE INDIE SCENE
When the Tacoma Mall opened, only a few stores such as The Bon Marche, Sears and Hallmark had name recognition. The stores in between were mainly local and most likely one of a kind.
Now, almost all the stores in an A-list mall such as Tacoma’s will have a national reputation, according to Green Street.
The smaller the mall, the more likely it will have mom-and-pop businesses, Tron said. Aberdeen’s Southshore Mall, for example, is almost entirely made up of independent retailers.
The Tacoma Mall still has several local stores, most on a corridor leading to Sears.
“We like to find a balance between the national chains and the local market that really give a mall the flavor of the local environment,” Simon’s Castle said.
Uncle’s Games Puzzles and More is one of five in a chain that stretches from Spokane to Puget Sound. All but one are in malls, said Tacoma manager Rob Hubbard. The stores sell board games, card games, dice, puzzles and other non-electronic games.
“Being in a mall is advantage for our store,” Hubbard said. “It’s nice having the traffic, people just walking by.”
He estimates nearly half of his customers stumble upon the store.
“There would be a lot more people interested in games but they just don’t know it yet because they were raised on Monopoly and that’s it,” Hubbard said.
Next door to Uncle’s is Self Expressions, a tattoo and piercings store. Owner Dede Covington has had the store five years. Her current space is the third she’s had in the mall.
Covington originally had a long-term lease but switched to a monthly lease.
“It cut my rent in half but it but it put me in a situation where I could be booted out of my store,” she said. “That’s what happened. Somebody wanted my location.”
She acknowledged that her arm of the mall is slower than the main corridor.
“Every time we move business goes down, but then we get our clientele back and business goes back up,” Covington said.
“(Tattoos and piercings have) evolved and become a little more mainstream and more acceptable. Because of that being in the mall is a good thing because we’re a little more trusted and safe for people to come into.”
However, Covington noted, “the hard-core tattoo customers don’t really care for malls.”
Like Uncle’s, Covington said she gets a lot of customers through serendipity.
“They will look at all of our art and talk to our artists and end up coming back for an appointment,” she said.
A VERITABLE TOWN SQUARE
Nabila Kadi is the Tacoma Mall’s guest services representative. From her circular outpost at the main crossroads the Info Desk Lady sees it all. And gets asked it all.
The three most common questions?
“Where is the restroom? Where is the Apple Store? Where is the food court?” she recites without hesitation.
At that last question she looks up to 4-foot tall letters that spell out FOOD COURT. Kadi is too polite to point at the gigantic sign. She just directs hungry visitors down the corridor.
Kadi says the mall is a veritable town square.
“I see all walks of life here,” she said. “People with money, and (people) with not much money. Even people who just grab some candy and walk around.”
Sooner or later everyone passes by.
Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
GETTING STARTED: LIST OF ORIGINAL TACOMA MALL STORES
TACOMA MALL’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Macy’s Court inside Tacoma Mall.
What: Display of photos from 1965 grand opening, cake, hula hoops, 1960s music, face painting, photo opportunities.