Bill Virgin: Malls sink or swim in retail pool

Benjamin Flack, left, and Danielle Lance enjoy the park-like setting outside the Tacoma Mall.
Benjamin Flack, left, and Danielle Lance enjoy the park-like setting outside the Tacoma Mall. Staff photographer

The golden era for construction of regional shopping malls in Washington sprawled across multiple decades.

Bellevue Square started back in 1946, although department store tenants didn’t arrive until the 1950s. Northgate followed in 1950. Southcenter opened in 1968, with Everett Mall added in 1974, SeaTac Mall (now the Commons at Federal Way) in 1975, Olympia’s Capital Mall in 1977, Alderwood in 1979 and South Hill Mall in Puyallup in 1988. Lakewood Mall, a redevelopment of an older shopping center, was a relative latecomer, opening in 1989.

Tacoma Mall opened in 1965 and is thus celebrating its 50th birthday, a history well-chronicled in stories in last Sunday’s News Tribune and still available online.

Over the years the regional shopping mall evolved and morphed. The traditional strip layout of the shopping center was inverted, with stores facing an interior courtyard or walkway (putting their backs to the parking lots). Open-air malls were covered so that visitors could enjoy heated or air-conditioned shopping. Second levels were added. So were more anchor stores. Malls grew in size. Food courts and multi-screen movie theaters became standard features.

And then it stopped. In some dramatic instances the era of building didn’t just halt, it reversed. Lakewood had a comparatively short run, lasting only until 2001. The mall that your columnist grew up with in the Midwest has been gone for more than a decade. There’s a subgenre of contemporary art photography specializing in scenes of urban and industrial decay: abandoned steel mills, train stations ... and shopping malls.

Some malls were replaced by new facilities that followed the population farther into the suburbs. Malls lost anchor tenants as department stores, themselves under tremendous competitive pressures from other types of retailing, closed or consolidated; Frederick & Nelson is but one entry on a long list of the departed.

Property developers tried other forms of retailing centers, such as the power or lifestyle center, the outlet mall, even vertical malls in downtown areas. Those drew off shoppers, as did online retailing. Periodic economic downturns, especially the most recent recession, didn’t help. Nor did an oversupply of recently constructed retail space, a condition in existence even before the recession hit.

Those trends and challenges have compelled some, especially those not favorably inclined to malls in the first place, to predict the end of the shopping mall. Those forecasts often are accompanied by predictions for the end of the suburb, as people give up cars and single-family homes and migrate back into the city to adopt a Hong Kong or, if the trend holds, a South Lake Union lifestyle.

That’s not happening, any more than the mall is going away. This country isn’t building as many malls as it did in past decades — there’s no need to — but shoppers haven’t abandoned them as a concept, as illustrated by the throngs on any weekend in the holiday shopping season. Nor have retailers or developers given up on the idea, as illustrated by the money going into redeveloping them, such as was done with space at Southcenter left vacant by the departure of an anchor, and will be done at Bellevue Square.

Malls remain popular for the fundamental reason that, for shoppers at least, they’re an attractive retailing model for convenience (parking, climate and amenities such as restaurants), breadth and depth of merchants and merchandise, the opportunity to see potential purchases in person as opposed to online, and the social aspects of going on an outing instead of just an errand.

Indeed, the story of malls may be as much about their resiliency and adaptability as it is about the end of their construction.

If malls weren’t popular or adaptable, then neither Seattle nor Vancouver, British Columbia, would have tried mimicking them in their downtown cores, Seattle in the form of Pacific Place and Westlake Center, Vancouver in the form of its multilevel Pacific Centre.

Popularity and resiliency are also the reasons a case can be made for Tacoma Mall making it another 50 years — and, in an odd sort of way, the reasons that the Tacoma Mall of 2065 will not closely resemble its current configuration or merchant mix.

One of the fascinating historical tidbits in the TNT’s stories on the mall’s 50th was that it opened with a Thriftway grocery store. The store actually survived until 1986, but most later-generation malls weren’t built with groceries, and they’re typically not associated with malls today.

And yet Southcenter added a large Asian-style grocery in its last major remodel, and Whole Foods plans to open one of its smaller-scale outlets in Bellevue Square space formerly occupied by JCPenney.

We may be taking flying cars (or teleported) to the Tacoma Mall of 2065, and who knows what stores we’ll see when we get there. But given the history of retail, there likely will still be a mall to go to — and plenty of company when we get there.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at