Tears for Sears but Tacoma Mall moves on

The Tacoma Mall has had a variety of makeovers over the years, and so has its anchor tenants, including Sears.  A "softer" entrance was part of the store's remodel in 1995.
The Tacoma Mall has had a variety of makeovers over the years, and so has its anchor tenants, including Sears. A "softer" entrance was part of the store's remodel in 1995. News Tribune file photo

Downtown Tacoma was fit for its final coffin nail on that somber day in September 1979 when Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced it would move to the Tacoma Mall — or so the prophets of doom believed. Sears was the last major department store to leave Broadway Plaza, and despite appeals from City Hall to stay downtown, it joined the exodus of local stores to the shiny new mall with easy access to the shiny new freeway.

Fast forward to 2018, and Tacoma can happily proclaim that reports of downtown’s death were, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “greatly exaggerated.”

Now comes news that Sears is on the move again and may give up its prime Tacoma Mall space. As Sears puts dozens of stores up for sale nationally, including in Lacey, Tukwila, Yakima and Spokane, speculation grows that it’s destined for the retail graveyard that claimed chains such as Frederick & Nelson, Peoples and Mervyn’s.

But of this we are confident: Tacoma Mall can survive the loss of Sears and other anchor tenants as long as it reinvents itself with fresh ideas and local energy, as downtown Tacoma did.

The mall owner’s $12.7-million redevelopment proposal, recently detailed by News Tribune staff writers Kate Martin and Debbie Cockrell, has some promising elements, including pocket parks and renovated entrances.

Simon Property Group’s plan, filed with the city in late March, shows five buildings where the Sears structure now stands; it incorporates a “free-standing walkable space” with an “exciting mix of new retail and restaurants,” according to a company statement.

And the piece de resistance: the return of a movie theater not far from where the iconic Tacoma Mall Theatre operated for three decades, before giving way to a Krispy Kreme donut shop 15 years ago.

For a Baby Boomer-age mall that turned 50 in 2015, periodic makeovers are key to survival; previous ones were undertaken in 1973, 1981, 2000 and 2007. Gone are quaint original stores including Lyons Apparel and Mode O’Day, confined in a Habitrail-like environment. Today’s Tacoma Mall offers fast-fashion boutiques and gadget stores geared to millennials, an airy, skylighted atmosphere — and don’t forget the electric-vehicle charging stations outside.

“There are still a number of challenges that need to be solved in order to maintain prominence in a city that is quickly evolving,” mall owner Simon said in its statement about its plans.

Not to mention the challenges posed by Americans’ steady shift to online shopping, a factor driving U.S. mall vacancies to a six-year high in the first quarter of 2018. Some prophets have pointed to a “retail apocalypse.”

Sears is just the latest casualty. And while the company indicates it might open one of its small concept stores with limited inventory at the Tacoma Mall (think mattresses or Kenmore appliances), we aren’t holding our breath.

In the post-department store era, success for the Tacoma Mall will be determined in large part by how hard an Indianapolis-based mall owner with 234 global properties works to understand Tacoma — not just the “quickly evolving” city, but the community’s traditions and character.

Here’s a wild idea: Why not track down one of the two crystal chandeliers that graced the original Tacoma Mall Theater lobby and hang it at the new cinema?

While Tacomans of a certain age carry a nostalgic torch for Sears, there’s reason to believe something more productive will fill that space.

But as Tacoma Mall moves forward without an anchor, it must take care not to lose its rudder.