El Con Mall; Tucson, Arizona

With 550,000 people in the city and over a million in its metropolitan area, Tucson is an ascending Sun Belt city with lots of recent growth.  Despite its size, however, Tucson is considered small when compared to its huge neighbor Phoenix, located 120 miles to the northwest; and, due to its own particular brand of Sun Belt sprawl, Tucson doesn’t feel as big as similarly-sized cities back east.  Also, in many ways, Tucson behaves as the small city it was in 1950 when it had 45,000 residents – the downtown is lacking in both sheer size and in density, there are relatively few dense, walkable neighborhoods lined with shops, restaurants, and bars designed for browsing on foot, and there are no urban freeways connecting different parts of the city – Interstates 10 and 19 are of little use to many Tucsonans traveling within the city.  Residents on the sprawling east or north sides of Tucson must suck it up and commute on busy surface streets with many lights, sharing their commutes with traffic visiting the commercial strips along the same streets.

All of these ingredients make for an interesting Sun Belt city, where the automobile is king and retail strips dominate the landscape for miles.  Tucson has two dominant strip areas.  The first is along Oracle Road on the north side and is anchored by the Tucson Mall, with the ancillary Foothills Mall located a short distance away.  The other strip is mostly located along Speedway and Broadway Boulevards to the east of downtown and is anchored by the Park Place mall.  There is also another mall along the Broadway corridor, located three miles west of Park Place and three miles east of downtown Tucson, El Con Mall.

El Con Mall was Tucson’s first mall, borne of necessity in 1960.  Tucson didn’t have a mall yet, and its population grew 368 percent between 1950 and 1960 – from 45,000 residents to well over 200,000.  Developer Joseph Kivel decided the best spot for the mall was in midtown Tucson, in the middle of the growth, next to the storied, posh El Conquistador Hotel, a Spanish Revival structure which opened in 1928 (and should never have been torn down).  When the mall opened it was initially outdoor, and anchored by a three-level, 60,000 square-foot Levy’s Department Store, which moved from downtown Tucson, as well as a 2-level, 180,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward; Woolworth and Skaggs Drug were mini-anchors.

The original plan for El Con was to incorporate the hotel into the retail site, which would have been neat, but due – at least in part – to greed and the necessity for more retail amid a growing population, the hotel closed in 1964 and met the fate of the wrecking ball in 1967.  The hotel was replaced with a much larger, two-level Levy’s store, which opened in 1969, and the smaller Levy’s on the other side of the development was taken by Steinfeld’s, another downtown Tucson department store.

The 1970s brought continued success, expansion, and competition for El Con.  In 1971, a fully-enclosed mall structure and a 2-level, 115,900 square-foot JCPenney opened attached to the newer Levy’s, which added another level at the same time, giving it 290,000 square feet.  The original, 1960-era outdoor mall with Wards and Steinfeld’s still existed separate of the newer enclosed mall, and the two operated side by side until 1978, when they were sewn together and a 2-level, 120,000 square-food Phoenix-based Goldwater’s was added.  The older outdoor mall was also enclosed at that time, and for the first time the two separate malls were a seamless 1-million-square-foot L-shaped entity.

In 1975, a new mall, Park Place, which was built by the same Kivel developer, opened 3 miles to the east of El Con along Broadway Boulevard.  Park Place was anchored by L.A.-based The Broadway, Phoenix-based Diamond’s, and Sears. Park Place and El Con co-existed as Tucson’s two malls for two decades because of complementary anchors and Tucson’s continued growth.

By 1980, Tucson had 330,000 people and only these two malls, which anchored both ends of the Broadway retail corridor.  In the early 1980s, Steinfeld’s became the first El Con anchor to fold.  Its space was given to various uses, from a warehouse for the needy to a short-lived indoor bazaar called Pavilion at El Con Mall.

In 1982, a much larger two level mall, Tucson Mall, opened across town on Tucson’s north side.  While Tucson Mall eclipsed both El Con and Park Place in size, the trade area for Tucson Mall was far enough away that all three malls co-existed well into the 1990s.

In 1985, Levy’s, which was owned by Federated Department Stores, folded into Dallas-based Sanger Harris, and in 1987 it folded once again into Houston-based Foley’s.

In 1989, Goldwater’s folded into Dillard’s. 

In 1990, Tucson had over 400,000 residents, and the continued growth kept the retail scene active at all of the malls.  In 1993, Foley’s became L.A.-based Robinsons-May, but throughout the rest of the 1990s the mall entered a downward spiral.  The entire Steinfeld’s wing of the mall, along with the El Con 6 movie theater, was torn down in 1998, making way for a new Home Depot store, which debuted in 2001 sans mall access.  A 20-screen Century movie theater was added to replace the El Con 6 in 1999, and a new food court debuted near the theater’s entrance in 2001-2002.  The food court was an instant failure, never once gaining a tenant, and is still totally vacant today.  Montgomery Ward folded nationally in early 2001, and its store was demolished to make way for a new Target, which opened in 2005, also sans mall access.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Dillard’s gave up at El Con Mall and shut their store, which remained vacant until March 2010 when Burlington Coat Factory snatched it up.  In addition, Foley’s became Macy’s in 2006, the last nameplate the western anchor would see before closing permanently in 2008.  Also in 2008, a Ross store opened in the Macy’s wing, reclaiming some dead store space.

The closing of Macy’s brought an interesting twist to El Con’s history, because it made in-roads for a Wal-Mart Supercenter to open.  Wal-Mart had been actively interested in coming to El Con Mall since 1999, but due to intense community opposition the city of Tucson passed a so-called ‘Big Box Ordinance’ to prevent the store from coming to the mall.  However, Wal-Mart finally found a way around the ordinance by establishing its store within the footprint of the former Levy’s/Macy’s store after demolishing it, and it should be open in mid-2012.

Also in recent years, numerous popular chains have opened on the front outparcels of El Con Mall, in spite of the interior corridor’s apparent failure, and they include Office Depot, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, In-N-Out Burger, Claim Jumper, Starbucks, Radio Shack and Chik-Fil-A.  These stores, combined with the success of Ross, Burlington Coat Factory, JCPenney, Home Depot, Target, and soon Wal-Mart Supercenter indicate the site still remains incredibly viable for retail.  It is, after all, located at the geographic center of the city, close to downtown, wealthy neighborhoods, and the huge U of A campus with its 37,000 students.

Unlike the decline of many malls, whose neighborhoods themselves are in decline, this mall is in a decent neighborhood and instead succumbed to a lack of investment, a poorly thought about strategy during decline, and ultimately competition.  While the dominant Tucson Mall and Park Place continually reinvent themselves, perhaps the best lesson for El Con could have been learned from the Foothills Mall, located on the northwest side of town.

Opened in 1989 as a small upscale mall, Foothills Mall soon found little support for this niche and failed, but continued investment in the property transformed it into a relatively successful ancillary/outlet mall.  Anchored by discounters and big box stores, with a nearly-full food court and a popular movie theater, the interior of the mall is always busy and the mall is far from troubled.

Maybe if El Con’s management allowed Wal-Mart into the mall during the first period of decline, when they were initially interested, and provided interior access to the mall from Home Depot and Target, there would be a reason for people to come inside.  As it stands, the only reason to go in is to access JCPenney, which is at the back of the mall.  However, the main entrance of the mall is directly in front ofs JCPenney, which discourages foot traffic to go anywhere else in the mall.  Why did they invest in building a food court around the same time they let two anchors, one of them Target, build stores with no mall access?  Due to El Con’s thriving anchors, outparcels, and neighboring strip malls, it seems like it could have retained a viable interior corridor just like Foothills Mall has if there was a reason to go inside.

As of June 2010, the interior corridor of El Con Mall contains only two stores other than the anchors:  a poster shop and a barber.  Plans are to disenclose the mall and revert it back to open-air, but with the lagging economy no work has been done to this end.  It will be interesting to see if Wal-Mart opens with mall access, if the mall is even still open then. Ross and Burlington maintain mall access for no particular reason.

We visited El Con Mall in March 2009 and June 2010 and took the pictures featured here.  Between 2009 and 2010 the main entrance was modified and the decorative accoutrements were removed.  Feel free to leave your own concerns and anecdotes in the comments section!

March 2009:

June 2010:

20 Responses to “El Con Mall; Tucson, Arizona”

  1. A few years ago, the PBS program This Old House did a project located not far from El con. Infact one episode opened at the mall noting the towerd architecture as being rather unique.

    [Reply]

  2. It’s been at least 7 years since I was at El Con. Thanks for excellent coverage on it!

    [Reply]

  3. Hi! What a treat! I moved to Tucson in August, 1979 at age 11 & grew up with this mall. I remember it well & had a lot of fun times there. It’s sad to see so much of it empty & dead now. It used to be really busy back in the day, with both Tucsonans & shoppers from northern Mexico. The original section of El Con used to have a lot of nice stores that were local to Tucson, most long out of business by now.

    Since I grew up in Tucson during the 1980′s, I felt I should clear up a couple of things regarding El Con. By 1979, the original Levy’s store had been Steinfeld’s for many years & they closed around 1984. That 1960 building was only two floors, not three. The replacement Levy’s was opened as two floors, with a third being added sometime in the ’70s. It was a large store and also had a restaurant, the Territorial Room. You can see the windows for it on the back northside of the building, 2nd floor, to the right of the loading docks.

    Also, Goldwater’s at El Con was never a Diamond’s store. It was opened in early 1979 & stayed Goldwater’s until about 1989, when the location was sold to Dillard’s. Goldwater’s was a unit of old Associated Dry Goods & in late 1986, ADG was sold to May Department Stores. May operated Goldwater’s as a division until 1989 or ’90, when it was then merged into the Robinson’s division(also a former ADG unit). Levy’s, originally bought by Federated Dept Stores in 1960, stayed Federated-owned all through the mergers into both Sanger-Harris in 1985 & Foley’s in early 1987. Foley’s was sold to May in 1988, thus, in the case of El Con, leaving them with 2 stores under different names in one mall. This was also the case at Foothills Mall, which opened in August of 1982. The Foley’s stores were retained & both Goldwater’s locations in Tucson were sold to Dillard’s. So, at that point, there were 4 Dillard’s in Tucson. The other two were at Park Mall(now Park Place) & Tucson Mall, both of which were opened at Diamond’s, a division of Dayton-Hudson stores until late 1984. The name change from Diamond’s to Dillard’s came in the Fall of 1986.

    Anyhow, sorry to leave such a long reply but I figured I’d clear up a couple of things, since I was living there at the time. I’ve noticed that Wikipedia has some wrong info about El Con on it in regards to the anchor stores. I really enjoy your blog & all the great info & photos that you share with us. Keep up the awesome work!

    [Reply]

    Prange Way Reply:

    @Kyle, Thanks, I changed the article to be more accurate. I appreciate people who have first-hand knowledge and are able to fill in gaps and inaccuracies from other sites and Wikipedia, because I wasn’t even born yet for most of these, let alone in the area. I also try not to lean too heavily on Wikipedia either, because it’s very often inaccurate concerning malls, but unfortunately so too were other sites including http://mall-hall-of-fame.blogspot.com/.

    [Reply]

    Pat Dempsey Reply:

    Who owns/manages the Tucson Mall today? Is it still Kivel? Thanks.

    Pat Dempsey

    [Reply]

  4. Hello,

    I guess this is my first posting on here in a few years. I stay so busy doing my thing (with the Mall Hall of Fame) that I don’t have time to do much else….

    And now, there is a second “mall” site for me to deal with, too…but this is another matter.

    Anyway, I regret that my EL CON article was not right on the money. Yes, I did use the Wiki article (with numerous INcorrections) too much…but, there wasn’t a whole lot else as far as reference material goes.

    I am a bit flustered by the details about the old and new Levy’s stores mentioned in the comments here. All I can say is that a contemporary newspaper account (from Tucson in the early 1990s) mentioned that the Levy’s (which had been a Steinfeld’s) had 3 -not 2- levels.

    A write-up about the drug store that apparently was a tenant in the 1960 part of the mall also mentioned that said store had a basement level (which, by the way, was haunted by a ghost from the old El Con Hotel, yuk yuk). I surmised that the rest of the mall must have also had basements…most malls built in the 1950s and early ’60s had basements….before it became too expensive to build them.

    Could the old Levy’s also have had a basement?Old photos I found show that -unlike the rest of the mall- it had 2 levels above ground. The store was, after all, really small….perhaps a basement was used only for storage and not retail area.

    Also, a circa-1960s rendering of the new Levy’s indicates that there were originally 3 levels to that one….without a basement….or, at least it looks that way in the drawing. So, I guess I’m a bit confused here.

    Anyway, if everything was perfect in a perfect world, every single detail I mention about malls on the MALL HALL site would be pinpoint accurate.

    Unfortunately, most of the mall articles on there were composed wth not a whole lot in regard to reference material.

    I often mention something as being “approximately” this or that, if I am entirely in doubt. In other words….you do what you can…..and have an “accuracy disclaimer” at the beginning of the site, hee hee.

    If I was entirely sure about every detail on the site, there would be -maybe- 20 malls on it. I have opted to do what I can and include malls that there isn’t a whole lot of info about. Then, hopefully someone will post with any corrections….

    Of course, this sometimes does not work out just right, either. I posted an article years ago about Cincinnati’s BEECHMONT MALL. Then, I receive “corrections” saying that one of the anchors was -in fact- a Cinti.-based H & S Pogue (‘Pogue’s”) when the mall opened in 1969.

    Someone else insisted that it was originally a Mabley and Carew. FORTUNATELY, I came upon a contemporary advertisement that showed the store to have been a Mabley and Carew.

    End of discussion…..

    Again, sorry for my bad.

    “The Curator”
    MALL HALL OF FAME

    [Reply]

    Raymond Reply:

    @The Curator, My dad worked as a janitor at Levy’s and they played poker after hours in the basement.

    [Reply]

  5. Hey there!!

    I am racked with nostalgia after reading this post. you see I was born in 1971, and my dad worked at the Penney’s auto center for twelve years. I was going to El Con from my earliest memories.

    What i remember the most was riding the bus down there as a teen, and spending all day browsing the shops. You would start out at software etc, and the game store. Then on the ubiquitous Spencer’s for pot related merch. I was a reader, so I always hit up B-Dalton. I even saw Back To The Future at the El Con Six in 1985. My bike got stolen that day.
    Happy Malling!!!

    Andy Benjamin

    [Reply]

  6. Levy’s actually had just 3 floors (never a basement). Montgomery Ward had a basement. J. C. Penney still has 1. By the way, what ever happened to the Penney’s auto center?

    [Reply]

  7. I just “googled” El Con Mall and found out that it had gone this way. I worked at the mall my last two years of college at the U of A (1980-81) and it was a happening place. I worked at Coach House Gifts (formerly Sunset House) in the “new” part of the mall. Sorry to see it go. I was born and raised in Tucson and remember when El Con was the only mall and Sears built on the edge of town and then became Park Mall. Thanks for the memories!

    [Reply]

  8. Was Coachhouse Gifts accessible from the outside of the mall?

    [Reply]

  9. My Dad was in the Army at Ft Huachuca in the 1970′s, I remember it was a BIG DEAL for our family to drive all the way from Ft Huachuca to shop at El Con and then go across town to Sears. There was nothing much in Sierra Vista and Tucson was like heading to the “big city.” We would get up early and make a day of it at El Con. I especially recall the Ward’s, Levy’s and the Woolworth’s with the sit down grill in the front of the store. Great article; brought back a lot of memories!

    [Reply]

  10. What was the Pavilions like?

    A newspaper article says it was to be like “a food court/farmers’ market/bazaar/indoor street fair”. Does anyone recall what it was really like?

    [Reply]

  11. I’m not sure, but I do know that there was a food court, & arcade. The food court was what was once Steinfeld’s.

    [Reply]

  12. Three times I had a Christmas store at El Con. I even tried to get a lease once, but was told they could not do it. They wanted flexibility to decide which way they were going in their “development”. Simply they did not have a clue.
    I also learned that the electrical system in the mall was so bad that it could not pass any type of inspections. One time I turned off the lights in my store and almost caused an explosion in the system. One Christmas one of the mall employees, a store employee and I put up Christmas decorations. The mall had stated they did not want to do anything for the holidays. SO we did it ourselves.
    One year I had the only Christmas store in the mall. The leasing company actually sent me a lease for Poster Warehouse instead of my business. I really don’t think they were that busy. They, like many other people there, did not care.

    [Reply]

  13. Where can I get a book or pictures of the mall area in the early70s. I know there was the inside part of the mall and then you would go out side for a part of it and then into wards. I think the nutrition store was the last one inside before you went outside,Past a little stripmall area and into wards thank you Gordon Banwart Email jbanwart1@cox.net

    [Reply]

  14. As someone born and raised in Tucson, some of my earliest memories are of trips to El Con Mall.

    I remember my mother taking me to lunch at the restaurant inside of the Levy’s. I always thought that was weird — a restaurant inside of a department store. I guess it was a good idea back in the 60′s.

    There used to be a food vendor to the right of the JC Penney’s entrance. I don’t remember if it was a Hot Dog on a Stick or something else, but I remember they had fresh lemonade that I would love to get.

    These pictures above are great! Don’t you just love the laminated tile flooring? And they wonder why no one goes there anymore….

    [Reply]

  15. I regret to report that El Con mall was torn-down earlier this year, with the Penney’s store the last remaining of the original anchor stores now a stand-alone structure.

    The place was a big part of my childhood (met my first girlfriend there at the Musicland, ate lunch at the Woolworth’s and stood in many long lines to see the latest 80′s blockbuster). Perhaps it’s for the best that it was finally demolished. It had stood for years mostly empty and abandoned, it’s past glory days truly a thing of the past. The local paper hit it on the head when they said that a trip to this once-great mall was sort of surreal – to see all the empty shops, and be able to hear one’s own footsteps echoing in the deserted interior – they wondered when the place would be put out of it’s misery, and even compared it to a huge haunted house.

    The very last time i was there, there was ZERO foot traffic apart from myself and my kid, and a pungent mixture of dust/must/mold aroma hung in the air, while a constpated-looking mall security guard made his rounds, protecting nothing from no one.

    I’m glad I got to do the El Con “walk” one last time – to remember when the place was packed to overflowing with happy shoppers, and to compare those memories with the current reality that El Con was a place whose time had come and was now forever long-gone.

    Rest In Peace El Con. You were a big part of my growing-up in Tucson. Adios.

    [Reply]

  16. I am also sorry that The El Con Mall has been demolished, as is was also part of my Tucson memories. Does anyone know the plans for the area? I would love to see a recreation of the El Conqistador Hotel that stood on that land in the 1950′s.

    [Reply]

  17. [...] Image Source [...]

Leave a Reply


5 × = five