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!