Phoenix was one of the largest cities in the country that I hadn’t personally visited until a few months ago (others on the list include Miami and Atlanta), and I really had no knowledge of its development patterns or neighborhoods. Just looking at a map and guessing which malls might be in a safe place to compete, I’d guessed that Metrocenter was probably one of the staid and sturdy old behemoths of Phoenix retailing, due to its central location right along a major freeway and its large size. This is one of those cases where I was extremely surprised: Metrocenter Mall is one of the largest malls in all of Arizona, and it was once the dominant mall in all of Phoenix, but now it is slowly and visibly dying, due to its age, demographic changes, and outmoded design.
Metrocenter Mall is one of the most centrally-located malls in Phoenix, with frontage right along the busy I-17 corridor. Metrocenter opened in 1973, a joint venture between Phoenix-based Westcor and Homart, the real estate division of Sears Roebuck and Company. When the mall opened in 1973, it was the first two-level, five-anchor mall in the United States, and was not only the largest in Arizona (at 1,400,000 square feet) but one of the largest in the country. Designed as a massive showplace, the mall even had the fuselage of a 747 airliner within the center to house a bar!
Metrocenter Mall’s original anchors were Sears, Rhodes Brothers, Goldwater’s, Diamond’s, and The Broadway, and a large ice skating rink in the food court area acted as an entertainment anchor as well.
At the time, the mall was situated at the far northern extreme of Phoenix, sitting outside of the city limits in unincorporated Maricopa County. Developers believed that development was going to sprawl northward in Phoenix, and that there’d be significant growth to support the center in the future–an assumption that proved correct long-term. Metrocenter immediately swiped a significant chunk of the trade area from the more centrally-located and older Chris-Town and Park Central malls just a few miles south; it was part of a trend that would ultimately also spell doom for Metrocenter decades later.
For a time, the gargantuan center was a major draw for shoppers from all over Arizona, and people traveled hundreds of miles to shop. Metrocenter had a fairly long period of dominance, lasting through the 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, however, things began to change. Phoenix was experienced explosive growth, and development had sprawled well past the once far-flung Metrocenter and newer malls (in particular, Arrowhead Towne Center, opened in 1993 several miles to the northwest in a newer section of Glendale) opened further from the city’s core had stolen much of its thunder. On top of that, the neighborhoods were beginning to look worn and tired, and crime in the vicinity of the center had increased considerably. Many of the neighborhoods west of I-17 were significantly more working class than areas north or east of Metrocenter, and the mall is one of the closest large retail centers to some of the city’s tougher neighborhoods a few miles to the south. Although the movie “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was filmed in the mall in the late 1980s, it was the beginning of a turning point: the iconic ice rink closed at the beginning of the following decade. Here’s a video of the mall from 1990:
The ailing mall was sold in 2004 to Macerich and AEW Capital Management, who brought back original owner Westcor to attempt to reposition to the center. They planned an extensive repositioning, including an external renovation (2005) and later an internal remodel (2007) meant to modernize and brighten up the center and its surrounding grounds. However, it hasn’t helped the center much; despite the hulking size and relatively good condition of the property, there is a significant number of vacancies scattered throughout the property, and the poor old place can’t help but feel like a slowly dying beast. JCPenney left the mall in 2007, ironically to return to Chris-Town (where they’d shut several years earlier), leaving a huge gap, and Dillard’s shut one level of their store to downgrade to a clearance outlet in 2009. As a result, 2.5 of the mall’s 5 elephantine anchors are currently dark. The current anchors at Metrocenter are Macy’s, Sears, Dillard’s Clearance Center, Sports Chalet, and Harkin’s Theatres. As of 2010, Westcor decided to abandon the dying mall, letting Jones Lang LaSalle take over management.
These photos were all taken in May 2011: