Our third Denver-area post comes to us from reader Jacob Doherty. The following commentary, as well as the photos here, are his. Thanks for the contribution, Jacob, and the multitude of pictures! Maybe some of our commenters can help us label some of the “unknown” dead stores? (mouseover for the photo tags)
Westminster is a large suburb immediately northwest of Denver. Like many of the suburbs in the Denver metro area, the city is relatively new, and has no old town or downtown area to speak of. In these suburbs, like many similar suburbs around the nation, the mall was the town center. Unfortunately, because of how densely packed the Denver Metro area is, each mall that went up in each suburb leeched the shoppers from the mall in the adjacent suburbs. This, combined with the falling fortunes of certain suburbs, as well as a series of recessions, has killed a majority of the Denver Metro area’s malls. There are now at least eleven “lost malls” in the Denver Metro area that have either razed or demolished and transformed into lifestyle centers, according to the Mall Hall of Fame, from the gargantuan Cinderella City, to the high concept Villa Italia, to the family-friendly Buckingham Square. If nothing changes, it looks as if the Westminster Mall may become the twelfth.
Westminster Mall is special for me because it was the mall my family went to when I was young, from when I was born until I was about six when we moved. Westminster Mall, combined with Buckingham Square in Aurora, my grandparents’ local mall, was my first concept of what a mall is. I remember quite clearly walking around the mall with my folks, and marveling at the quartet of hot air balloons that ascended and descended in the main court of the mall. These were the glory days of the mall, the early and mid-eighties, and Westminster Mall was a powerhouse, providing jobs and revenue for the burgeoning city of Westminster.
I am unsure of the complete history, but what follows is compiled from several sources, including the Mall Hall of Fame, Deadmalls.com, and several news articles from local papers. Westminster Mall was built in 1977. At that time, its only anchor was a two-level Joslin’s department store, and the mall featured only thirty other shops. However, it quickly became one of the most popular malls in the Denver Metro Area. In 1986, the mall expanded, gaining three more anchors: May D&F, Mervyn’s, and Broadway-Southwest. It added JC Penny in 1987. During this time Sears moved its Northglenn Mall store into the now abandoned Broadway-Southwest Building at Westminster Mall. At this point, the mall plan was like a cross with one crooked arm in the north. JC Penny anchored the smallest arm, May D& F and Joslin’s anchored two other prominent arms, and Sears and Mervyn’s anchored the extra long crooked arm, with the arm kinking at Sears and then trailing down to Mervyn’s at the end. During this time, the mall’s symbol was a series of hot-air balloons floating amongst the clouds: a reference to its center court feature which was a water fountain flanked by four real hot air balloons that rose and fell on air vents. In the mid-eighties, the city of Westminster was on the up, and the mall’s location, on Sheridan, and just off US-36, the main pipeline to Boulder and the northern suburbs, made the mall a huge success.
Perhaps too much of a success. The enormity of the mall started bringing in shoppers from all over the north suburbs, including as far away as Boulder. These shoppers stopped going to their local malls, and instead came to the new Westminster. The Westminster Mall contributed to the downfall of at least three other malls and the crippling of a third. Crossroads Mall in Boulder (now the lifestyle center Twenty-Ninth Street), North Valley Mall in Adams County (now filled with offices), and Northglenn Mall in Northglenn (now the open-air strip mall called the Marketplace at Northglenn) all could list Westminster Mall as a contributing factor to their deaths, either by stealing customers or stores. The Thornton Town Center was hit badly by Westminster Mall, but has recovered and transformed into a more open-air mall.
Having killed off its competitors, Westminster Mall reigned supreme in Northern Denver through the 1990’s. In 1993 May D&F became Foley’s and in 1997 Montgomery Ward opened one of the last Ward’s in the nation in the mall between Sears and Mervyn’s. This made for a huge number of anchors: six, and all of them giant. There were hundreds of smaller stores and even a small food court near Mervyn’s. Restaurants flocked in as outparcels, such as Traildust Steakhouse, the Olive Garden, and Steak & Ale. Finally, a six-plex theater opened inside the mall near Foley’s, and this same theater had an outparcel eleven-plex building with even more space, and both were known for having the latest in digital sound. A US Bank opened as an outparcel during this period as well.
However, during the late 1990’s competition reared its head as the planned upscale combination mega-mall and lifestyle center, Flatiron Crossing, was being built a scant fifteen miles northwest in Broomfield along US-36. This spooked Westminster management enough to arrange for a $10 million renovation and overhaul, with $7 million contributed by the City of Westminster itself, about the same time Flatirons opened up in all of its glory in 2000. Gone was the old balloon logo, and in was a new, hip “WM” logo, as well as a litany of color changes in the decor. The balloons themselves persisted however, and the old logo can still be found on the mall directories.
Even with the competition, Westminster was holding its own, especially with its new $10 million facelift. However, as anyone familiar with retail will attest, this was when things started to go south. Montgomery Ward’s went under in 2001, taking its anchor with it. No one wanted the space, as every major department store already had a space at Westminster, so Westminster covered the entrance. They left the building vacant and intact, and used its secondary entrance as an overflow entrance during the holidays. Sears took over the Ward’s Auto Center. Joslin’s was taken over at this time and became Dillard’s.
When Mervyn’s closed in 2005, this was the beginning of the end. The north wing, the crooked arm of the cross, lost Mervyn’s at its end. Now having lost Ward’s and Mervyn’s the farthest part of the north wing was all but dead, its food court languishing in a sea of closed, darkened shops. Though Sears stayed, shops closed all along the north wing, leaving Sears virtually alone. This is where I can step in again and recount from firsthand experience.
When I moved back to the Denver Metro Area as an adult in 2006, the Westminster mall was coincidentally the closest mall to me. I was eager to go and check out the mall of my early youth. I was dismayed and saddened by what I found.
By 2006, Foley’s had become Macy’s, but Macy’s looked at the Westminster location, surrounded by closed shops, and the Flatirons location, new and vibrant, and decided that the Westminster location would be closed as they made their recession cuts in 2008. Macy’s closed in 2009, and its wing died with it, including the 6 and 11-plex theaters. Traildust Steakhouse closed its outparcel, leaving so quickly it forgot to take its signage and décor. Steak & Ale went under as its parent company died.
The mall is now a ghost town. Utilized mostly by rowdy teenagers and elderly mallwalkers (everyone who wants to actually shop goes up to Flatirons), it seems that every time I go, at least two to five stores have closed since the last time I went. Most stores have been closed and stripped of their branding, but a few are still recognizable. In quite a few, mall management has set up cutsey little displays or art which make little sense, and contribute to the dead nature of the place.
It’s sad. This was my mall, and now it’s in its death throes, and there is little I can do about it. Still, the mall hosts small conventions and events, but these attempts to bring people in seem pathetic, especially because no one shows up. My fiancée and I call it the “zombie mall,” as it is both lurching on past its death, and eerily quiet and dark, like the shopping malls in each iteration of “Day of the Dead.”
This feeling of helplessness is compounded by the fact that no one knows what will happen to the mall. Oddly, everything surrounding the mall is thriving, and most are strip malls and small shopping centers that sprouted up to capitalize on the success of Westminster Mall. But now the mall seems to detract from the environment rather than add to it. Rumors abounded that the mall was to be reworked and razed to create a lifestyle center to capitalize upon the upcoming light rail Fasttracks train system that was to be built along US-36 as it was along I-25 and the existing RTD (bus) park and ride. Mall management even went to court to keep Burlington Coat Factory out of the Mervyn’s location so they would have no one standing in the way of demolishing the mall. However, with the souring economy, it looks as though the light rail will not be built along US-36 for a long while, and all the financing that could overhaul the site has dried up. Westminster management seems to be mum about what is happening and their website acts as though nothing is wrong (showing no photographs, of course). In fact, rumors are that management is paranoid about photographs of the premises being published, and forbids staff from photographing their places of work. Security will stop patrons if they are noticed taking pictures and demand they delete them.
The most recent news, reported by the Denver Post on April 30, 2009, is that the City of Westminster had Westminster Mall declared blighted, after it was inspected and found to be wanting in a variety of different safety areas. Why this was necessary, beyond allowing for taxes to help refurbish the mall, I’m not sure, but local bloggers think it may be to push the management into taking some steps towards doing something with the mall, as the move will let the City of Westminster threaten to take over the property from mall management or store owners through eminent domain. Otherwise, it seems the mall will become more and more dead as we keep hearing about the planned “remodel” that never seems to come.
I do sincerely hope something can be done, though I would prefer that the option of a lifestyle center be taken off the table. Most of the lost malls of Denver are now lifestyle centers, and though they can be fun, this is Colorado. It gets cold and windy, and open air shopping is not enjoyable for everyone when it is bitterly cold and precipitating. Wasn’t protection from the elements the whole point of the shopping mall in the first place? However, I would prefer anything over the nearly vacant building that stands there now.
So here are the photographs, a record of a mall that will soon be no more, and a record of my earliest shopping memories. I’m glad I took the time to preserve the mall photographically, even if the pictures are not stellar. Thanks for the inspiration.
As usual, feel free to leave your comments on Westminster Mall and retail in the Denver area in general, and thanks again Jacob!