Albuquerque is the largest city in sparsely populated New Mexico, America’s 5th-largest state by area. With a metropolitan population of approximately 850,000 people, nearly half the population of the entire state of New Mexico lives in the Albuquerque area.
Albuquerque is known for its natural beauty and Spanish and Native American influences, which have together created a very distinct culture unique to New Mexico and the American Southwest. As Albuquerque has progressed into modernity, it resisted the types of growth found in other cities. The impetus for growth in Albuquerque was not the manufacturing age and the industrial revolution – as was the case in many eastern and northern cities – but the Atomic Age during and after the Cold War.
The establishment of Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia Base, and Sandia National Laboratories during the 1930s into the 1950s positioned Albuquerque for immense growth, and from 1940 to 1960 the city grew from 35,000 to 200,000. The area has grown at a fast pace since, and in 2007 was named by CNN and the U.S. Census as the 6th fastest growing city in America.
As much of Albuquerque’s growth occurred after World War II, developers assumed people would rather drive than walk places, so development patterns followed suit. Albuquerque’s major streets are on the grid system, with shopping and convenience centers at major intersections. This is a very typical development pattern throughout much of the American Southwest and Sun Belt region in general. Also, due to both geography and the positioning of Albuquerque’s industry, growth patterns favored filling in the valley to the east of downtown.
In response to its tremendous growth, Albuquerque decided to jump on the mall-building trend and began planning the state’s first mall in 1960. Due to development patterns favoring the sprawling east side, combined with the pending completion of Interstate 40 across Albuquerque around the same time, a centrally-located site was selected along Interstate 40 at Louisiana Boulevard – about 6 miles east of downtown.
Once the site was selected, Victor Gruen – the Grandfather of malls - was hired to design Winrock Center, which opened in March 1961. It opened with 42 stores, anchored by Safeway, Kresge, Walgreens, Fedway discount mart, Montgomery Ward, and JCPenney. Wards and Penneys flanked the eastern side of the center, and the rest of the anchors were located along the western side with a semi-enclosed mallway in between. The semi-enclosure consisted of a roof with open grillwork to allow the free flow of air into and through the center. In addition, two completely open-air plazas existed on the east and west ends of the center. A good illustration of Winrock’s 1960s layout can be found here, and Malls of America has a great photo of Winrock from this era.
Not only was Winrock a shopping destination, but it was also a pioneer of mixed-use developments, housing a Best Western motel and offices on site, starting in 1963, with housing on its periphery. Also in 1963, the Fox Winrock Cinerama Theatre opened in the mall’s north parking lot.
Eager to capitalize on the instant success of Winrock, another developer built a competing mall kitty corner to Winrock in 1965. Called Coronado Center, it was anchored by Sears and Tacoma, Wa.-based Rhodes; and, like Winrock, Coronado contained a single level of open air shops. However, despite the opening of Coronado within sight of Winrock, Winrock’s fortunes didn’t immediately suffer – it would take another three decades before Albuquerqueans favored Coronado over Winrock.
The 1970s brought many changes to both of Albuquerque’s malls as they attempted to modernize and adapt to competition from each other as well as the peripheral retail strip and smaller shopping centers popping up all over town. In 1972, Dillard’s arrived at Winrock, replacing the Safeway/Fedway area on the west side of the mall. Then, in 1975, both Albuquerque malls decided to expand and fully enclose, providing a fully climate-controlled environment in the relatively harsh Albuquerque weather (wind, heat, cold), as well as providing an edge over other non-enclosed shopping venues in town. The Cinema was also replaced in 1975 by the larger Winrock 6 complex.
After it was enclosed in 1975, Winrock has retained much of the same overall design. Many Gruen-esque features remained after the enclosure and subsequent additions, such as high ceilings, large windows, and wide mallways. The mostly-‘L’-shaped mall features an oddly canopied second level existing on only one side of the mall, ending in a very interesting configuration for the Dillards Womens anchor on the northeast end. The upper level exists from that anchor down to the food court, located at the crux of the ‘L’, where there is also a small basement level and an impressive three level atrium. Both the upper level and small basement court have been permanently closed off as of 2009. Considering Winrock Center’s website is now defunct, Mall-Hall-of-Fame has provided an excellent illustration of the mall’s current layout on its site.
Throughout the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Winrock and Coronado competed head-to-head, even in spite of a new 2-level showplace mall – Cottonwood Mall - which debuted on the northwest side of town in 1996. Despite being almost across the street from one another, Winrock and Coronado contained mostly complementary stores and anchors. This harmonious co-existence between the malls came to an end during the 1990s, however, as Coronado tweaked its image and stores in order to better market itself to the masses.
Beginning in the mid-1990s and lasting into the 2000s, the balance of power began to change between the two malls. In 1990, JCPenney jumped ship and moved across the street to Coronado Center, but this was quickly remediated by another Dillards taking its place. Also in 1990, the huge Montgomery Ward store was subdivided, with 30,000 square feet of its space going to Marshalls. Winrock became known as a haven for seniors, and the stores started to reflect this. Coronado tweaked its tenancy to provide better stores, and vacancies started to erode the customer base at Winrock; more and more people began choosing the hipper, cooler, and most importantly, variety-laden Coronado Center.
In 2001, Montgomery Ward went broke and closed all their stores nationwide, delivering a massive blow to the already-flagging Winrock Center, and one from which it would never recover. Anchored by two Dillards locations, the mall began losing even more stores, especially the high-volume popular national chains the mall counted on. After Wards closed, their space was converted to a Bed Bath and Beyond, which didn’t nearly replace the same amount of traffic. However, as late as November 2003 Winrock was 100% leased for the holiday season, albeit with a fair share of temporary tenants.
In 2002 following the Wards closure, and again in 2005, realizing the 874,000 square-foot mall was near the end of its useful life in its current state, owner PruWinrock LLC (owned by New Jersey-based Prudential) decided to remodel Winrock Center by returning it to an open-air mall, adding offices and apartments. In doing so, PruWinrock decided to let many of the remaining store leases expire without renewal, beginning in 2005, forcing the mall to become even more empty – but this time on purpose. The 174-room Best Western Winrock Inn also closed in 2005, after 42 years of business.
The new “Lifestyle Center” – called Winrock Market Center – would capitalize on the New Urbanism ideal, allowing people to potentially live, shop, play and work in the same space. It would juxtapose the enclosed nearby Coronado Center with a fresher, more modern environment and possibly give it a run for its money. The plan was presented in May 2005, and included 66 multifamily units, a 174-room hotel, a movie theater, and retail, restaurant and office space. Similar plans like this one in other cities have showed promise and have met with success, so it all seemed like a done deal, until…
At the same time Winrock’s owners were seeking to de-mall and revitalize their center, an El Paso-based company – Hunt Building Corporation – decided to enter the open-air mall building race, with a goal of beating Winrock to the punch. They secured city approval and permits, a builder, and lined up tenants for a project directly across the street from Winrock and also next to Coronado Center, all in time for a Fall 2006 opening.
Their project is called ABQUptown, and the first phase of the project featured retail offerings not previously found in Albuquerque. Stores like Pottery Barn, J Jill, Apple and Coldwater Creek opened, which previously required a daunting 900 mile round-trip drive to either Phoenix or Denver. A second phase featuring 198 upscale apartments has also opened at ABQUptown, and a third phase featuring more retail, offices, and condos is planned. ABQUptown was instantly successful, with several of the popular chain stores posting record sales, on par with markets in much larger cities. As a retail metaphor for what was happening, one of the last major tenants at Winrock, Borders Books – which opened in the mid 1990s – jumped ship and moved from Winrock across the street to the new ABQUptown development in early 2007.
Embittered and beaten by ABQUptown, Winrock’s owner – PruWinrock LLC – became quickly disillusioned, and wanted out of the deal altogether. Amid controversy, lawsuits, and disapproval from the city of Albuquerque, Winrock Center was finally sold to a pair of local developers - Gary Goodman and Mike Kelly – in September 2007, with high hopes that a successful new project could soon materialize on the site.
In June 2008, Goodman and Kelly unveiled grandiose, extremely impressive plans for Winrock’s redevelopment. About half of the mall would be saved, including existing stores Dillards, Bed Bath and Beyond, Sports Authority and Toys R Us; the rest would be demolished and reconfigured. In addition to those anchors, a new 16-screen movie theatre with IMAX would be built on the north side of the property. Also, at least one full-service hotel, community gathering spaces, a park, communal gathering plazas, a higher-end neighborhood supermarket and about a dozen restaurants would be built. The retail portion will represent a “cross section” of local and national brands, and one area will be devoted to ethnic foods, according to Goodman. In place of a fountain, a 400 foot long recreation of the Rio Grande River would be created to illustrate the river’s ecology.
Wow! Sounds really exciting – if it could all come together, that is. The recent economic downturn wrecked the earlier, aforementioned sales records at ABQUptown and put a pall on the Winrock project, which – as of November 2009 – has yet to break ground. Goodman and Kelly have had a really tough time securing financing for the project, even with the help of local government. In December 2008, the Winrock redevelopment was given a $137 million TIDD – a Tax Increment Development District – which donates a portion of gross state tax receipts to help specific projects. Because the Winrock development is infill – and green-friendly – and will create over 5,000 jobs over the life of the project, it was deemed important enough to provide assistance.
As of May 2009, the Winrock project is stalled, and owner Goodman expressed frustration that financing has yet to materialize. His frustration was amplified by the fact that there has been considerable enthusiasm by retail entities willing to commit to the project, with 2 leases ready to be signed and 9 letters of intent committed. As expected, Goodman has pared down the initial phase of the project considerably, and has rejiggered the first phase to consist of only the construction of the IMAX theater, remodel of one of the Dillards locations, and the demolition of the vacant enclosed mall, along with some site improvements. In desperation, Goodman has even approached New Mexico Senator Bingaman, in order to possibly secure a loan from the federal government to get the project off the ground.
We have no new concrete updates about the progress of the Winrock redevelopment, so we’ll assume everything is still status quo until further developments arise. We visited Winrock in November 2009 and were astounded that the mall was still open, seemingly exclusively for mall walkers and the like. The exterior entrances of one of the Dillards locations, as well as Sports Authority and Bed Bath and Beyond seemed to have permanently closed, but the lower level Dillards entrance on the northeast end of the mall was actually open. We assume that once financing is secured for the redevelopment, the mall will close as quickly as possible for demolition. So, if you want to see this gem, better get there as soon as possible. Feel free to add your own comments, whether you have extra light to shed on Winrock’s history, past or present, or your reactions.
Update 8/1/2011: A site plan for the new Winrock development has been unveiled, and it’s not good. The plan is mainly to convert the site to a big box center, with a small cluster of stores in the center.