Washington Mall opened in a former cornfield in 1968 near the intersection of US 19/Murtland Ave and newly constructed I-79 (Now I-70 and I-79 run concurrently on this segment) in Washington, PA (population 15,000). The cost of the mall then: $4 million. The mall’s condition today: priceless.
Today, Washington Mall is a relic. The 800,000 square foot mall is anchored by a huge three-level 132,000 square-foot JCPenney store which dominates the center visually. Other major stores in the center include: Rex TV & Appliance, Eckerd Drug, Staples, Dollar General, Toys R Us, and Jo-Ann Fabrics. Click here for a current pdf of the mall’s leasable area. The inside of the mall is mostly vacant, and in doing research it has been that way for at least 5 years. Wally Janicki, owner of the former Pretzel Oven which had to close due to poor business, was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through tears as saying the mall is so empty at times that a bowling ball could be rolled down the corridor without hitting anyone. Interesting analogy, and we’ll take it.
The near future of Washington Mall is bleak. In 2004, the mall’s development agent, JJ Gumberg and Associates of nearby Pittsburgh announced massive plans to, what else, big-box the mall. The inside of the mall would be demolished and the remaining stores would be turned outward to the parking lot. The major tenants including JCPenney, Eckerd and Staples were to remain during the planned redevelopment.
However, in December 2004 plans inexplicably changed. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated that many of the mall’s remaining tenants were told they could ‘stay awhile’ and wouldn’t have to relocate for demolition, because plans had changed or were delayed.
So what killed Washington Mall? I’m going to say the center’s age, competition, and possibly retail overkill in Washington all put this mall in its grave. Foremost, the center is 36 years old and although it looks like it received some touch-ups throughout the years, most of it looks extremely dated. People like renovations and clean, new looking shopping malls. That’s just how people are. Only in rare occasions (like Northpark Mall in Dallas) does an upscale shopping mall purposely go without renovations and makes it.
Second, and probably most importantly, Washington has another dominant mall. Washington Crown Center, then called Franklin Mall, opened only one year after Washington Mall on the other side of town. The two malls seemed to co-exist somehow in this city of 15,000, at least until the late 1990s. Franklin Mall renovated itself extensively and expanded in 1999, renamed itself Washington Crown Center, and attracted all the popular chain stores like the Gap. When I visited it in March 2004 it was packed with teenagers and families and clearly successful.
This leads into the third reason Washington Mall is failing: retail overkill in the area. Washington is a city of only 15,000 people. Although its trade area is much larger than a typical city of 15,000, and it does lie on the fringe of the Pittsburgh metro area, Washington is simply not large enough to support two enclosed successful malls. People in Washington also have the opportunity to drive 30 minutes or less and shop at many of the malls in metro Pittsburgh. In addition, Washington has a huge amount of strip malls and more are on the way. In April 2006, it was announced that JCPenney would leave Washington Mall for a new big-box development down the road. Perhaps this is why the mall’s redevelopment was halted?
In September 2005 I visited the mall on my way back from a trip through the southeast U.S. It was about 8pm, and I planned to make this mall the last stop of the night before driving into Ohio to my motel. My visit quickly turned from a non-event into a disasterous, scary fiasco. I parked in front of the main entrance and started snapping photos as I always do, making sure I wasn’t being watched by mall security, who tend to frown upon such horrible behavior. Mall policies officially forbid taking photographs or videotape inside a mall. The only reasons I’ve been able to get out of them for this are competition and security. With many cases, like Washington Mall, I can’t imagine either reason being valid. I’m pretty sure the mall is not going to be on the radar of any terrorists, and I’m absolutely sure no one would say “Gosh, I better go copy Washington Mall’s business practices, they sure seem to be doing well!” In any case, I was caught taking pictures inside the mall and some dire consequences were brought upon me as a result. My story follows.
I walked the entire length of the mall and snapped the photos you see below. The mall was virtually empty, except for this ancient security guard and an equally ancient janitor lumbering around the mall with his cart. I avoided them seeing me during most of my nefarious, purely evil picture taking activities. Then, as I turned to leave out the main entrance once again, I noticed the security guard had pulled up a chair to the WTAE-TV space in the mall and was watching Hurricane Katrina coverage on the TV they had on and broadcasting into the mall. I thought this was amusing so I quickly snapped a shot. Immediately, I noticed that the janitor, who was further up the mall, noticed me doing this and started walking toward the security guard who was seated watching TV. Even though I was leaving anyway, I decided it was time to leave with more haste than originally planned. I quickly walked to my car, but as I exited the mall I looked back and noticed the janitor was speaking to the security guard at that point and they were both looking at me. OH $#%$. Well, since I was leaving the mall, they wouldn’t actually pursue me, would they? They would. As I got into my car, which was not far from the doors because, hey, this is a dead mall, the mall’s security vehicle came speeding out of nowhere directly to where I was parked with the lights flashing. OH $%&# again. Right then, both the security guard and the janitor came running out of the mall’s doors after me and right to my car, screaming at me. I turned on the car and sped to the nearest exit, and to my amazement they all got into the security vehicle and were in hot pursuit! I had actually left the mall entirely by this point but I was stuck at a light waiting to turn onto US 19 and then I-70 so I could get the hell out of there. While I waited at the light, they caught up to me and started flashing their lights and screaming obscenities and honking at me. I don’t even remember exactly what they said, it was kind of traumatic. I do remember “We got your license plate, you’re in big trouble!” and other things like that. As far as I know, I hadn’t actually done anything against the law, they weren’t the police, and I was off mall property, so I continued to ignore them. I turned onto US 19 north toward the interchange with I-70, and they continued to follow! A few seconds later, I turned onto the on ramp for I-70 west. They were still following me! What were they going to do, follow me home to Wisconsin? At this point I became concerned for my own safety against these people, who were apparently insane, and considered calling police myself, but they immediately exited the Interstate as soon as they got on. I continued on my merry way, a little faster than usual, and 10 minutes later I was possibly the only person in history glad to see the “Welcome to West Virginia” sign.
So, if you want to take some pictures in and around malls, here are a few lessons. Look around. Security usually walk up and down the mall all day and are sometimes even in stores. If it’s dead, they’ll often be chatting with store employees or strangely even watching TV. Also, mall employees like janitors usually don’t care what you’re doing (however, they caused this horrible situation) but I always take precautions and avoid them seeing me too. Take pictures discretely. Don’t use a flash, or attract any attention to yourself by anyone. They will harass you for taking pictures, and it can be pretty nasty. I’ve also been kicked out of malls, and both politely and not very politely asked to stop. If you want to avoid the situation, don’t take pictures inside at all. But that’s not very fun. Overall, realize that you’re not doing anything illegal. They have no authority to detain you, call the police on you (unless you stay after they ask you to leave), or do anything but ask you to leave and not come back. They also probably won’t chase after you after you leave the mall entirely and follow you onto the freeway, screaming and honking, either. But it happened to me, so who knows? At least it made for a great story.
Pictures taken September 2005. If anyone has any comments, or can provide more information on the history of the mall before the 1990s, feel free. Also, if J.J. Gumberg is reading this, it’s my opinion that you hire some pretty wacky people.