Provo, Utah is a city of almost 120,000 people located 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah’s largest city and the state capital. Provo is also located near the southern end of an urban corridor known as the Wasatch Front, a heavily populated valley which, due to geography, stretches nearly 120 miles from north to south and only 20 miles east to west. With over 2 million residents, the Wasatch Front contains over 80 percent of Utah’s entire population. Provo is also known for being the home of Brigham Young University, one of the nation’s largest private colleges, and for technology. And, due to the proximity to nearby mountains, amazing views can be had from nearly everywhere in the valley.
Provo, along with the entire Wasatch Front, has been growing in recent decades, tripling in population since 1950 and filling in the entire narrow valley with suburban growth. The southern Wasatch corridor, consisting of Provo and its Utah Valley environs, is currently home to two malls, which opened in 1973 and 1998, respectively.
The single level University Mall, which opened 1973, was the first mall in the Provo area. The mall is actually located in Orem, a planned suburban city immediately north of Provo. Orem, much like Provo and the rest of the Wasatch Front, has grown from a population of 18,000 in 1960 to a population of nearly 100,000 today.
When University Mall opened, it was anchored by Utah-based ZCMI – one of the only major retailers owned by a religious organization, the Mormon Church - and JCPenney. The mall’s opening was a sore point for officials in Provo, who wanted the mall to be located there – in the middle of downtown, but ultimately the developer was won over by the sprawling space offered up by Orem and the proximity to all the college students at BYU, the mall’s namesake.
One of the first major changes at University Mall was the addition of north anchor Mervyn’s, a California-originated department store operated by Dayton-Hudson of Minneapolis, in July 1981.
In the late 1990s, a war erupted between the University Mall and a developer wanting to build a new mall in south Provo. The new mall’s developer convinced JCPenney to abandon its post at University Mall with a promise of part ownership in the new mall. JCPenney took the deal and ran, closing their University Mall store in late 1997. A lawsuit and local war ensued, even as the new two level mall – Provo Towne Center – opened in 1998, with its sparkling new JCPenney.
Following JCPenney’s departure, Local officials and the media were concerned that University Mall would become a dead mall; however, University Mall saved face when Nordstrom stepped in and offered to replace the shuttered JCPenney. The new Nordstrom store opened in 2002, and helped save University Mall from being lower-tier. In addition, University Mall embarked on a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion, which debuted in 1998. The expansion gave University Mall a new junior anchor, Sports Authority, and a new food court.
In other anchor changes, the ZCMI store changed to Portland-based Meier and Frank in 2001, after the Mormons sold ZCMI to May Company in 1999 following a period of unprofitability. May retained the ZCMI name until 2001, when all of the ZCMI stores were either converted to May’s Portland-based Meier and Frank nameplate or sold. The store at University Mall operated as Meier and Frank until shortly after parent company May was sold to Macy’s in Febrary 2005. Macy’s converted all of the May nameplates, including this store, to their Macy’s brand in Fall 2006.
Most recently, Mervyn’s closed at the end of 2008 when that chain went under, and an outdoor ‘lifestyle’ expansion recently debuted. The Village at University Mall opened outside the mall, east of Sports Authority, in 2008. Consisting of over 100,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space for 25 stores, the Village is anchored by a Cinemark theatre and allows patrons to shop outside and enjoy the beautiful mountain views and fresh air. I have to wonder, though, how well the expansion was planned, because it doesn’t seem to really fit or flow cohesively with the extant enclosed mall. I really think that if you’re going to play with fads like outdoor ‘lifestyle’ add-ons, develop a design to funnel foot traffic between the indoor and outdoor portions of the mall and form a spatial business model to support and emphasize its use. This specific development encourages driving between the mall and its own lifestyle addition, and that’s kind of silly. End rant.
Today, University Mall competes head to head with Provo Towne Center, and even leans a bit more trendy and upscale than the latter with the presence of Nordstrom and other popular retailers. Also, University Mall is slightly larger than Provo Towne Center, and slightly better positioned in the center of the Utah Valley adjacent to BYU and its thousands of consumer-students. In contrast, Provo Towne Center’s major advantage is its direct access to Interstate 15, the major north-south corridor of the Wasatch Front.
The T-shaped University Mall is designed with what I’d call a ‘modern national park lodge flair’, similar to that of Park Meadows Mall in Denver (only much less dramatic), with exposed fieldstone, woodsy colors and dark brass fixtures. I’m not sure if this happened in the 1998 remodel or a more recent one. I visited the mall in July 2009 and took the pictures featured here. The impressive mountains looming overhead and crisp blue skies that day almost made me wish the mall was an outdoor center – almost. Feel free to leave your own comments and stories about University Mall.