Metrocenter Mall; Phoenix, Arizona

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:

Throughout its life, the mall saw the standard comings and goings of anchor tenants. Rhodes Brothers was converted to a branch of Hawaii-based Liberty House, then to Joske’s. Joske’s was acquired by Dillard’s and the location became a second Dillard’s for a time before converting to a JCPenney. The Broadway was acquired by Federated department stores in 1997, and converted to a Macy’s. Goldwater’s was converted to J.W. Robinson’s, which became Robinsons-May in 1993. After May department stores were acquired by Macy’s in 2006, Macy’s moved from the former Broadway to the Robinsons-May building, leaving the former Broadway vacant.

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:

Park Central Shopping Center; Phoenix, Arizona

I promised a few months ago that I went to every single mall in the Phoenix and Tucson areas–and you were all quick to point out at least one omission, at an outlet mall in Mesa–but by and large I think I made it to all of them, and I plan to bring them all to you, one by one. It is happening, I swear! If we’re gonna do this, let’s start with the oldest.

The Park Central Shopping Center opened as Park Central Shopping City in 1957, way back when Phoenix was still a fairly small city of a little over 100,000 people. This was still the early days of air conditioning–the innovation that made places like Phoenix feasible to inhabit–and Phoenix hadn’t yet grown into the desert behemoth that it is today. Park Central Shopping City was initially built by the Burgbacher brothers on the site of a former dairy farm on what was then the edge of town, in a brand new “edge city” 2 miles north of downtown Phoenix (the area would later become known as Midtown Phoenix). At the time, the development was seen as overly speculative and foolish, and located too far from the city’s center of population–a seemingly laughable assumption today.

The mall, which is completely open air and always has been, opened in 1957 with three anchors: a two-level Goldwater’s (founded by the same family as former Republican presidential candidate and modern conservative godfather Barry Goldwater), a two-level Diamond’s, and a J.J. Newberry 5 and dime store. Laying to rest the initial skepticism about the mall’s potential, both Goldwater’s and Diamond’s soon both shuttered their downtown locations in favor of operating the new midtown stores as their main locations, and JCPenney also joined the roster as another anchor. For a time, Park Central was the center of the Phoenix retail scene. During the 1960s, a number of new high-rise office and apartment buildings sprang up in the immediate vicinity of the mall, pulling the city’s center of gravity north and quickly becoming the de facto “city center” of Phoenix.

Phoenix exploded in population in the decades following world war II (and, realistically, continuing until only very recently), causing most development in the low-density, auto-oriented city to fan out for miles and miles in every direction. Due to these patterns, more people moved to far-flung newer regions of the city only partially accessible by freeways, and eventually the Midtown neighborhood came to be seen as slightly tired and inconvenient. During this time, Park Central experienced the normal slate of changes that any major shopping center tends to see, mainly in shifts in tenants: Robinson’s replaced Goldwater’s and Dillard’s replaced Diamond’s, both sometime in the mid-late 1980s. But by the end of the 1980s, Park Central was failing, losing many of its tenants to other, newer locations, and to enclosed, climate-controlled centers. JCPenney and Dillard’s were the last of the anchors to leave, gone from the mall by the mid-1990s.

Despite its failure as a retail center, the mall still sat at the very center of the city’s business district, surrounded by towering modern skyscrapers. Realizing the potential of the property, the mall’s management began to convert the center to a mixed-use, office-focused facility not long after the closure of Dillard’s. The former Diamond’s property became home to Catholic Healthcare West, Banner Health Systems moved into the Goldwater’s, and United HealthCare replaced the former JCPenney space. With so many office workers occupying the mall’s 3 largest spaces, some of the smaller spaces were able to be re-leased to low-level retail tenants, including Starbucks, Qdoba Mexican Grill, The Good Egg, and even a bevy of local businesses (including several small delis and even Kobalt, a gay bar). A Hampton Inn also opened on the corner of the property.

Although Park Central isn’t a mall by any definition now, the center has seen almost no cosmetic changes during its transformation and is completely open for perusing, so it’s a good opportunity to get a glimpse of Phoenix’s oldest retail establishment. It’s a little weirdly quiet now, and there aren’t any traces of old retail storefronts, but the facades on some of the original anchor stores are fairly neat and worth checking out if you’re in the area. Also, the area itself has changed somewhat of late: while the mall failed in part because Phoenix had turned its eyes towards the sprawling suburbs, the city has seen (like many others) a revival in interest in urbanism, and a new light rail opened along Central Avenue in December 2008 giving direct transit access to the mall. Much of the dense and centrally-located Midtown neighborhood has become popular with young, upwardly mobile types who want access to nightlife and restaurants that aren’t just formula-based chains, and much of the city’s alternative culture thrives within blocks of Park Central (hence the mall housing a gay bar), so there’s even some remote chance that someday there will be a newfound interest in dense, pedestrian-oriented retail at the site.

El Con Mall; Tucson, Arizona

El Con Mall was Tucson’s first mall, borne of necessity in 1960. Tucson didn’t have a mall yet, and its population grew 368 percent between 1950 and 1960 – from 45,000 residents to well over 200,000. Developer Joseph Kivel decided the best spot for the mall was in midtown Tucson, in the middle of the growth, next to the storied, posh El Conquistador Hotel, a Spanish Revival structure which opened in 1928 (and should never have been torn down). When the mall opened it was initially outdoor, and anchored by a three-level, 60,000 square-foot Levy’s Department Store, which moved from downtown Tucson, as well as a 2-level, 180,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward; Woolworth and Skaggs Drug were mini-anchors.

With 550,000 people in the city and over a million in its metropolitan area, Tucson is an ascending Sun Belt city with lots of recent growth.  Despite its size, however, Tucson is considered small when compared to its huge neighbor Phoenix, located 120 miles to the northwest; and, due to its own particular brand of Sun Belt sprawl, Tucson doesn’t feel as big as similarly-sized cities back east.  Also, in many ways, Tucson behaves as the small city it was in 1950 when it had 45,000 residents – the downtown is lacking in both sheer size and in density, there are relatively few dense, walkable neighborhoods lined with shops, restaurants, and bars designed for browsing on foot, and there are no urban freeways connecting different parts of the city – Interstates 10 and 19 are of little use to many Tucsonans traveling within the city.  Residents on the sprawling east or north sides of Tucson must suck it up and commute on busy surface streets with many lights, sharing their commutes with traffic visiting the commercial strips along the same streets.

All of these ingredients make for an interesting Sun Belt city, where the automobile is king and retail strips dominate the landscape for miles.  Tucson has two dominant strip areas.  The first is along Oracle Road on the north side and is anchored by the Tucson Mall, with the ancillary Foothills Mall located a short distance away.  The other strip is mostly located along Speedway and Broadway Boulevards to the east of downtown and is anchored by the Park Place mall.  There is also another mall along the Broadway corridor, located three miles west of Park Place and three miles east of downtown Tucson, El Con Mall.

El Con Mall was Tucson’s first mall, borne of necessity in 1960.  Tucson didn’t have a mall yet, and its population grew 368 percent between 1950 and 1960 – from 45,000 residents to well over 200,000.  Developer Joseph Kivel decided the best spot for the mall was in midtown Tucson, in the middle of the growth, next to the storied, posh El Conquistador Hotel, a Spanish Revival structure which opened in 1928 (and should never have been torn down).  When the mall opened it was initially outdoor, and anchored by a three-level, 60,000 square-foot Levy’s Department Store, which moved from downtown Tucson, as well as a 2-level, 180,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward; Woolworth and Skaggs Drug were mini-anchors.

The original plan for El Con was to incorporate the hotel into the retail site, which would have been neat, but due – at least in part – to greed and the necessity for more retail amid a growing population, the hotel closed in 1964 and met the fate of the wrecking ball in 1967.  The hotel was replaced with a much larger, two-level Levy’s store, which opened in 1969, and the smaller Levy’s on the other side of the development was taken by Steinfeld’s, another downtown Tucson department store.

The 1970s brought continued success, expansion, and competition for El Con.  In 1971, a fully-enclosed mall structure and a 2-level, 115,900 square-foot JCPenney opened attached to the newer Levy’s, which added another level at the same time, giving it 290,000 square feet.  The original, 1960-era outdoor mall with Wards and Steinfeld’s still existed separate of the newer enclosed mall, and the two operated side by side until 1978, when they were sewn together and a 2-level, 120,000 square-food Phoenix-based Goldwater’s was added.  The older outdoor mall was also enclosed at that time, and for the first time the two separate malls were a seamless 1-million-square-foot L-shaped entity.

In 1975, a new mall, Park Place, which was built by the same Kivel developer, opened 3 miles to the east of El Con along Broadway Boulevard.  Park Place was anchored by L.A.-based The Broadway, Phoenix-based Diamond’s, and Sears. Park Place and El Con co-existed as Tucson’s two malls for two decades because of complementary anchors and Tucson’s continued growth.

By 1980, Tucson had 330,000 people and only these two malls, which anchored both ends of the Broadway retail corridor.  In the early 1980s, Steinfeld’s became the first El Con anchor to fold.  Its space was given to various uses, from a warehouse for the needy to a short-lived indoor bazaar called Pavilion at El Con Mall.

In 1982, a much larger two level mall, Tucson Mall, opened across town on Tucson’s north side.  While Tucson Mall eclipsed both El Con and Park Place in size, the trade area for Tucson Mall was far enough away that all three malls co-existed well into the 1990s.

In 1985, Levy’s, which was owned by Federated Department Stores, folded into Dallas-based Sanger Harris, and in 1987 it folded once again into Houston-based Foley’s.

In 1989, Goldwater’s folded into Dillard’s. 

In 1990, Tucson had over 400,000 residents, and the continued growth kept the retail scene active at all of the malls.  In 1993, Foley’s became L.A.-based Robinsons-May, but throughout the rest of the 1990s the mall entered a downward spiral.  The entire Steinfeld’s wing of the mall, along with the El Con 6 movie theater, was torn down in 1998, making way for a new Home Depot store, which debuted in 2001 sans mall access.  A 20-screen Century movie theater was added to replace the El Con 6 in 1999, and a new food court debuted near the theater’s entrance in 2001-2002.  The food court was an instant failure, never once gaining a tenant, and is still totally vacant today.  Montgomery Ward folded nationally in early 2001, and its store was demolished to make way for a new Target, which opened in 2005, also sans mall access.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Dillard’s gave up at El Con Mall and shut their store, which remained vacant until March 2010 when Burlington Coat Factory snatched it up.  In addition, Foley’s became Macy’s in 2006, the last nameplate the western anchor would see before closing permanently in 2008.  Also in 2008, a Ross store opened in the Macy’s wing, reclaiming some dead store space.

The closing of Macy’s brought an interesting twist to El Con’s history, because it made in-roads for a Wal-Mart Supercenter to open.  Wal-Mart had been actively interested in coming to El Con Mall since 1999, but due to intense community opposition the city of Tucson passed a so-called ‘Big Box Ordinance’ to prevent the store from coming to the mall.  However, Wal-Mart finally found a way around the ordinance by establishing its store within the footprint of the former Levy’s/Macy’s store after demolishing it, and it should be open in mid-2012.

Also in recent years, numerous popular chains have opened on the front outparcels of El Con Mall, in spite of the interior corridor’s apparent failure, and they include Office Depot, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, In-N-Out Burger, Claim Jumper, Starbucks, Radio Shack and Chik-Fil-A.  These stores, combined with the success of Ross, Burlington Coat Factory, JCPenney, Home Depot, Target, and soon Wal-Mart Supercenter indicate the site still remains incredibly viable for retail.  It is, after all, located at the geographic center of the city, close to downtown, wealthy neighborhoods, and the huge U of A campus with its 37,000 students.

Unlike the decline of many malls, whose neighborhoods themselves are in decline, this mall is in a decent neighborhood and instead succumbed to a lack of investment, a poorly thought about strategy during decline, and ultimately competition.  While the dominant Tucson Mall and Park Place continually reinvent themselves, perhaps the best lesson for El Con could have been learned from the Foothills Mall, located on the northwest side of town.

Opened in 1989 as a small upscale mall, Foothills Mall soon found little support for this niche and failed, but continued investment in the property transformed it into a relatively successful ancillary/outlet mall.  Anchored by discounters and big box stores, with a nearly-full food court and a popular movie theater, the interior of the mall is always busy and the mall is far from troubled.

Maybe if El Con’s management allowed Wal-Mart into the mall during the first period of decline, when they were initially interested, and provided interior access to the mall from Home Depot and Target, there would be a reason for people to come inside.  As it stands, the only reason to go in is to access JCPenney, which is at the back of the mall.  However, the main entrance of the mall is directly in front ofs JCPenney, which discourages foot traffic to go anywhere else in the mall.  Why did they invest in building a food court around the same time they let two anchors, one of them Target, build stores with no mall access?  Due to El Con’s thriving anchors, outparcels, and neighboring strip malls, it seems like it could have retained a viable interior corridor just like Foothills Mall has if there was a reason to go inside.

As of June 2010, the interior corridor of El Con Mall contains only two stores other than the anchors:  a poster shop and a barber.  Plans are to disenclose the mall and revert it back to open-air, but with the lagging economy no work has been done to this end.  It will be interesting to see if Wal-Mart opens with mall access, if the mall is even still open then. Ross and Burlington maintain mall access for no particular reason.

We visited El Con Mall in March 2009 and June 2010 and took the pictures featured here.  Between 2009 and 2010 the main entrance was modified and the decorative accoutrements were removed.  Feel free to leave your own concerns and anecdotes in the comments section!

March 2009:

June 2010:

Arrowhead Towne Center; Glendale, Arizona

arrowhead-towne-center-18Arrowhead Towne Center is the only regional mall for a large region of over 1 million shoppers in sprawling northwest Maricopa County, comprising parts of Phoenix, Glendale, Sun City, Surprise, and Goodyear. Its market area is not only large, but economically and ethnically diverse as well, drawing both from extremely upscale, mostly white, brand new enclaves to the north and west to an economically diverse group with a significant amount of Mexican-Americans to the south and east. The average household income in the trade area is over $64,000.


Arrowhead Towne Center is the only regional mall for a large region of over 1 million shoppers in sprawling northwest Maricopa County, comprising parts of Phoenix, Glendale, Sun City, Surprise, and Goodyear.  Its market area is not only large, but economically and ethnically diverse as well, drawing both from extremely upscale, mostly white, brand new enclaves to the north and west  to an economically diverse group with a significant amount of Mexican-Americans to the south and east.  The average household income in the trade area is over $64,000.

arrowhead-towne-center-07Arrowhead Towne Center opened in October 1993 in a former orange grove located along Bell Road near the brand new Loop 101 freeway, Phoenix’s first belt freeway, connecting this formerly remote section of northwest Phoenix to Interstate 10 to the south and Interstate 17 to the east.  Loop 101 intensified the already-explosive growth in the Phoenix area which was occurring during the 1980s and 1990s, focusing it along this circumfrential route, which for the first time allowed accessibility to all parts of the metro.  Arrowhead was developed by Phoenix-area Westcor, and opened with five major anchors – Dillard’s, Robinsons-May, Mervyns, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward – with an empty pad for an eventual sixth anchor.  Anchor Ward became Sears in 2001 following Ward’s bankruptcy.  

In many ways, Arrowhead Towne Center is your average, middle-of-the-road suburban mall.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the parking lot is still crowded on weekends – but, if an area shopper wants something more upscale, she has to head east to Scottsdale or northeast Phoenix.  Arrowhead offers stores like Gap, Apple, Forever 21, Tilly’s, Dillards, and Sears; there’s no Neiman Marcus or Saks here, but neither are there many vacancies nor a dirty, drab shopping environment, following a 2003-04 rehab of the entire mall. 

In 2003, owner Westcor has sought to bring a more upper-mid tier range of stores like Hollister and Godiva to the ten-year-old mall, as well as maintaining a nice esthetic.  Much of the decor featured “outdated, chunky pieces of artwork” from 1993, so Westcor solved this by revamping the mall with muted tile floors and modern wood trim. 

arrowhead-towne-center-18The revamped tenant list came with slightly more upscale stores such as Apple, Sephora, Coach, Papyrus, and Swarovski.  The outside of the mall also got touch-ups and a new paint job, and all of these changes took place right after mall owner Westcor became absorbed by L.A.-based Macerich. 

More changes have taken place since the renovation.  In 2006, Robinsons-May became Macys as part of a national nameplate consolidation, and in 2008 Mervyns closed as that chain folded.  In March 2009, the former Mervyns space became one of the first anchor-sized locations for Forever 21, a clothing retailer for young men and women.  And, in 2009, the sixth anchor pad finally filled with Dick’s, a two-level Pennsylvania-based sporting goods retailer. 

The design of Arrowhead Towne Center is a somewhat winding two-level straight shot between Dillards and Macys, with over 1 million square feet of space.  The mall was visited by over 11 million shoppers in 2007, and we visited in March 2009.  In fact, we visited the day of Forever 21’s soft opening; in the pictures you can see the Forever 21 sign going up.  When we arrived, it was about half done and the Mervyn’s labelscar was still visible, but by the time we left the sign was done.  Also while we were there, someone had apparently modified one of the mannequins outside Hollister…

Tucson Mall; Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Mall in Tucson, AZ

Tucson Mall, opened in 1982, is located on the north side of town along Oracle Road.  With a central location, it is strategically positioned against the Tucson area’s other large, successful mall – Park Place Mall on the east side.  With 1.3 million square feet of retail space on two levels and five anchor pads, Tucson Mall recently went through a major expansion project which demolished the largely unnecessary sixth anchor pad, replacing it with a roofless collection of stores in 2009.

Throughout Tucson Mall’s history, several anchor changes have taken place on the mall’s 6 anchor pads, with only JCPenney and Sears remaining open in the same location the entire time.  Dillard’s was the next currently-operating anchor to arrive on the scene, taking over Phoenix-based Diamond’s in 1984.  Texas-based Foley’s was swapped out for LA-based Robinson’s-May in 1993, and eventually became Macy’s in 2005.  The Broadway, another LA-based department store, folded to Macy’s in 1996 and operated as Macy’s until 2005, when the Macy’s “moved” to the former Robinson’s-May location and is still in operation there.  The Broadway/Macy’s space remained dark until it was demolished in 2007 and replaced with a set of roofless stores which will open in 2009.  Finally, Tucson Mall’s Mervyn’s closed in 2008 when that chain folded and was promptly replaced with an anchor-sized Forever 21 store.  This Forever 21 store is part of a regional rollout of anchor-sized, apparel-based formats for Forever 21, combining all of their brands under one roof.  Many of these first jumbo Forever 21s replaced dead Mervyns, but their size and product mix could also easily replace many of the dead Steve and Barry shells sitting across the country. 

Tucson Mall Forever 21 in Tucson, AZIn terms of design and decor, Tucson Mall features a mosly modern design with small elements of datedness.  For example, the food court’s side corridor has relatively low ceilings and is more dimly lit, in comparison with the rest of the mall’s wide open spaces.  Also, other dated features which have remained through renovations in 2002-2004 and 2007-2009 include huge pillars and a giant, mirrored JCPenney facade.  In addition, the mall features a long two-level design with a slight turn, and the food court exists on an interesting alternate hallway on the first level. 

We visited Tucson Mall around closing time in March 2009 and took the photos featured here; however, not without resistance.  At the Macy’s end of the mall we were “caught” by a security guard who informed us that taking pictures in the mall is forbidden, and not to take a camera in the mall.  Since the mall was closing anyway, we left through the same entrance we came in, and were speedily encountered by one of the security vehicles which sped up to us as we exited the mall into the parking lot, with its yellow lights blaring.  The driver of the security vehicle then leaned out of his open window and barked something like, “Don’t bring your camera back here if you visit this mall again!  We have you on tape taking pictures and it has been recorded!”  He sure was mad.  He then drove off to a nearby section of parking lot and waited for us to leave, and that was that.  I wasn’t too ensconced by the whole ordeal, and in fact I actually kind of laughed at them.  Whoops.  \

Tucson Mall directory in Tucson, AZWe’ve encountered various levels of enforcement to this rule, with certain security guards looking the other way and others simply giving us an empathetic and polite warning.  Yet others choose to use their positions for apparent power-tripping or maybe even boredom as we’re singled out and read the riot act.  We understand they’re just doing their jobs, but one time a group of them followed us onto an interstate shouting and screaming at us after taking pictures.  Inside a mall.  The horror… 

Once again, the age-old debate emerges regarding conduct in private spaces meant for public use.  Obviously these malls have the legal right to prohibit photography, and these security officers are doing their jobs to enforce them, but to what end?  We think these policies are incredibly short-sighted, especially when the ostensible reason for prohibiting photography inside malls is to prevent financial gain from said photos.  Clearly, archival sites such as this one are meant for preserving whever history resides with these retail centers, and by taking pictures here we’re literally taking snapshots of time, for whoever is interested.  And we think that’s a good thing, and many others agree with us.  So we soldier on.

At any rate, enjoy the pictures.  P.S. Security Guard Anti-Photo Enforcer #1 is pictured in the middle of picture #17.

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Tucson Mall in Tucson, AZ Tucson Mall in Tucson, AZ Tucson Mall in Tucson, AZ

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Tucson Mall in Tucson, AZ

Phoenix Spectrum Mall (formerly Chris-Town Mall); Phoenix, Arizona

Chris Town Mall in the 1960s Billed as the first air-conditioned mall west of the Mississippi, Chris-Town Mall opened with huge fanfare in 1961. Originally, the mall opened with four anchors: JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, local Phoenix department store Korrick’s, and UA Theatres. Bullocks, a department store chain from Los Angeles, was added soon after the mall opened.


Billed as the first air-conditioned mall west of the Mississippi, Chris-Town Mall opened with huge fanfare in 1961.  Originally, the mall opened with four anchors: JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, local Phoenix department store Korrick’s, and UA Theatres.  Bullocks, a department store chain from Los Angeles, was added soon after the mall opened.  In the late 1960s, the entire Korrick’s chain became The Broadway, another chain from Los Angeles.  The mall chugged along into the early 1970s as a regional destination.  People from all over the entire southwest came to the mall to shop in the cool climes and some even thought the mall reminded them of New York.  JPB Publishing has created an excellent website dedicated to the early days of Chris-Town Mall.  Check out the different courts, especially the court of birds in cages which hung down into the mall.  Truly amazing.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, traffic declined markedly at the mall.  Other, newer, brighter centers with more impressive features opened in the Phoenix area and the mall’s trade area made it just another mall.  A dated mall, at that.  Rather than keeping up with renovations, citing lower traffic, stores began to leave in droves.  In 1985, the Bullock’s at this mall was sold to Dillard’s.  In 1995, The Broadway was purchased by Federated Stores.  Rather than converting the location to a Macy’s, Federated chose to close the store.  In 2000, the Montgomery Ward location closed when the chain went bust.

Chris Town Mall in the 1960s
Chris Town Mall in the 1960s

Losing a mall’s anchors is usually a death sentence, forcing rapid redevelopment or worse yet, abandonment and blight.  Not so in the case of Chris-Town Mall.  After The Broadway closed its store and Federated chose not to replace it with their Macy’s brand, the mall’s management quickly enticed Wal-Mart to build on that site.  In 2002, the former Montgomery Ward space was divided into PetsMart and a Ross clothing store.  Also in 2002, longtime anchor JCPenney closed and was quickly replaced by a Costco warehouse store.  The UA Theatre closed, but also quickly reopened as the Phoenix Spectrum Cinemas.  Wal-Mart expanded its store into a supercenter, and the mall was also renamed Phoenix Spectrum Mall.  Dillard’s also closed in 2004.

The mall seems to have died, but quickly reinvented itself as an alternative, ancillary mall.  It no longer has the top-tier of anchors or in-line stores, but it does okay mostly as a neighborhood and discount center.  In 2006, plans were announced to replace the empty Dillard’s and JCPenney announced it would be returning to Spectrum Mall.  How often does an anchor leave and want to come back?  The mall’s occupancy currently stands at about 88 percent.

We stopped at the mall during some free time we had in Phoenix during a cross-country road trip in July 2004 and took the pictures below.  We were amazed at the decor of the mall, and how the mall had placed “alternative” anchors such as Costco and Wal Mart, and how successful it seemed to work.  We also particularly enjoyed the antics of one of the mall’s maintenance workers, a lively middle-aged woman who wore a bee hive bufant hairstyle with a white stripe in the middle (like a skunk).  Watching her bark into her walkie-talkie became one of the running jokes of that trip, and we won’t soon forget her.

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