Watching an Urban Mall Die

Downtown America stares into a challenging, unknown future

Westfield Mall’s main entrance on a Saturday afternoon

To be clear: I love San Francisco. I love Union Square. I love Market Street, the whole every-shifting stretch of it from the Ferry Building southward through the gritty blocks of too many drug deals and doorways inhabited by the down and out. Of course I particularly love the beautiful parks and hilltop views of the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco Bay, the museums, the stately homes and funky ones, the great food and most of all the people. San Francisco people, despite the influx of too many rich and techie, are still a wondrous mix of every color, creed and national origin — not to mention political opinion, which few citizens of San Francisco are shy about expressing. To be further clear, I never loved malls. I spent a lot of time in them in the 1970s and 80s, the glory days of retail when I was writing for (among other somewhat more interesting magazines) National Real Estate Investor and Shopping Center World. I would often spend a week or so before a major mall opening just hanging out, gathering details, interviewing store managers and PR people. Fun times for a writer!

Looking down on near-empty escalators from the top of Nordstrom’s multiple floors

In the glory days of malls there were innovations such as waterfalls and lush greenery. In downtown San Francisco, Westfield (originally San Francisco Centre) boasted a spiral escalator connecting the multiple floors of anchor store Nordstrom with the Market Street entry floor and a top-floor restaurant. On opening day in 1988 this was the nation’s largest Nordstrom store. And despite my anti-mall proclivities, I loved Nordstrom from the moment of my arrival in San Francisco in 1992. But it’s closing now. There’s a lot of sadness, though little surprise. Inside, there are theoretical sales designed to keep a few customers coming, but for the most part the closing is in full swing. Plywood sheeting and yellow tape are scattered everywhere. It’s hard to imagine that the smaller shops on each floor will survive. Or Westfield Mall in any form.

Many of the smaller shops have ‘gone dark’

Westfield Mall is hardly an exception. Since the glory days of the 1980s, when some 2,500 malls dotted the urban/suburban landscape, that number has dwindled to around 700. One estimate is that only about 150 will still be around in another decade. Which leaves both sadness and an uncertainty tinged with a tiny excitement. Something new will evolve. As in many other cases, the pandemic helped hammer in the nail of Westfield’s coffin. But more nails were provided by the city’s struggle to find solutions to homelessness and drugs on the street. Increased security presence can’t really stop the ever-growing problem of thievery.

Not-so-busy Security guys

I’m not saying goodbye, only farewell. Downtown San Francisco will return. And here’s a rebuttal, meanwhile, to all that bad press: The waterfront is still a wonder. The Ferry Building and its surroundings remain a great place to spend the day. The parks and museums and tree-shaded hillsides are still unequalled for urban strolling. Shopping areas like the Fillmore, Polk Street, Hayes Valley, Potrero, the Mission, the Castro are scattered everywhere and are still enchanting. The Presidio is a national treasure. History is just around every corner. Do you really travel the globe just to visit another mall exactly like the one at home? Downtown San Francisco won’t come back as it was. Change happens. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But when the city’s core does revive it may well be more interesting, more vibrant and more inviting than the 1980s mall scene ever imagined.

Walking out the door, into the cool, sunshiny summer air, I had no shopping bags but a lot of memories. Give us time. San Francisco has risen, all new, from the ashes before.


  1. i live in the texas hillcountry and have watched the malls in austin and san antonio dry up over the last 5+years. sorta like a bright smile that has slowly lost a tooth here – a tooth there.
    what has replaced them are outdoor malls that are beautiful. meandering walkways with high end stores punctuated by restaurants with patio seating on the boulevard as it were. fountains and trees planted therein that give shade to an assortment of pop up ice cream shops, tiny wine bars, bubble tea nooks, iphone fix your screen kiosks and such. given what may be the new (i cringe to say it) normal, i wonder how long it’s going to take anchor stores like Nordstroms to reclaim their crisp cool spaces.

    1. That’s fascinating. I wonder how long it’s going to take SOMEONE in the leadership of my beloved San Francisco to figure out how to draw some enterprises (and surroundings) of those sorts into the empty spaces in our downtown core. Which could only be done with some creative solutions to the other problems that are driving major retail away. Wish I had some solutions! Thanks so much for sharing an insight into what’s been happening in your part of Texas.

  2. Fran dear thank you for being a voice of calm amidst all the turmoil of the past three years. Your voice is a salve for me because I have been so frightened about our City. I lived in our precious City for 17 years and loved every single minute of it. I moved to the beach in Pacifica because I could be closer to the Ocean.
    Even so, I have been and still am greatly pained about my City by the Bay. I never felt that way during the ’70’s or the horrible AIDS time in the 0’s in fact, I loved my City even more during the AIDS crisis. I remember so much and did so much (as you did) during that time.

    But now is different. I am truly afraid to go in to the City even though I can pay for parking, even though I want to see friends who don’t have paid parking anywhere near them. I used to take BART to the symphony and the ballet and I used to drive in too but walking the distance from BART or parking areas is too scary with people on the sidewalks who look sooo scary.

    I feel sorry for our current Mayor. Even IF she were a Magician I don’t think she could make it possible for ALL THIS to go away.

    Still, somehow, someway, I do think the energy and the magic of San Francisco will transform what has happened and continues to happen downtown.

    Yep, I’m a believer.

    1. Do not despair!! I so empathize with your apprehension over the grim sights, but there are plenty of ways to navigate safely, and the grim sights are only in limited areas. I’m not optimistic about any quick fixes, but I’m betting on a better future to emerge. Thanks for thoughtfulness, and for joining me in keeping faith for the future!

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