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.

Whither the American Mall?

The old Emporium dome lives on at Westfield Centre

The weary, wobbling American mall is a piece of today’s weary American story that’s hard to ignore. This story is about just one – which is still wobbling a bit, but working to emerge from its lingering depression.

In the Before Days – before pandemic, before economic woes, before Amazon – were the malls. Like Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza, Seattle’s Pacific Place or the ultimate mega-consumer destination Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. And thousands of others from the large like these to the small ubiquitous strips.

Signs of the glory days, Market St entry

Teenagers by the millions hung out in malls. Senior citizens speed-walked and exercised in malls. Shoppers even shopped in malls – enough of them to keep retailers happy, from the giant-store anchors to the boutique in-betweens to the aromatic food courts. But after getting clobbered by economic downturns and online shopping, the pandemic delivered what was a final blow to the Mall Era. A few survive, others are struggling or reinventing themselves and others make you want to weep for the desolation – and sometimes environmental disaster – their abandoned parking lots suggest. This is just one tiny glimpse backward and forward into one survivor: my city’s brave and even partly beautiful downtown Westfield San Francisco Centre.

Decades ago, in the 1970s-1980s glory days of malls, I was writing for commercial magazines that included Business Atlanta, National Real Estate Investor and – may it rest in peace –  Shopping Center World. If I could resurrect those memories (most of them delightful, some better off dead) I’m satisfied that Westfield Centre would be in there somewhere. Although that would have been in its former life as the chic San Francisco Center, with its grand Emporium rivaling the upscale Union Square emporiums for tourist business. 

Today, Westfield is reopened to masked visitors. Anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are keeping the lights on (a LOT of lights.) A respectable number of small retailers and service shops help keep Westfield from feeling totally deserted. But it is definitely deserted in spots, such as the eastern end on Market Street, where a handful of visitors rest below the carefully preserved dome of the old Emporium. On the Mission Street side of this end is sparkling Bloomie’s though more than one department seems better suited to rolling a bowling ball down the empty space than to browsing the expensive racks.

Social distancing on elevators

At the Nordstrom end things are decidedly livelier. Shoppers and browsers keep their masks on (or are reminded to do so by signs and salespersons at every turn) – but there are more small shops with lights on than boarded over storefronts.

A few other random sights remind the shopper/stroller that this is not your yesterday’s mall: Skateboard-carrying teenagers, en route to the empty upper decks of the parking garage across Mission Street, drop them to the marble for a quick joyride along the near-empty hallways. Food court places ask for your phone number so they can text you when your order is ready, even though you’re standing barely six feet distant. Speaking of (social) distances, they are pretty much ignored – until you’re in a line somewhere and X’s mark the spots. Escalator passengers often politely wait an appropriate few stairsteps, which seems a nice touch. Otherwise, the multi-colored masks serve as a perpetual reminder that we’re a long way away from the bustling crowds of shoppers past.

But some things remain sturdy reminders of bygone days. Claire’s, the iconic ear-piercing place, apparently emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and is back in business on the lower level; this reporter stopped by for a re-piercing job, raising the median client age by about 70 years. And one uniformed guard, standing watch at the Market Street entry for the unmasked, the disturbers of the peace, the lost or the questioning, was asked how long he’d had this job. “Since way before, ma’m,” he said with a weary smile, “way before.”