Sing a city of malls. Actually, I believe the first modern mall west of the Mississippi was built in Dallas and the first suburban mall was Northgate in Seattle, but you'd think Phoenix invented the infernal things. When I write "mall," I don't mean the beautiful and now dead 19th century Arcade in downtown Dayton. I mean a shopping center built around the automobile. Park Central was Phoenix's first, developed by the Burgbacher brothers on the site of a former dairy and opening in 1957. It was anchored by Diamonds, Newberry's and Goldwater's, the latter closing its downtown store two miles south and beginning the end of downtown retail. Even so, in the early- and mid-1960s, downtown held its own as the state's busiest shopping destination — but the die was cast. Most natives don't even remember when Phoenix was more than a city of malls.
I grew up within bicycle distance of Park Central (had my bike stolen there, too). It was open air (the city was not yet devastated by the heat island), convenient and wildly popular. It anchored Midtown, along with the twin towers across the street, the taller of which sported an outside glass elevator and the shorter being home to the Playboy Club. Old Park Central was semi-urban, contiguous to the city and human-scaled. It was followed by Biltmore Fashion Square, which until Westcor turned it into another lookalike suburban soul-killer, was also open air, with plenty of shade and in a pleasing scale. Across the street was the open-air Town and Country shopping center (which was not an empty name, for the city around it was still meshed with citrus groves and horse properties). Chris-Town became the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall in 1961 — the property has been a farm owned by the Chris family.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Phoenix developers went on a mall binge. Among them: Thomas Mall, built in the classic enclosed configuration of a long rectangle of shops with an anchor department store at each end, and Los Arcos in Scottsdale, an L-shaped Spanish design with Sears and the Broadway. These competed with Tower Plaza, Papago Plaza and others, which were older shopping centers with the shops facing the parking lots. If you grew up in Phoenix, you didn't know any better. The mall was a magical thing: New, clean, easy, cool. In 1973, what seemed would be the granddaddy of them all was completed: Metrocenter. It broke the old two-anchor mold with five department stores, two levels and even held an ice rink. My buds and I would drive out there just to see it. But it was on the outer edge of the city. And while it was promoted as a super-regional mall that would be absorbed by future growth, it just didn't seem right. Downtown was dead. Park Central was struggling. My first stirrings of an urban sensibility were offended by Metrocenter.
By the time I came back in 2000, Phoenix was no longer a place you could hold in your arms. Retail had drastically changed. Sprawl had pushed the urban footprint far beyond anyone's imaginings in the 1970s. Malls were everywhere — and not. Park Central was closed, turned into an office building where the Starbucks was seen as a triumph of urban chic. Los Arcos was being bulldozed; a hockey arena plan went nowhere — thank goodness — and the site eventually was rescued by ASU and Michael Crow. Meanwhile, malls abounded in places that had been farmland or desert when I left. Thomas Mall and Tower Plaza had been demolished, replaced by big boxes. The new thing was the "lifestyle center," such as Desert Ridge Marketplace with 1.2 million square feet.
Phoenicians still shopped at malls as if it were 1965, gasoline would always be 35 cents a gallon and changing shopping tastes and the downtown renaissance had never happened. But the downsides were more obvious. Cities competed to build the biggest new malls and big boxes to bring in precious sales-tax revenue (here Phoenix stuck it to Scottsdale with Kierland Commons). Yet because Phoenix wages and incomes hadn't kept pace with population growth or peer cities — indeed, Arizona had started losing ground in the 1980s — the region was wildly over-stored. Thus, a new mall opening meant the death of an old one (e.g. Arizona Mills killed Los Arcos), and the metro area was littered with empty big boxes, former shopping centers and dying malls. Downtown was an embarrassing exception to the over-storing, with Arizona Center quickly fading.
"Retail follows rooftops," the developers instructed us. But this was not quite so. There were if anything more rooftops in central Phoenix, but little retail. The closest shopping was a trip to Biltmore — what most Phoenicians would consider a "short drive" but was hardly a credit to what was momentarily the nation's fifth-largest city. In fact, like much with the Growth Machine, mall building had assumed a life of its own disconnected from economic fundamentals much less any civic beauty. Retail constantly moved outward to new developments around subdivisions which had higher incomes. Everybody else could drive farther. The outer-ring malls were all latently subsidized by taxpayer-paid freeways and flood control, among other things such as maintaining armies in the Middle East to keep oil flowing. Externalities, as usual, were not priced in. So, we were told, this was just "the free market in action." Actually, no. Speculation abounded. So did groupthink, with most of the malls controlled by a single company, Westcor, which was soon absorbed by California's Macerich.
Thus, there was neither the vision nor the skillsets to pull off Denver's Cherry Creek Shopping District, where an old Park Central-like mall was turned into a super-modern urban mall surrounded by blocks of walkable shops. Seattle never lost its downtown shopping, and leaders doubled-down when two department stores closed in the early 1990s. As in Denver, reinvestment was the key, with the historic Frederick & Nelson's being turned into the flagship Nordstrom and Pacific Place, an urban mall, being built. These were surrounded by blocks of other individual shops, many locally owned. Such stewardship and reinvention never happened in Phoenix.
I haven't stepped foot in a suburban mall in years. A minority, but a growing one with disposable income, is like me. They prefer urban shopping. And it's too bad Phoenix remains a one-trick pony — I can't think of a similar-sized city with such limitations. Every major metro has plenty of malls and its version of Scottsdale, but the ones that are most competitive and draw the best talent also have great downtown shopping that's walkable, human-scaled, diverse and full of energy. Not Phoenix. Even when the destructive side of malls became clear, Tempe rushed to build a new one, once again killing Mill Avenue. No surprise that malls have been devastated by the Great Recession. Downtown Seattle retail has recovered nicely. Times change, as do tastes. The classics reassert themselves. Unfortunately for Phoenix, it lacks even the relative enchantment of Park Central and the old Biltmore.
And Metrocenter? The growth came and left. Now the giant mall sits, surrounded by what looks like a square mile of broiling asphalt, inside a shell of its old self and outside homely faux Space Age ruins attesting to...what? Consumption. Indeed.
Think Phoenix has no history? Then drink deep of the Phoenix 101 archive.