When Metrocenter opened in 1973, it was the first "super-regional" mall in the metropolitan area. Unlike the typical mall of the era with two anchor stores, Metrocenter had five: Goldwater's, Rhodes, The Broadway, Sears and Diamond's. With two levels, its sleek interior looked like a starship. The showpiece was a ice-skating rink with a bar-restaurant on the second level overlooking it.
As the photo above shows, it was built in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the city along Black Canyon Freeway between Dunlap and Peoria avenues. Westcor, the developer of this and so many other Phoenix malls, assumed the growth of single-family subdivisions and office parks would follow. And so they did.
It gave the lie to "retail follows rooftops." Rather, Metrocenter was built on spec, and one underlying reality was that it would badly wound or kill older malls, especially Chris-Town and Park Central. And so it did.
Back in the 2000s, a leader told me with dark humor, "Phoenix, where we're building tomorrow's slums today." This person had it exactly right.
The other retail, offices and especially houses that crowded around Metrocenter were built on the cheap and aged badly. They were built to be thrown away as newer malls were constructed and the prime demographic moved even farther out. Sure enough, when Westcor built Arrowhead Towne Center in 1993 (where citrus groves once stood) it began the slow but inevitable cannibalization of Metrocenter. This happened with malls and big boxes all over metro Phoenix.
Phoenix has long been one of the most over-stored metro areas in the country. Incomes are well below comparable cities, and indeed had been declining vs. their peers since the 1980s. Developers could get capital for new projects, but the area couldn't sustain what had already been built.
It was/is a Ponzi scheme. With cheap subdivisions built for the automobile, cut off by walls, curvilinear streets and strict separation of uses by suburban zoning, connected by six- and eight-lane "streets, these are not areas that would attract reinvestment. Instead, the rising population of working poor, largely Hispanic, moved in, along with the usual parade of check-cashing outlets, auto-title rackets, etc., where just a few years before stood more "upscale" chain retail.
Several forces made things worse. Among them the decline of the American middle class, the collapse of Phoenix's post-World War II advanced economy (e.g. Motorola) with nothing to replace the lost quality, and the Great Recession. The latter has been very hard on cheap suburbia. Dying malls are all over America. Tastes have changed, too, and more people want to shop in vibrant downtowns.
Online shopping has played a role, too. But it has actually grown slower than predicted. The greater headwinds for retailers have come from the monopsonys enjoyed — and allowed by the government — by Amazon and Wal-Mart.
Only Park Central could have met a different fate. It has more rooftops than when it was built, more affluence in the historic districts, and walkable neighborhoods as well as light rail (WBIYB). Denver's Cherry Creek Shopping Center and the surrounding retail district were redeveloped from a mall very much like Park Central.
Alas, Park Central lies dead and people in Midtown must drive miles to the uglified Biltmore Fashion Park. Denver had civic stewards who made Cherry Creek happen, as well as a city economy and tastes that sustain it.
So what killed Metrocenter? Demographics. Over-storing. Sprawl. Most of all, the short hustle. Like so much of Phoenix, it was built for a quick death, after the developers had pulled their profits and flipped it to a greater fool. Building tomorrow's slums today...
Light rail is headed to the area. It will have promise for park-and-ride commuters. But it can't fix the bad car-centric design of the area or low-wage economy.
The tragi-comic "lifestyle center" is how retail developers are trying to survive in suburbia. "The ideal shopping habitat" offers mixed uses and architectural diversity. A Phoenix version can be found in SanTan Village. Tragi-comic because these attempt to recreate real downtowns, such as Phoenix circa 1955. But they are safely segregated in white-right apartheid.