Southcenter Mall (Tukwila)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/14/2018
  • Essay 20555

At nearly 1.7 million square feet, Southcenter Mall in the south King County city of Tukwila enjoys the distinction of being Washington's largest mall. Planning for it began in 1957, but the project nearly didn't get built. The Port of Seattle wanted to build an enormous industrial park in the same location, and it took a 1959 decision by the Washington State Supreme Court to scuttle those plans. Construction began on the mall in the spring of 1967 and it opened in grand fashion on July 31, 1968. Originally encompassing nearly 1.1 million square feet, the mall added a new wing on its northeastern side in 1992 and a larger, 400,000-square-foot addition on its southern end in 2008.

Contentious Beginnings

In the early 1950s the land that later became Southcenter Mall was primarily pastures, marshland, and farms. One noteworthy farm was the Golden Arrow Dairy, started in 1922 by Herman and Grace Anderson. The dairy itself was located just north and west of the intersection of the Renton-Three Tree Point Road (later renamed Southcenter Boulevard) and 65th Avenue S, but the Anderson's 180-acre farmstead extended south into what later became the northern part of Southcenter.

Developers could see that the flat Green River Valley was a prime site for development, but there was one problem, and it was a big one. The Green River flooded the valley regularly during winter rains, and development didn't make sense until the flooding was under control. This was accomplished by the Howard Hanson Dam, which was built upstream at Eagle Gorge on the Green River. Planning began for the dam in 1950, though construction did not begin until 1959 and the dam did not become fully operational until 1962. Nevertheless, during the 1950s various entities began eyeing the flat valley land located south of Tukwila for development once the dam was built.

Fresh off its success with the 1950 opening the Northgate Shopping Center north of downtown Seattle, Allied Stores (a large department-store chain) was searching for a suitable site for another big shopping center to be located south of the city. Allied looked at 11 sites, including one south of Tukwila. At the same time, the Port of Seattle was moving forward with long-held plans to create dozens of industrial sites on thousands of acres of undeveloped land in the Duwamish and Lower Green River valleys. These included plans to straighten the Duwamish and Green rivers and build a 30-foot-deep ship channel through what later became part of the Southcenter area, just east of the mall. The project, said to be valued at $30 to $35 million, brought dollar signs to some eyes, but many Tukwila-area citizens were opposed. This opposition was scattered and weak until 1957, when the Port imposed a two-mill property tax on local residents to finance its plans. It was the catalyst for resistance. A group of local citizens filed suit in state court in October 1957 challenging the legality of the tax. They lost, but appealed the decision.

The battle spread. In November 1957 Andover, Inc., announced the purchase of 550 acres from 41 local owners for the development of a large industrial park immediately south of Tukwila. The purchase was located in the heart of the Port's planned Duwamish industrial site. The City of Tukwila promptly annexed the Andover property, removing it from the jurisdiction of the Port-friendly King County Planning Commission and placing it under the city's jurisdiction. The Port of Seattle questioned the purchase and threatened to use its powers of condemnation to force Andover to sell it the property. Undeterred, in December 1957 Andover sold 160 acres of its purchase to the Southcenter Shopping Center Corporation (a subsidiary of Allied Stores). Rex Allison (1910-1990), the vice president of Allied Stores who had a principal role in the development of Northgate, explained that the purchase was specifically for the development of a $20-million shopping center. However, construction was contingent on the Port litigation, as well as the planned construction of I-5 and I-405 near the Southcenter area.

The litigation was resolved first. In June 1959 the Washington State Supreme Court, in Hogue v. Port of Seattle, ruled the Port's 2-mill tax illegal. The court found that the tax and the underlying act authorizing it were unconstitutional, and explained that the state constitution limits a sovereign's power to acquire property by eminent domain with two standards: (1) just compensation to the property owner, and (2) a finding that the proposed use of the property is actually a "public" use (Hogue, p. 839), which in this instance the court found not to be the case. The decision ended the Port's plans for its industrial park, clearing the way for the development of Southcenter Mall and its neighbor, Andover Industrial Park.

Andover and Southcenter

Though some initial prep work -- mainly bringing in fill dirt to the marshy land -- began on the Southcenter site in 1959, Andover Industrial Park, located immediately to the east of the proposed mall, got off the ground first. In 1961 groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the development's first building, a warehouse and distribution center that was occupied by General Electric the following April. By September 1966 the industrial park had 22 tenants.

By then the second contingency for the mall's construction had also been resolved. I-405 opened between Tukwila and Renton in August 1965, and I-5 would open between Everett and Tacoma in January 1967. The proposed mall was perfectly situated just below the southern junction of those two freeways, and everything was at last in place. On Sunday, April 24, 1966, both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times announced in front-page stories that a 90-acre, $30-million (more than $210 million in 2018 dollars) shopping center (the term "mall" became more common in the 1970s) would be built at the Southcenter location. The Times reported that a mostly complete shopping complex would open in March 1968, with full occupancy scheduled for March 1969.

Construction began in March 1967. Initial problems with after-hours tool and equipment theft were solved when several contractors pitched in and hired a Seattle company to provide three German Shepherds to patrol the property at night. By the time it was announced in October 1967 that the mall would open on July 31, 1968, construction was 70 percent complete and 93 tenants had signed leases for the mall's 110 available spaces. The mall was designed by John Graham & Company, a Seattle-based architectural and engineering firm that had designed Northgate in 1950 and the Space Needle in 1962. The complex consisted of several free-standing buildings as well as the mall's shell, where most of the businesses were located. It was built atop an average of 16 feet of fill supported by 2,000 pilings sunk as deep as 60 feet. Approximately 25 main contractors and 50 subcontractors participated in construction.

A Grand Opening

The first tenant to open at Southcenter was Seattle-First National Bank (later Seafirst), which opened on April 1, 1968. The bank wasn't located in the mall shell itself, but in a separate building located in the northeastern corner of the mall complex. On May 20 the 500,000-square-foot Bon Marche Distribution Center went into operation at the southern edge of the complex. Construction continued on the rest of the mall right up to July 31. Despite four strikes during the 16 months of construction, the mall was ready for occupancy on the big day, save for a handful of shops that had not yet been leased.

Southcenter hosted a Champagne Preview Showing between 7 and 10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, 1968. Visitors strolled the new mall and the stores were open, though no merchandise was yet for sale. Total attendance was said to be 12,000, many of whom flocked to the five champagne fountains set up inside the mall. The fountains drew double lines of happy customers nonstop during the event, and 4,800 bottles of champagne were drunk. The grand opening the next morning at 11 a.m. was similarly well attended. After formal opening ceremonies, which included a round of mercifully brief speeches by nine different speakers, including Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), thousands of happy shoppers descended on the mall.

A theater and hotel had also been scheduled to open in the immediate mall area at the same time, but those came slightly later. The hotel, a Doubletree Inn, opened in 1969 on Strander Boulevard, adjacent to Southcenter Parkway. Popular Seattle jazz pianist Overton Berry (b. 1936) and his band inaugurated the hotel's Cork Tree Lounge on opening night and played there for the next five years, becoming a local favorite. The 1,228-seat theater opened in 1970 in a separate building in the northwestern corner of the mall complex. It had an enormous curved screen that measured 88 by 32 feet, and was capable of showing high-quality 70mm film, a step up from the standard 35mm then used by most theaters.

Special Touches

Southcenter Mall had all kinds of special touches. These included at least two fountains -- an oval one and an enormous bronze sculptural fountain, said to have been a replacement for one that was stolen during construction. More than 80,000 square feet of the flooring was terrazzo, a composite material that in this case consisted of sand, cement, and 500,000 pounds of "brownish marble chips" ("Terrazzo-Floor Job ...") quarried from an unnamed location in Eastern Washington. The material was mixed together, poured to form the floor, then ground and polished to give it an appearance similar to shining stone.

Inside the mall was an enormous mobile chandelier that people still recalled half a century later. The central fixture of the chandelier was more than eight feet long, while the chandelier itself was 24 feet in circumference and weighed 3,200 pounds. It produced an amber light that bounced off 600 bent and polished brass reflectors that hung from 72 brass strings fanning out from the chandelier's center. Circulating air kept the reflectors constantly in motion.

At the time of its opening the mall had nearly 1.1 million square feet of retail space and at least 93 stores (including the Seattle-First National Bank) in operation. However, there was room for another 17 stores, and by October 1968 all of the available space had been leased. The mall's 110 stores had a total of 3,600 employees, and it was the second-largest mall in the country, behind only to the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu. There were four big-name anchor stores: The Bon Marche, Frederick & Nelson, J. C. Penney, and Nordstrom Best (now Nordstrom's). Other tenants in 1968 whose names remained recognizable 50 years later included Ben Bridge Jewelers, Merle Norman Cosmetics, and Orange Julius.

Much ado was made about the mall's "climate-controlled" environment, with central heat and air keeping the temperature at a constant 72 degrees. Central air and heat, while not new, was still something of a novelty in the 1960s, particularly in the Northwest. Last but not least, there was plenty of parking at Southcenter, with 7,200 stalls available.

Events and Expansions

Many remember Southcenter's August Food and Fashion Fairs sponsored by Seattle's KIRO (Channel 7) between 1970 and 1974, co-hosted by news anchor Sandy Hill (b. 1946), who would later go on to co-host ABC's Good Morning America from 1977 to 1980. Seattle's favorite clown, J. P. Patches, and his loyal sidekick Gertrude, often appeared to record J. P.'s TV show for the next morning. It was quite an event, particularly for the younger set, who also came for the back-to-school deals the stores offered.

Southcenter saw its first, small expansion in 1973 when Nordstrom's added a third story to its store. Otherwise, the mall remained unchanged through the 1970s and most of the 1980s. One of the more significant events during these years came from an ownership change in 1985, when Southcenter was sold to the Richard E. Jacobs Group, a company that specialized in developing and managing malls around the U.S. The owner, Dick Jacobs (1925-2009), was well-known nationwide, and not just for mall development -- the year after buying Southcenter, he and his brother David bought the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

In 1989 a food court was added in the southern part of the mall in the former space of Lucky Stores, a once well-known supermarket chain that saw its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. A more significant expansion followed in 1992 when a new wing opened in the northeastern section of the mall. The addition had between 13 and 20 new stores (accounts differ) and brought the total number of stores at the mall to between 160 and 170.

Southcenter seems to have enjoyed good revenues during the mostly prosperous 1990s. A 1999 article in the South County Journal reported that the mall's general manager claimed gross sales of "more than $500 per square foot" annually ("Southcenter Is for Sale ..."), which translates to approximately $650 million a year. A 1999 article in The Seattle Times reported that the mall had between 18 and 20 million shoppers per year. But by then the Internet Age was dawning, and big changes were looming.

New Owners, New Looks, Free Books

The last year of the twentieth century was a big one for Southcenter. In July 1999 the mall began a $6-million renovation that took nearly a year to complete. New flooring was installed throughout, and the mall's entrances were updated. The south entrance underwent a particularly dramatic transformation, morphing from a portal with a high awning supported by six tapering columns to one with a large white arch supported by four Roman-style columns. The other entrances were similarly modified. One of the biggest changes was made to the interior, with the addition of nine 20-by-20-foot skylights, letting in far more natural light.

In August 1999 -- a month after beginning the renovations -- the Richard E. Jacobs Group announced that Southcenter was for sale, along with the group's 37 other malls and 19 hotels. Late in 2001 Southcenter was purchased by Westfield America Trust, part of the Westfield Group, an Australian company with a growing presence in mall ownership in the United States. The sale was completed in April 2002, and Westfield immediately renamed the mall the Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter. The name change went over like a lead balloon. "Do you think anyone's going to get their way through that mouthful? Everyone will know Southcenter as Southcenter," complained one local retailer ("New Owners of Southcenter Mall ..."). He was right -- most just kept calling it Southcenter. Westfield got the hint and dropped Shoppingtown from the name three years later.

In May 2004 the King County Library System (KCLS) opened the Library Connection @ Southcenter, with a formal dedication following on June 5. It wasn't the first library in a mall in the Seattle area (KCLS had opened one in Bellevue's Crossroads Mall in 2001), but it proved popular. The Southcenter Library has since expanded twice, in 2012 and 2017, to a total of 5,000 square feet.

More Expansion

A significant expansion at Southcenter took place between 2006 and 2008 with the construction of a $240-million, three-level addition to the southern end of the mall. A new 16-screen theater opened on the third level on July 18, 2008, and the rest of the addition opened on July 25, with a formal 10 a.m. ceremony not unlike the original dedication 40 years earlier. Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) and other dignitaries gave speeches before thousands of excited shoppers, including some who had reportedly been waiting since 1 a.m., began streaming in.

The addition featured 75 new stores and such diverse tenants as Swedish retailer H&M, Crazy 8 by Gymboree, and Pink by Victoria's Secret. There was a new and improved food court on the addition's second level and five new, upscale restaurants, including Joey's Grill and Lounge, BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse, and Duke's Chowder House. There were also two new parking garages. The increased retail space benefited both retailers and customers, as it allowed stores with similar clienteles (such as Coach, Bebe, and Sephora) to be grouped together, where previously space had often been so limited that retailers had to take whatever location was available. If there was a downside, it was that the new section opened during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, and (similar to the mall's opening in 1968) Southcenter was unable to find tenants for all of the available spaces. Still, the new addition brought the mall's count to about 200 stores.

On December 12, 2017, news accounts reported that Westfield Corporation was being purchased by Unibail-Rodamco, a French commercial-real-estate company with a significant European presence. Affected by an overall decline in mall traffic as online shopping became mainstream, Westfield's presence in Washington had been declining in the years immediately preceding the announcement. By December 2017, Westfield Southcenter was the company's only remaining mall in the state, down from three in 2002. On the date the sale was announced, Westfield's website reported that Southcenter had 246 retail outlets in 1,681,751 square feet of rental space, more than 14 million visitors annually, and total annual retail sales of $553 million.


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