Opinion: Lloyd Center was a mall for a different moment

Carl Abbott Abbott is emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University

Carl Abbott

Abbott is emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and the author of “Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People” from Oregon State University Press.

In a warm morning drizzle on Aug. 1, 1960, Portland Mayor Terry Schrunk snipped a 100-foot ribbon to open the Lloyd Center shopping mall. Gov. Mark Hatfield watched 700 homing pigeons explode from their cages to carry the news to dozens of Northwest cities. It was a coup in a longstanding rivalry between the city’s east and west sides and a demonstration that Portland was as up-to-date as upstart Seattle.

Lloyd Center was the culmination of a dream by California oil baron Ralph Lloyd, who had begun to buy up eastside Portland real estate in the 1920s with the vision of building an alternate downtown. Despite suspicion from downtown businesses and banks, Lloyd had already opened a Sears store along Northeast Grand Avenue – a building that now houses Metro’s headquarters – and dug the foundation for a hotel before the Great Depression put his plans on hold. But he continued to buy land. He owned nearly 100 blocks in Northeast Portland at the time of his death in 1953.

Over the next three years, the Lloyd Corp. unfolded plans for a massive shopping center only five minutes from the center of Portland. Downtown merchants watched with concern. The Lloyd Corp. broke ground in April 1958 and opened the mall 27 months later. BusinessWeek magazine in 1960 noted that Lloyd Center’s 1.2 million square feet of rentable space and its 80-plus stores gave Portland the nation’s largest urban shopping center ­– a distinction, of course, that lasted only a few years. Time called it a “consumer’s cornucopia” for the 595,000 people who lived within a 20-minute drive.

When I moved to Portland in 1977, our first house was a rental within sight of Lloyd Center. The following year, we bought our next home about a mile away (we’re still here). Before I knew its history, I knew Lloyd Center as a convenient mall where we could shop upscale or midmarket, choose among bookstores and sporting goods stores, and find our dentist on its upper level of professional offices. I also knew it was an oddity in the urban scene. It was not like hundreds of cookie-cutter suburban malls, nor was it a downtown festival market.

As I dug into Portland history, I realized that Ralph Lloyd and his heirs weren’t the first to challenge downtown Portland. In 1868, California stagecoach king Ben Holladay bought a big chunk of the east side and pushed a railroad toward California. He beat out a rival westside railroad company for a lucrative federal grant, but his real estate plans fizzled while leaving his name to a street and park. In the late 1920s, George Weatherly bet on the central east side with the sumptuous 2000-seat Oriental Theater and the 12-story Weatherly Building on Southeast Morrison, but wrecking balls smashed the theater in 1970 and his skyscraper stood in lonely isolation until the east side took off in the 2000s.

Lloyd Center itself may have been thriving when I came to Portland, but it was better suited to the 20th century than the 21st. Malls all over the country have closed in the face of retail transformations that have seen the downsizing of department store chains like Macy’s and JC Penney’s and the rise of online shopping. In the years BA (Before Amazon), retail consultants had well-tested formulas that matched an area’s population and income to the retail space that it could support in different categories. Hypothetically, businesspeople could calculate that a community could support one bookstore, two bank branches, two florists and three dry cleaners. Now storefront retail space is being supplanted by suburban distribution warehouses for online sellers. When we want linens, t-shirts and toasters, we don’t need to pop over to Macy’s in Lloyd Center.

There is an irony about the Lloyd Center story. When it opened, families were leaving the east side of Portland for the suburbs. The Irvington neighborhood was considered rundown and included in 1968 as a Model Cities neighborhood needing targeted reinvestment. Since then, Northeast Portland has seen an influx of households with plenty of disposable income. Zillow thinks that at least a few Irvington houses may be worth $2 million. In other words, the mall began to lose tenants—notably Nordstrom in 2015 ­– as area incomes went up, new apartments were opening and nearby convention business was growing. However, the buzz was gone. Scattered crime in the vicinity deterred visitors. Expensive renovations like a new entrance and staircase and messing with the ice rink missed the mark. A close and discouraging comparison is Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, opened in 1985 and demolished in 2020-21 with Macy’s the last major tenant to go.

Is there a future for the Lloyd Center site, now that the mall’s lenders are initiating foreclosure proceedings? Some smaller malls have been demolished and replaced by Amazon warehouses. There are lots of schemes for office complexes and tech hubs, but the flight from 9-5 office work makes those problematic. Highland Mall in Texas is now a campus of Austin Community College. I’d personally be all-in for a baseball park if the Oakland A’s would ink an ironclad deal, but we’re in for a wait before the east side has its own stadium to balance Providence Park.

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