Willamette Week: Will Lloyd Center Last Another Christmas? A Week Inside a Mall on the Edge
Author: Nigel Jaquiss & Natalie O'Neill
Posted: December 4, 2019

To read the original story in full, visit Willamette Week.

The scent of Cinnabon hangs heavy in the air at Lloyd Center Mall. Giant holiday decorations twinkle as "snow" floats down three stories to the nation's first ice skating rink inside a mall. George Michael's "Last Christmas" plays in an endless loop.

All the festivities can't hide an existential struggle. Even in the belly of the holiday shopping season, the mood at Lloyd Center feels closer to a going-out-of-business sale.

Covering nearly 23 acres, the region's largest and oldest shopping center floats like a supertanker stranded in the middle of a suddenly happening Lloyd District. The neighborhood is now home to more than 1,000 new apartments, and a long-awaited 600-room Hyatt adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center. Even so, there are many fewer shoppers than the mall's owners, Dallas-based Cypress Equities, would like.

In 2019, a vanishing mall is hardly news. Competition from Amazon—and other online purveyors that allow customers to shop from home—is relentless. Changing shopping trends nationally have claimed thousands of brick-and-mortar retailers and contributed to the rise of hundreds of "zombie malls." A 2017 report by Credit Suisse predicts 1 in 4 American malls will shutter by 2022.

But Lloyd Center isn't just another shopping plaza.

When it opened in 1960, it was billed as the largest mall in the country and was revolutionary for being located not in a suburb, but a central, urban neighborhood.

"What was so unusual is that it was built in the middle of the city," Portland State University professor emeritus Ethan Seltzer says. "That wasn't happening elsewhere, and it took other cities 20 years to catch up."

Over the decades, Lloyd Center established itself as more than just a place to buy things.

"For kids particularly, there are not a lot of places you can hang out when it's raining," Seltzer says. "It became the most intergenerational and interracial spot in the city. But now, it's a little like a ghost town."

Empty storefronts dot the mall's long corridors, and cavernous anchor stores are dark. On Black Friday, one of the few remaining big stores, the discount fashion retailer H&M, had a sign near its front door: "We are still open."

In 2015, Nordstrom abandoned Lloyd Center. Sears exited the following year and Marshall's pulled out in 2018, after complaining to the Portland Police Bureau, documents show, about the persistent shoplifting that has plagued the mall.

Concerns about Lloyd Center go back decades. A 2001 city development plan for the district noted that the moat of parking lots and garages that surround the mall "create barriers and broad, inactive spaces."

Although the mall is still a colossus—it pays more than $3 million a year in property taxes—there's been talk of scrapping it for a Major League Baseball stadium or converting it to another use.

Lloyd Center general manager Allie Stewart says the mall has an opportunity to evolve. "Our location is an advantage," she says, "as we evolve our uses to fit the diverse interests and values of urban Portland."

The mall is now a 2.4 million-square-foot question mark of concrete and steel, marooned in the center of Portland. So, on the busiest shopping week of the year, we went inside for a reality check.

We didn't find much optimism. "This mall is not gonna last long," said Yasmine Nasheet, a 20-year-old cashier at Gifts From Afar. "In two or three years, it probably won't be here."

Most of the regulars at Lloyd Center we spoke with expressed similar worry that the place was doomed, and we saw the symptoms of this city's most protracted social ills playing out in what's supposed to be a retail wonderland.

But we also saw the ways in which a space this vast and resilient can provide security and connection for many. If Lloyd Center disappears, a lot of people will miss it.

The Next Lloyd

Lloyd Center's death is not inevitable. Jennifer Nolfi, who heads the Center for Retail Leadership at Portland State, says that given the population density around Lloyd Center and its access to transportation, the mall can survive—if it's nimble.

"The retail landscape is constantly changing," Nolfi says. "It's not going away, it's just changing."

Lloyd Center has tried hard to reinvent itself, including a recent $50 million rehab. And it's announced a series of new initiatives:

In 2016, a Los Angeles developer announced plans to build nearly 1,000 units of new housing on the big parking lot adjacent to Lloyd Cinemas on Northeast Multnomah Street. It hasn't happened.

In 2017, Live Nation said it would open a new concert venue in the old Nordstrom space. A notice of application for a liquor license is still stapled to the wall there, untouched for more than two years. Lloyd Center general manager Allie Stewart says the music venue is going to happen: "Larger projects like these take time, but we expect to break ground on the entertainment portion in 2020."

In 2018, officials said part of the Sears space would be repurposed into high-end cinemas. They declined to comment why that hasn't happened. Nor has the upscale bowling alley Bowlero appeared that mall officials announced earlier this year.

Nolfi says while the big anchor store concept may be finished, Lloyd Center is making an effort to evolve. Across the country, malls have survived by shifting the range of services they provide.

Lloyd Center has featured seasonal pop-ups from local providers, such as Seven Virtues Coffee Roasters and the hip Japanese store Muji. Migration Brewing has a big space in the food court.

"Lloyd Center is pivoting to create a more relevant shopping experience where people can eat, drink and find locally made products with a focus on sustainability," Nolfi says. "Young adults 18 to 24 still want to go out and shop and have experiences."