The newly renovated Pacific Place in September.

Image: Jane Sherman

Just inside a glassy new entrance at Pacific Place, a wall bears some copy that’s pure cringe amid our current pandemic. “Welcome to the Great Indoors,” it says in all-caps. A vestige of marketing roundtables from a time when they were held around actual tables, now surrounded by signs telling shoppers to mask up and stay six feet apart.

There’s little risk of violating the latter these days. With the intel that coronavirus hovers indoors—and the ease of e-commerce—malls seem like a hard pandemic pass. And that’s before considering a rash of downtown retail closures, including Pacific Place stalwarts Barnes and Noble and J.Crew, that preceded Covid-19’s arrival. As of late September, just 18 tenants occupied the 335,000-square-foot center, less than half the mall’s capacity, according to Pacific Place general manager Elena Arosteguy. Even fewer were open.

The mall always planned to increase its renter count steadily post-renovation, says Arosteguy, building toward full occupancy by 2023. But it’s undoubtedly an inopportune time to wrap up a multiyear, multimillion-dollar makeover, as Pacific Place did this July. Shoppers who grew accustomed to maneuvering around its interior scaffolding may not yet have glimpsed the bright, expansive atrium and entry points, replete with on-brand wood paneling and living columns.

It’s also not the shopping center’s first rollout under less-than-ideal circumstances. In the 1990s, the former Frederick and Nelson department store sat unoccupied for years at Fifth and Pine, a sign that the tech money starting to flow into the region hadn’t permeated the downtown corridor. A financial crisis in Asia and a possible stateside recession loomed, too. Yet, in 1998, Pine Street Development unveiled a three-block, $400 million redevelopment project that turned the vacant F&N structure into Nordstrom’s flagship and tethered it, via skybridge, to a new five-story mall. Short-term, Pacific Place injected some luxe into a muted metropolis. But it was built for the long-term—“to have a lasting quality and basically ride through upturns and downturns,” Matt Griffin, the developer’s co-manager, told The Seattle Times.

That same philosophy appears to undergird the mall’s latest revamp. The shopping center’s current corporate owner, Madison Marquette, started the project just a few years ago, long after malls had been declared dead. Even as anchors like Barneys departed and Prime packages proliferated, construction continued, wrapping up with vacancy projections especially grim.

While shopping centers have often relied on cinemas and restaurants to fill those openings—hot pot chain Hai Di Lao recently moved into Pacific Place—an even broader reimagining of the mall beckons. “What may have been a shopping center in the past may become more of an urban village now with residential and office and other things taking over,” says Michael Lee, a vice president at architecture and design firm CallisonRTKL.

To date, Pacific Place has leaned heavily on retail, its setup a familiar touchstone for the tourists and techie newcomers it covets with the modern South Lake Union–facing entrance. But Arosteguy says the center will evolve with the industry, one that has weighed hosting coworking spaces, housing, and even fulfillment centers for online orders.

Marlo Miyashiro offers a different idea. Though the business she co-owns, the Handmade Showroom, draws passersby from the major brands in its vicinity at Pacific Place, the eclectic shop attracts plenty of its own traffic, a department store for the artisanal. Perhaps similar enterprises could benefit the same. “It would be my dream to see a mall full of independent retailers,” she says.

An indie hub in the heart of corporate Seattle? Maybe not as far-fetched as it sounds. Pacific Place has already started offering “pop-in” spaces—one- or two-day leases—during the pandemic.

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