15 May 2013

Southcenter, Tukwila, WA

An extant asset

On my first ever visit to Seattle, my eyes were glued to the massive evergreens dotting the urban landscape. They were fixated on the snow capped Cascades framing the entire urban area just to the east. Then, as we turned north onto I-5 from the airport, something else stole my attention. It was a Nordstrom. Then a Sears. Then a huge freaking Bon Marché, whatever the hell that was. Those red brick structures were all connected by a flat yet expansive one level monolith. This was the Southcenter Mall.

Southcenter Mallmanac, ca. 2001. View the full PDF version here.

Southcenter's location makes it impossible to miss as visitors enter the city's winding highway system for the first time. And it makes for a really nice first impression, with big industry names like Nordstrom and Macy's displayed prominently. In its present state, Southcenter is three levels of glass and stone enclosed capitalism, crowned by a massive AMC Cineplex. It lets first timers know that, without a doubt, this mall and this city are both big time. I knew that I was definitely not in Huntsville anymore.

L- 2003 shot of Southcenter's exterior, including the now defunct Ban Marché. R- Southcenter's interior at center court with The Bon Marché's distinctive entrance.

The first time I actually visited Southcenter was in 2001. It was classic old school design sheathed in old school architecture. The first thing impossible not to notice was the massive Bon Marché flanking the mall. It dominated the otherwise supine facade and dwarfed the neighboring Nordstrom located just to the west. Its red brick silhouette was only broken by the repetition of its signature tapered columns of concrete. It was an absolute mid-mod beauty.

Southcenter Mallmanac, ca. 2004. View the full PDF version here.

The interior was quite intriguing as well. The corridors were wide and topped by floating, high vaulted ceilings. The palette of the mall seemed to alternate somewhere between white and off-white. I would have loved to have seen the mall in its glorious 1960s color scheme, but that was all updated away long ago. Another legacy of its sixties design remains to this day- a lack of natural light. In the midst of even more of the mall's trademark tapered columns, small skylights allowed almost none of the sun's rays to reach the inside. I'm sure this worked well for the moody, dark interiors of decades past, but it seems to be requisite for today's shopper to have plenty of light. To make up for this absence, bright, almost harsh luminescence now bathes the mall in an unnatural glow.

TL- Southcenter's addition. TR- The new main entrance topped by the AMC Theaters. BL- The high ceilings just inside the new atrium. BR- The second level food court sits directly beneath the third floor entertainment complex. I always thought that up there would be a perfect spot for a Dave and Buster's.

After my last visit in 2004, I didn't visit the Seattle area again until 2008. By then, and on my next trip to Southcenter, I was in for quite the surprise. I had read online that the mall was being expanded, but I had no idea that it was being changed to the extent that it was. An entire three level corridor of shops, dining and entertainment was added to the mall's front side between Sears and JCPenney along with two multi-level car parks. Finally, the sprawling one level creation of the sixties was going vertical.

TL- The exteriors of Sears and Nordstrom. TR- The flat profile of the mall's original enclosed portion. BL- The eye-catching Macy's, originally a flagship Bon Marché. BR- The backside of the mall, where Macy's prominence is now shared by that of the third level of the expansion.

The expansion included a food court on the second level with outdoor seating and a view of Mount Rainier. An AMC Cinplex was placed on the third level, along with access to rooftop parking. Although still located in the suburbs, Southcenter was no longer just your average suburban styled mall. It had grown into a full scale urban center, more along the line of Philippine malls like Shangri-La Plaza. In fact, it is the closest to the Asian style of malls that I have seen in the United States. Its curved concourses, off center escalators and huge atriums make the already immense mall seem that much larger.

Southcenter Mallmanac, ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

Something that I like best about Southcenter is that with all of these new additions and updates, a lot of the older, classic elements are still in place. The Bon Marché, though signed as Macy's today, still retains that original red brick visage lined with those same white tapered columns. The huge JCPenney, only slightly smaller than the Macy's, is just as representative of the architectural elements that were popular at the time of the mall's conception. The dark brown brick contrasts perfectly with the brutalist cage-like ornamentation adorning the outer walls and framing the JCPenney nameplate. The only way this could have been more perfect would have been if the old Penney's logo from the seventies were still on display.

TL- The striking facade of JCPenney, one of only two only original 1968 anchors to remain. TR- At 240,000 square feet and three levels, JCPenney is the mall's second largest anchor. BL- Looking north from the JCPenney to the former Mervyn's store. BR- Seafood City now occupies the former Mervyns.

Southcenter opened in 1968 at what one day would be the interchange of Interstates 5 and 405. It was created by Allied Department Stores as they hoped to bring the success they had seen in Northgate and Tacoma malls to a site in between those two centers. The original anchors were The Bon Marché, Nordtrom Best, Frederick & Nelson and JCPenney. In 1992, Mervyn's was added just as Sears was taking over the Frederick & Nelson spot.

TL- Where old meets new at Macy's central entrance to the mall. TR- The massive food court in the new addition. BL- A view of the two-level portion of the expansion. BR- A maze of glass balconies and mezzanines criss-cross the new space.

In 2002, the mall was purchased by Australia's Westfield and was renamed, per their horrible standard, Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter. I always hated the Shoppingtown moniker that they haphazardly inserted into the names of all of their American acquisitions, and I was quite happy when they discontinued the silly word's usage in 2005. In 2006, Mervyns' closed their store just as Westfield embarked on the above mentioned expansion. It would bring the mall's size up from 1.3 million square feet to 1.7, making it the largest mall in the Pacific Northwest.

L- Jollibee! M- Seafood City anchors the Philippine wing of the mall. R- More Jollibee with their Chickenjoy. Ang sarap, talaga!

To this day, Southcenter is definitely my preferred mall in the Seattle area. Seafood City, a market specializing in Filipino brands and cuisines, anchors what has become an Asian wing in the mall outside of where Mervyn's once stood. Philippine chains Jollibee, Chow King and Red Ribbon have opened as well. And I'll gladly take extensive public transportation every so often just to get a taste of Jollibee's Burger Steak with mashed 'taters, one of the few things I miss from the Philippines. Thanks, Southcenter.

L- Southcenter as of this writing, with its new multi-level footprint. R- R- Southcenter from above. (Source)

Southcenter's official website


  1. Seahawks will win Super Bowl 51. I guarantee that

  2. I believe that Seafood City only occupies the lower level of Mervyn's. I'm not sure what the upper level is used for these days, if anything.