27 May 2013

Totem Lake Mall, Kirkland, WA

A dead mall

26 December 2021

Due to its geographic limitations, the entire Seattle area is a bit more densely built than the average American urban core. There's really just a narrow strip of land that's suitable for development between the Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound, and much of that is dotted with lakes and swampland. So builders in this region never have had as much land to play around with as the Houstons and the Chicagos of the world. This fact has contributed to one positive outcome- the Seattle area, despite its consistent growth and its being home to of one of the nation's first shopping centers, has never had an overabundance of malls.

Totem Lake Mall can easily fool the average observer into thinking this is merely another big-box power center.

Not counting the downtown verticals, there have only been a handful of traditionally designed and marketed enclosed centers ever built in the entire Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, with the addition of a few more smaller facilities when the consolidated area's outlying counties are taken into account. Of those few, all but two remain healthy and viable. Lakewood Mall, constructed in the south sound town of the same name, was never much of a draw and was recently converted into a power and community center. The other black sheep, probably soon to follow in those footsteps, is Kirkland's Totem Lake Mall.

L- Totem Lake Mall as of its opening. R- Totem Lake's last anchor lineup before its downward spiral.

During the numerous times that I had visited the Puget Sound region in the early 2000s, I had no idea that Totem Lake Mall even existed. Then, not too long ago, I read about this unlikely anomaly, a dead mall that couldn't survive in a market crowded with many more shoppers than facilities for them to frequent. Based on what I gathered from descriptions and viewed in photographs, it seemed to be a pretty insignificant player. Even with its desirable location along an exceptionally busy stretch of interstate, its limited size and selection never made it popular among the local populace with major competitors like Northgate Mall and Bellevue Square within a short drive.

TL- The unmarked southern entrance to the enclosed portion. TR- The front side contains the healthiest part of the mall, a series of big boxes that still draw in a respectable audience. BL- New retailer My Home now takes up the anchor spot originally occupied by Seattle-based Lamont's. BR- The flanking side of the mall, including some groovy old school stonework.

It was a chilly and overcast day in early May when I first went to see The dead mall of Seattle for myself. The unassuming structure was just a short walk from the nearby freeway transit center while being surrounded by several large multi-level medical and professional buildings. Just past their modern facades and down a small hill lay the oversized and rather disused carpark along with a lofty sign declaring Totem Lake Malls looming over it. I could see how its modest design could easily be mistaken for that of either a tired old strip mall or an unpopular power center, as the front face is lined with entrances to various spaces, a few larger than others while some sat vacant next to others' still doing business. Then, through one of the unmarked side entrances, I made my way into the barren interior.

Inside the eerily quiet corridors of Totem Lake Mall.

The concourse was everything I expected it to be. While still lit fairly well, there were no shoppers to take advantage of this luminescence. The corridor was of a more than adequate width and featured several funky seating apparatuses at regular intervals. But there was nobody to use them, and no reason to require any rest. I was pretty disappointed by one unexpected find. I was hoping to catch a shot or two of a wonderful Gottschalk's label scar from above the former anchor's entrance, but, alas, its gates were risen and the insides brightly lit. There were streamers crossing the drop ceiling along with a banner exclaiming "Grand Opening." A new addition named My Home had recently moved into the space, adding a little spark of life to the otherwise forgotten place. Damn.

TL- My Home is open where Gottschalk's used to be. TR- I love the stonework on the anchor's walls, but I hate that its original, natural hues have been hidden under a bland coating of white. BL- One of the funky seating areas. BR- The only thing green in these halls is the tinting of the lights, as no cash has been exchanged in years.

Totem Lake Mall came to be in 1973, following a long period of planning that had commenced in 1968. The one major anchor, a 40,000 square foot Lamont's, opened a few months later that year. It was joined by an Ernst Home and Nursery, located on the northern end of the building without any interior access. The mall did well enough for its first couple of decades, but its misfortune began in 1996 with the shuttering of the Ernst space. Though it was soon subdivided and leased to Ross Dress for Less, Cartoys and a Famous Footwear, the complex never seemed to fully recover. The center also saw the departure of some of its larger tenants such as Rite-Aid, Comp USA and Gottschalk's, which had taken over Lamont's, by the late 2000s. The smaller shops followed closely behind, effectively abandoning the place to its inevitable fate.

Shots of the East Mall, located just behind the closed portion.

There is a strip center associated with the enclosed portion called the East Mall, and it seems to be doing relatively good business. In the main facility, the front facing larger stores like Ross still seem to host a steady stream of customers. But the diminutive enclosed portions, like so many of its peers nationwide, gives today's time starved shopper no incentive to come inside. There are generally two kinds of retail client these days- those who just want to park immediately in front of their targeted destination in order to grab what they need as expeditiously as possible and those who would rather make the visit to their preferred retail complex an all-encompassing event, spending hours browsing its wares and sampling the different cuisines. Totem Lake, in it's present format, cannot offer the convenience needed by the former type nor the selection required by the latter type. There really is no place for meager malls like this, even in a sparsely served market like Seattle.


-26 December 2021

Totem Lake Malls site plan ca. 2011.  View the full PDF version here.


  1. Ernst originally had access to the interior mall, but it was covered up when the Ernst space was divided into thirds in the late 90s. The Car Toys, Famous Footwear (moving out), and Ross are there now. Fun fact: the old Ernst space is the only portion of the building that won't be torn down for the redevelopment.

  2. I'm enjoying going through these malls again. Thank you.