04 June 2023

River Park Square, Spokane, WA

An extant asset

Although I had been living in the same state as Spokane for more than a decade, I had never visited the city on the other side of the Cascades.  And I have to say that I really loved what I saw.  As we passed the center of the city on our approach to Spokane International, beneath me was a green landscape dotted with hills, mountains and ravines.  It wasn’t what I expected but was very pleasantly surprised.

The heart of Spokane is something to behold.  I walked the city streets fairly early on a Sunday morning and the pavements were empty.  But I kept hearing what I thought was traffic approaching where there was none.  Then, once I got to the Monroe Street Bridge, I could see what was causing it- the impressively large Spokane lower falls dropped in the shadow of downtown’s high-rises.  The city was full of surprises.

1 to 4- Scenes of downtown Spokane.  5 & 6- Riverfront Park and the Spokane Falls.

Another surprise is located just off of the falls and the lovely Riverfront Park. Located amongst those picturesque locations is River Park Square which, in this day, is a complete anomaly.  It is a downtown, vertical shopping mall smack dab in the heart of a medium sized city.  Sure, I’ve seen quite a few of these.  But contrasting with the struggling urban retail centers like Pacific Place or City Centre located in much larger cities, this place was vibrant, alive and full of patrons on the Saturday evening of my visit.

River Park Square's main entrance and exterior along Main Avenue.

From the moment that the five-level main entrance atrium with its crisscrossing escalators comes into view, I knew I wanted to see more.  Though only the first three levels are home to actual retail, the offerings are pretty impressive.  Anchored by the only Nordstrom in Washington located east of the Cascades, it is joined by high end stores like Anthropologie, Pottery Barn and the Apple Store.  The fourth level is home to an AMC cineplex, which still seemed to be packing them in.

Inside the main entrance atrium.

Just across the street and connected by skywalks are more shops located at the West 809 Building and at the Crescent Court.  All of it all comes together to create an enviable collection of downtown retail rarely seen in a city of this size.

River Park Square lease plan ca. 2016.  See the full PDF version here.

River Park Square originally opened in 1974.  Four years later, the mall was expanded to 800,000 square feet and skywalks were built to connect the adjoining Nordstrom, JCPenney and department store The Crescent to the facility.  In the 80s, another skywalk was added to connect The Bon Marché in addition to adding another 20,000 square feet of leasable area.

Spokane's Nordstrom

But by the early 90s, River Park Square was in decline.  JCPenney had left for nearby NorthTown Mall and The Crescent, which by then had been purchased by Seattle-based Frederick and Nelson, also vacated their space.  In an effort to reverse the trend, a new Nordstrom building was raised and the mall entirely renovated and expanded.  In 1999, the new River Park Square was opened.

Inside on the main corridor.

In the more than two decades since its rebirth, the mall has seen The Bon Marché become a Macy’s before completely closing during the 2010s.  Though that name is gone, additional businesses such as a Nike Factory Store and an Urban Outfitters have moved in.

1 to 4- Crescent Court, former home of defunct retailer The Crescent.  5 & 6- Inside the main entrance.

Besides traditional retail, the mall is also connected to non-retail facilities such Spokane’s downtown library branch and City Hall, all of which has helped River Park Square remain a viable retail destination even when many of its peers are floundering in today’s retail environment.

Pacific Place, Seattle, WA

 A dead mall

The first time I walked into Pacific Place in the early 2000s, I was definitely left in awe.  I was bathed in sunlight from the large crescent shaped skylight hovering over the center of the mall while the natural glow coming through shined on the muted earth-tones and faux marble tiles above and around me.  There was a Barney’s New York, a Barnes & Noble, and rather large Tiffany’s that seemed to be hidden behind a vault-like entrance.  At the time, Seattle was very new to me and I was basking in this greatest of finds.

Pacific Place and the neighboring flagship Nordstrom in the early 2000s.

After moving to the Emerald City, Pacific Place was the closest shopping mall to where I took up residence.  On any given day I could be found browsing nationally known stores like GameStop, Eddie Bauer, William Sonoma, and Brookstone or grabbing a bite to eat at Gordon Biersch Brewing or Mexico City Tapas.  There was even a skywalk connected to Nordstrom’s flagship store across Sixth Avenue.

Pacific Place lease plan ca 2011.  View the full PDF version here.

Back then even the online presence of Amazon, whose headquarters are located just a few blocks away, didn’t seem to affect Pacific Place’s popularity.  It was still a sought-after destination for the ever-growing downtown population as well as for all of the tourists in town for an Alaska cruise, Pike Place Market or a disgusting wall covered in used gum.

1- The new main entrance.  2- Empty storefronts facing Pine Street.  3- The vacated entrance to Tiffany's.  4- The former entrance to Barnes & Noble.  5- The new entrance built into the mall's northern-most corner.  6- Just inside the new entrance.

But even what seemed to be a juggernaut of downtown retail would soon run into problems.  In 2014 the mall was purchased by Madison Marquette who, in the latter part of the decade, embarked on an ambitious reimagining of the mall’s interior.  Much of the mall was closed off and there was a rush of big names departing within a short time.  In fact, the only thing that didn’t take a short time was the renovation itself, which seemed to be going at a more than leisurely pace.

Shots of the center of the new interior in 2023.

Pacific Place itself was nothing more than an uninviting construction zone with very little reason to visit by this time.  The one store that kept me coming back, Barnes & Noble, went dark in January 2020. And eventually, although I lived and worked within walking distance, I just stopped going.  And I wasn’t the only one.  And all of this pre-dated the pandemic.

Pacific Place mallmanac ca 2016.  View the full PDF version here.

I can’t even say when the grand re-opening was.  One day I was just walking by and happened to notice someone walking out.  On my first visit after the renovation, I was left just as astounded as I was during my first visit nearly two decades before.  But this time for all of the wrong reasons.  The earth tones had been whitewashed down to something exhibiting all of the ambiance of a dentist’s waiting room.

Pacific Place mallmanac ca 2018.  View the full PDF version here.

There were maybe a dozen or so storefronts open at that time, but everything else was vacant.  It seemed in the blink of an eye the once dominant upscale urban retail center of Seattle had died.  Much of downtown’s streetside retail had departed as well, but the emptiness of Pacific Place was jarring.

1- Empty restaurant fronts on the fourth level. 2- More empty storefronts on the third level.  3- The second level. 4- The entrance to the skywalk leading to Nordstrom.  5- The basement level.  6- Looking up from the basement level.  

Pacific Place made its entrance just before the holiday shopping season of 1998.  With five total tiers, including a basement level in addition to a cineplex on top, it dwarfed the extant shopping hub of downtown and nearby neighbor Westlake Center.  With a skywalk leading to the fourth level of Nordstrom’s flagship store across Sixth Avenue, it quickly established itself as the upscale shopping hub of downtown Seattle. For nearly two decades, the complex saw continued success.  Unfortunately, like many of it’s city center peers, it started sliding in the late 2010s with it’s fate rushed by the coming pandemic.

Pacific Place lease plan ca 2023.  View the full PDF version here.

Though the recent renovations are, well, clean enough, they stripped the mall of all of its personality as well as tenants.  Though many other sectors of the economy have begun their recovery, since reopening in 2020, Pacific Place hasn’t gotten any better.  Management has focused on allowing art galleries and pop-up stores to slow the bleeding.  And though measures have seen some success, it seems Pacific Place’s best days are behind it.