30 July 2023

San Francisco Centre, San Francisco, CA

 An extant asset

The vertical urban center mall has always been a risky proposition to build, especially in medium sized markets with Norfolk's struggling MacArthur Center and the largely vacant Edmonton City Centre being well known examples.  Although there are a small number of success stories, like Spokane’s River Park Square, most see a few years of prosperity before finally fading away.

One of the main entrances.

Only in major cities did they seem to work.  That is until recently, it seems.  Seattle’s Pacific Place is empty even on workdays, San Diego's Horton Plaza is being redeveloped and the Saint Louis Centre was closed nearly two decades ago.  And yet another that seems to be heading for rough times is the iconic San Francisco Centre.  Nordstrom has announced their departure and Westfield, the mall’s owners, have put the facility on the market.

San Francisco Centre lease plan ca 2011.  See the full PDF version here.

On a recent summertime visit, the mall still looked healthy enough at first glance.  Bloomingdale’s was still doing business as usual, the vast majority of the inline spaces were occupied and even the curved escalators (the first to be built in the western hemisphere) still offered a unique visual experience.  Unfortunately, what’s affecting San Francisco Centre most is the degradation of the surrounding area.

1- The entrance from the Powell Street BART Station.  2- The entrance off of 5th Street.  3 & 4- The food court.  5- Bloomingdale's mall entrance.  6- One of Nordstrom's mall entrances.

This was my first visit to downtown San Francisco in five years, and the area on Market Street has changed immensely.  Even as someone who lives in central Seattle, I found the area to be a bit rough.  Hopefully the community can rebound, but with major tenants such as Nordstrom and the nearby Target departing, it’s difficult to be optimistic.

1 & 2- Looking up from the basement level food court.  3 to 6- The interior of San Francisco Centre.

San Francisco Centre opened in 1988 as the San Francisco Shopping Centre with Nordstrom and Emporium-Capwell serving as anchors.  By the mid-nineties, the mall hit its stride and became one of the nation’s most successful retail properties.  After Emporium's bankruptcy and departure around this time, Macy’s used the space temporarily while their downtown location was being renovated.

More of the mall's interior.

The mall was expanded and renovated in the mid-aughts before reopening as the mixed-use Westfield San Francisco Centre in 2006.  Newly added were a Bloomingdale’s as the second anchor, a nine screen cineplex and even a downtown campus for San Francisco State University.  The nearly twenty-year-old mall was flourishing, culminating in winning the International Council of Shopping Center’s award for the best-of-the-best in design and development.

San Francisco Centre mallmanac ca 2017.  See the full PDF version here.

Not long after, by the early years of the 2010s, crime was starting to become a factor.  This only accelerated with the pandemic and the emptying out of downtown San Francisco’s office workers.  But the past year has probably been the most difficult.

Exterior shots of San Francisco Centre

I spoke with a soon-to-be former employee of one the closing stores and they told me that they loved the location and the people.  But with the recent increase in smash-and-grab crimes as well as mobs of unruly people becoming more common, it was difficult to be optimistic about its future.  Personally, I’ve always loved the mall and always make it a stop on any trip to the Bay Area.

The curved escalators.

The city is starting to plan ahead for what will be standing on the corner of Market and 5th in the coming years.  Some suggestions include a purpose-built soccer stadium, recreation spaces or food halls.   Much like Pacific Place, if the entire facility is not torn down, non-traditional mall tenants may be an option.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

San Francisco Centre official website

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