30 June 2024

The Shops at Tanforan, San Bruno, CA

 A dead mall

Just south of the cemeteries of Colma on the Bay Area’s peninsula is the city of San Bruno.  Close to San Francisco International Airport, its sole enclosed shopping center lies just off the BART line.  But what may seem just like any old struggling, late twentieth-century retail complex actually has quite a history behind it that stretches long before The Shops of Tanforan was even conceived in the late 1960s.

1 & 2- The main entrance to the Shops at Tanforan.  3-  JCPenney.  4- The former Sears store.

Just a (very) short walk from BART’s San Bruno Station, I first found myself in the lower-level food court.  The entrance motif, which is duplicated in the main entrance, resembles the hull of a boat floating above the shoppers’ heads.  The décor was modern and tasteful, if not very unique or memorable, but there were few shoppers or tenants to enjoy it.  While a JCPenney and Target remain as anchors, the rest of Tanforan has definitely seen better days.

Just inside the Shops at Tanforan’s front entrance.

Opened in 1971, the varied history of the location deserves a mention.  It served as the Tanforan Racetrack in the late 1800s hosting competitions for everything from horses to automobiles.  The famed Seabiscuit called Tanforan his home for a bit.  In the 1910s, the site became a World War I training center.

The Tanforan Memorial

Its most infamous role was serving as the site of the Tanforan Assembly Center, an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.  It was one of the largest of these facilities and mainly served as a detention point before the internees were transferred to Utah.  In 1942 the center was shuttered and became a Naval personnel depot before once again serving as a racetrack after the war.  A memorial located between the San Bruno BART station and the mall now stands to commemorate these tragic events.

1 to 5- Around the Shops at Tanforan’s center court.  6- JCPenney’s mall entrance on the south end of the mall.

From its opening as Tanforan Park Shopping Center, Sears and JCPenney bookended the complex as the sole anchors.  A third anchor, The Emporium, was added not long after in 1971.  Built midway down the mall’s concourse, the building was purchased by Target in 1996 where the retail giant resides to this day.  Over the years, a Barnes & Noble joined the lineup in addition to a BJs Brewhouse and Century Theaters.  But like so many of its peers in the non-dominant, mid-range category of shopping malls, The Shops at Tanforan started a precipitous decline in the late 2010s.

The Shops at Tanforan pamphlet ca. 2020.  View the full PDF version here.

The complex’s reputation was scarred by a shooting in 2019.  Forever 21 left later on the same year.  Original anchor Sears locked their doors in 2020, actually lasting quite a bit longer than much of the chain.  The inline stores started emptying out, leaving the upper level as a near ghost town.  Though it remains open, the JCPenney location was sold in 2020 and anyone following the industry knows that it will probably be the next big domino to fall.

1- The former Sears entrance on the mall’s north end, now an automobile dealership’s showroom.  2- Looking south toward center Court.  3 & 4- Target’s mall entrances.  5- Empty storefronts in the main concourse.  6- The food court. 

The Shops of Tanforan served its market well, but, unfortunately, that market has evolved past it.  It’s sad to know that one day the old place will serve as just another footnote in the long and not so illustrious history of the site in San Bruno.

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