March 25, 2022
Reuse, repurpose, re-imagine: mall properties are in transition
Matt Benoit

Footsteps may echo today in areas such as this unoccupied section of Bellis Fair mall—but other areas are humming with a new variety of business, as schools, community crafts workshops and other noncommercial activities take over spaces once filled by stores and shoppers. (Matt Benoit photo © 2022)

March 25, 2022
Reuse, repurpose, re-imagine: mall properties are in transition
Matt Benoit

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Like many malls across America, Burlington’s Cascade Mall is a quieter place than it used to be. 

The nearly 450,000-square-foot complex opened in November 1989 as a bustling retail hub alongside Interstate 5, but today its 64-acre site is dominated by what’s no longer there. 

Parking spots wait for vehicles that no longer come, ghostly outlines mark spots where store signs used to hang and the mall’s main interior—shuttered permanently in June 2020—features dozens of display windows with nothing left to sell. 

Only four commercial tenants occupy space in the mall’s main complex: TJ Maxx, Furniture World, Chuck E. Cheese, and the 14-screen AMC Theatres movie complex; Cascade Chapel occupies a fifth space.

A half-hour north, Bellingham’s Bellis Fair mall—opened in August 1988 and covering more than 775,000 square feet—is now the subject of speculation after its owners, Brookfield Property Partners, defaulted on a $77 million loan last month. 

After the Great Recession, the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing trend toward online shopping, malls nationwide no longer carry the financial and social prominence they once held. 

While malls like Cascade are now mostly empty shells waiting for repurposing or demolition, others have begun to reinvent themselves, transitioning away from traditional retail use to remain relevant to the communities they serve. 

The American mall is undoubtedly in transition, but reports of its demise may not yet be set in brick and mortar. 

Wally Whatcom was there

The grand opening of Bellis Fair—a controversial venture spearheaded by local developer David Syre—was a big deal. 

Years were spent arguing if and where a mall should exist in Bellingham, and what effect it would have on the city’s downtown core. 

In the end, the mall opened off Interstate 5 and the Guide Meridian to five days’ worth of festivities and fanfare. Hundreds of balloons were released into the sky from the main parking lot. Mimes, jugglers and clowns performed, as did acclaimed bassist and Western Washington University professor Chuck Israels’ jazz duo. There were puppet shows, taekwondo presentations and a Jeep giveaway. McGruff the Crime Dog even showed up, as did lesser-known Wally Whatcom the Museum Mouse. [Ed.: The museum mascot originally was identified here as a moose.]

Anchored by big box retailers like J.C. Penney and Macy’s—which both had moved from downtown locations—and a multiplex movie theater, Bellis Fair entered the 1990s as a bustling community attraction. 

It seemed to have everything: a packed food court, a pet store, a toy store, an arcade and plenty of shiny new vehicles being randomly promoted throughout its highly trafficked concourses. Children took photos with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, went trick-or-treating on Halloween and enjoyed novel experiences—picture a photo of a 5-year-old clutching two live parrots amid a seemingly lush jungle background … taken on an otherwise-average Tuesday evening at Bellis Fair. 

Plenty of parking space: Cascade Mall’s once bustling, now empty parking lot is as quiet as the vacant storefronts inside. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

Likewise, Cascade Mall held a diverse array of events during its 1990s heyday, from a giant circus in the parking lot to a trade show and dinner hosted by Skagit County’s economic development council. 

The 1986 announcement of the mall even affected community infrastructure. According to an Anacortes American article of the era, estimated electric usage from the mall led Puget Power (now PSE) to consider upgrading a transmission line sooner than expected. This moved up Anacortes’ need for a newly compatible transformer, costing the city an estimated $250,000. 

The mall of the 1990s, wherever it dwelled, was a place where kids and teenagers socialized, where Christmas shopping was done en masse and where countless memories were made and everyday goods purchased. It was a dry, safe, well-lighted place for walkers, shoppers and families. 

But like almost everything in life, it was about to change. 

A perfect storm

The trend toward e-commerce on the internet began to pick up steam entering the 2000s, and when the Great Recession—an event steeped in the comeuppance of bad real estate loans—hit in 2008, both everyday Americans and corporate businesses struggled financially. 

Historically, Bellis Fair foot traffic has always been substantially predicated on the Canadian shopper, descending from the north based on the strength of their dollar. The Canadian dollar, which has ebbed and flowed in relation to U.S. currency over the years, peaked around 2012. The peak of Canadian traffic into the U.S., however, was even longer ago. 

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, said that on average, about 20% of the cars observed in license plate surveys at the mall have been Canadian in recent years. Still, the observed number of Canadian plates dropped nearly 23% at Bellis Fair between 2013 and 2016, according to 2017 data. 

“Traffic numbers between the Canada-U.S. land border actually never recovered after 9/11,” she said. “They’re lower now than they were 20 years ago.” The unprecedented nature of border closures during the pandemic, of course, dropped those numbers to essentially zero. 

Still, the Pacific Northwest border region was among few that approached pre-9/11 traffic volume. The pandemic, of course, erased those gains. 

James McCafferty, director of Western’s Center for Economic and Business Research, said mall shopping has declined because the American shopping profile has permanently changed, and businesses have adapted accordingly. Even mall tenants like Target, he said, recently announced curbside pick-up at stores nationwide.

“Consumers are communicating their preference for this kind of commercial activity,” he said. “Stores, in general in the retail world, have pivoted to doing more of that kind of delivery methodology.”

Cascade’s health, and that of Burlington’s nearby outlet mall, changed dramatically when Snohomish County’s Seattle Premium Outlets opened up at the Tulalip Casino and Resort. 

“They were not only able to capture the Canadians coming down, but they were able to capture people from Seattle coming up,” McCafferty said. 

Even Seattle’s Northgate Mall—one of the country’s first enclosed shopping centers when it opened in 1950—slowly rotted on the vine to the point where the landlord turned off heat in the mall’s food court to save money, according to a November 2019 article in Crosscut

Mixed-use future

The future, though, is not necessarily all bleak. 

Northgate is seeing new life as Northgate Station, a mixed use property comprised of retail, a Seattle Kraken practice facility and residential housing. 

Back in Bellingham, a walk through Bellis Fair currently reveals around 30 vacancies—around a third, visually. In some sections, the empty storefronts are impossible to ignore. 

Partly because of those empty storefronts, new tenants are now popping up to show what the future of the mall may look like. 

Bellingham Makerspace is one of those tenants. The nonprofit community tool and skill sharing organization, which began in 2014 as The Foundry, previously operated in several downtown locations. 

A herd of precision-cut reindeer populates a communal work table at Makerspace, a now-era tenant of Bellis Fair. (Matt Benoit photo © 2022)

In early 2020, Makerspace was looking for a new space. Approached by the mall itself, Makerspace agreed to a lease and moved into a more than 7,000-square foot spot just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

A look inside the brightly lit facility reveals a laser cutter, CNC (programmable) machining tool, 3D printers, various sewing machines and a fully functional wood shop, among other facilities. Changing rooms from the space’s former retail life are now storage closets.

Makerspace also has a working relationship with another of the mall’s new nontraditional tenants, Whatcom Intergenerational High School. Three times a week, the facility becomes the school’s science lab. 

Jason Davies, Makerspace operations manager, said the new space is benefiting both the organization and those who use its services. Compared to previous locations, the current spot is a cheaper lease, easier to find, on the Whatcom Transportation Authority bus line and conveniently located near other services such as the food court and Target. Parking isn’t a problem, either.

“We get a lot more people walking in, wondering what the heck we are, than we ever did at our other two locations,” said Davies. “Hopefully that leads to more members.”

At the nearby Mount Baker Rock and Gem Club space, this is already happening. 

Since moving to the mall in November 2020, store manager Ralph Sisco said, the club has added about 80 new members. 

Founded in the 1950s, Mount Baker Rock and Gem had rented building space for meetings and annual gem shows at Bloedel Donovan Park for more than 40 years. But over time, rental rates at Bloedel increased, reaching a point in 2019 where the club could no longer afford rent, Sisco said.

At the mall, storefront shelves are filled with gleaming gems and polished stones, most for sale by club members who also volunteer to help run the store. The space is large enough for classes and lapidary (stone-cutting) work, and the club works with mall security to allow after-hours member usage of the space. They now host meetings and gem shows at Ferndale’s Pioneer Park.

Being at Bellis has left them in a positive financial situation, Sisco said. 

“This doesn’t cost members anything,” he said. “We’re self-funded because we generate enough sales and donations that we pay for the whole thing—lapidary and retail space.”

The club’s mall-based thriving has also helped them continue funding scholarships for geology students at Western Washington University, and got them featured in the April 2022 edition of Rock & Gem, a national publication.

Another new tenant, The Ruckus Room, is an arcade business that opened their second location at Bellis Fair on March 21. While it’s a little too soon to say how things will go, co-owner Emmalyn Smith said foot traffic is already better than she expected. 

The new space is actually larger, and the base rent cheaper, than their primary location along downtown’s Railroad Avenue, Smith said. Considerations like whether they could actually fit a particular game through the 36-inch wide front door were always present at the original site. 

“Here, we have this nice, big open front area, so we can have other interesting things we wish we could have downtown,” she said.

In Skagit County, it’s unknown what will happen to Cascade’s vacant spaces. The website for Merlone Geier Partners, the San Francisco-based company that bought the mall in January 2017 for $25 million, indicates the company is considering a property redevelopment. 

Salish Current contacted Merlone Geier but was told the company had no update on plans, and was continuing to consider its options. 

While the overall futures of both Cascade and Bellis Fair malls remain unknowable, they do suggest hope that these once-prominent centers of retail activity will likely still be publicly accessible spaces in the years to come, one way or another.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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