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               WESTMINSTER MALL: WESTMINSTER, CO

David Kruger's Commentary

Posted March 26, 2009 (user submitted)

Westminster Mall, located in the sprawling suburbs of northwest Denver, opened in 1977 with just 30 stores and a two-level Joslin’s department store. Within ten years, it would rise to become the most popular mall in the Denver metro from the mid-eighties on, adding May D&F, Broadway-Southwest, and Mervyn’s in 1986, followed by J.C.Penney a year later. Westminster was just one level, but all anchors had two large floors. With five anchors and an affluent location, Westminster Mall clearly killed nearby Northglenn Mall, sapping away sales from duplicate anchors May D&F, JCPenney, and eventually Sears until all three anchors completely abandoned Northglenn and it was closed and demolished. Sears left Northglenn directly for Westminster’s Broadway Southwest building, after Carter-Hawley-Hale pulled that chain out of the Denver markets. Westminster also cleaned out nearby Thornton Town Center as an indoor mall.

Even thoughout the 90’s, Westminster Mall still had no equal in the northern part of Denver, much less northern Colorado. May D&F rebranded as Foley’s in 1993, and Montgomery Ward opened one of their last new prototypes, a modern “Wards” store between Sears and Mervyn’s, in 1997, giving Westminster six full-size anchors and hundreds of busy, crowded specialty shops. Restaurants and grills flocked to surround the mall, most notably the Traildust Steakhouse location on the north end and Olive Garden on 88th Avenue to the south. Westminster also featured an active 6-plex theatre inside near Foley’s, as well as an outside 11 plex in the parking lot just across from Foley’s. In 1994, both theatres were well known for having modern digital sound, which my friends and I wasted on Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now”. When I visited Westminster Mall again in November 1998, the Mall was so busy I had to search for a spot in the OUTLYING rows of parking along 88th.

In the 1990’s, Westminster began to eat away at Boulder’s Crossroads Mall, not killing it off single-handedly, but quickly cannibalizing sales from Crossroads’ Wards, Sears, Mervyn’s, and JCPenney anchors until all of them pulled out of Crossroads, with only Foley’s remaining as part of an outdoor shopping redevelopment. However, when Broomfield's massive, upscale and innovative Flatiron Crossing Mall opened just up U.S. 36 in 2000, Westminster Mall went from being the hunter to the hunted. The negative impact was not immediate, as Westminster appeared to be holding its own ­ after all, it had recorded record sales in 1999, the year before Flatirons opened. The city of Westminster was concerned enough, however, that it ponied up $7.5 million for a $10 million renovation.

Even with Flatiron opening, Westminster still looked good in 2000, aesthetically and commercially. However, the closure of Wards in 2001 left an almost unfillable hole for Westminster to replace. Despite the building being uncharacteristically nice and new (unusual for any Wards store opened after 1980), Dillards’ previous takeover of Joslins meant that Dillards was not interested in the space, much less the four other anchors that already occupied 2-story locations at Westminster. In addition, the monster Nordstrom, Dillards, and Foley’s anchors at Flatiron were clearly the preferred locations for each chain, and the closure of Flatiron’s massive Lord & Taylor (due to a pullout of the Denver market) left another, far more desirable anchor location for any other reputable department store to fill (though the building still sits vacant).

Westminster’s decline became increasingly noticeable once Mervyn’s pulled out of metro Denver in late 2005, leaving behind another unfillable anchor store in Westminster’s northern wing. Specialty shops began to pull out of the north wing in droves, leaving the food court a depressing island surrounded by closed specialty shops and two closed anchors. Even with Sears remaining in the north wing, virtually every shop north of the Joslins-Foley’s corridor began to vacate as the decade wore on. In 2006, Macy’s took over Foley’s, but quickly realized by 2008 that the Westminster store had become its worst store in metro Denver. Macy’s shuttered the Westminster store in early 2009, leaving behind three empty anchors, a closed-up theatre inside the mall, and a boarded-up theatre outside the mall. Even Traildust, the popular steakhouse draw, called it quits without so much as removing any of their signage. Talk about blight!

In March 2009, I decided to return for a visit to check out the decadence for myself. Coming into the mall from Sears is almost an embarrassment, with virtually every specialty shop closed on both sides. You have to traverse past all these vacancies just to get to the food court, which is now down to three restaurants amidst encompassed by closed storefronts. The north wing can’t be even at 10% occupancy now. The Macy’s at the end of the west wing is completely shut up, without so much as a label scar or any other trace that the chain had even been in the building. With no anchor on that end now, cheap independent shops and closed storefronts are pretty much all that remain ­ occupancy is less than 50% for the west wing, and will no doubt mirror the north wing before the year is out. Amazingly, the malls’ 6 screen cinema and its signage have been left intact, with arcade games lining up against the concession counter ­ you almost have to look twice to make sure it actually is closed. The only sign of life left in Westminster, then, is the original east wing leading from Dillards to JCPenney. Both of these anchors appear to be doing well with about 75-80% occupancy between their entrances. Ironically, with fewer and fewer stores remaining, Orange Julius keeps two locations open, just about 100 feet from each other!

Nevertheless, Westminster Mall is dying and will be dead within 1-2 years. Sears has a nice store, but receives virtually no benefit from being a mall anchor. Dillards is busy, but the former Joslin's building is dated with leak stains in the ceiling, and Dillards has no reason to sustain this store with a newer and larger Flatiron location just down the road. JCPenney recently opened a profitable freestanding store north of Denver at “The Orchards” just off 144th Avenue, next to a new freestanding Macy’s which itself contributed to the closure of Macy’s Westminster Mall store. Even if JCPenney still wanted an indoor mall location, they would be better served by moving into Flatiron’s Lord & Taylor building.

Westminster would like to “redevelop” the mall into “mixed use” to generate a better tax base. But with the economy slumping, even a good redevelopment would not likely keep JCPenney or Dillards (would Sears even “fit” that type of development?), and Flatiron already has an “outdoor village” shopping area in addition to its massive indoor mall. Anything Westminster Mall becomes from this point on will only be a pathetic shell of what it once was.

Sandra Popescu's Commentary

Posted April 1, 2009 (user submitted)

I’ve been writing this piece since around 2006, but have been putting off finishing it, probably because to do so is to finally acknowledge that this place, my childhood all packed into one hundred two blighted acres off US-36, is doomed. But then the Macy’s closed right under my nose, I counted the remaining tenants and realized there were less than seventy, and someone from Petco showed up at Pet City yesterday telling me I should jump ship and come over there now, before I show up to work someday and find a dark, empty store and a steel grate, so I figure it’s now or never. I give you my rundown of and elegy to the Westminster Mall.

Overview/History

The exact timeline is murky at best. I’ve heard several conflicting versions and since I was born in 1992, I can be of no help here. The generally accepted version of events is that Westminster Mall opened in 1977 as a thirty-store neighborhood mall anchored by Joslin’s (later Dillard’s). It was expanded rapidly through the eighties, and by 1986 or so was a five-anchor behemoth, with Broadway Southwest (later Sears), JC Penney, Mervyns, and whichever May Company incarnation was the current one at the time (the last one before the Great Macy’s Rebranding of 06 was Foley’s). Montgomery Ward became the sixth anchor between 1993 and 1997, depending on whom you ask. Until 2000, it was the dominant mall of the northwestern suburbs of Denver, supplanting Northglenn, Westland Center, and North Valley and likely luring parts of Lakewood from Villa Italia. (Prophetically, many of the fixtures in Westminster Mall’s department stores were salvaged from Villa Italia.) For most of its life, the mall was owned by the late Sherman Dreiseszun, also the owner of Buckingham Square in Aurora. The mall consists of four main wings, each headed by an anchor store (or gaping hole where an anchor store would be), all converging on the center court, which for the most part is a sunken water feature with hot air balloons hovering over it on wires. (The Mervyns wing is tacked on outside of this configuration, and Montgomery Ward never had a wing of its own). Outparcel tenants are Olive Garden, US Bank, a former Steak and Ale (closed with Bennigan’s), a shuttered movie theater somehwere, and an empty barn that was once a Trail Dust Steakhouse.

Decline

The mall began to go downhill around 2001 or 2002, a couple of years after the Flatiron Crossing Mall opened in Broomfield in late 2000). Westminster Mall enjoyed a $10 million dollar facelift in the months before Flatirons opened, and appeared poised to continue on just fine in the months that followed. It wasn’t until Flatirons ceased to be “the new mall” that Westminster began to flounder. If I were writing about most any other mall, I would say something along the lines of “the first blow came when Montgomery Ward went bankrupt” (the general consensus is that this happened in 2001, but some accounts place it as early as 1999), but in all honesty, the mall wasn’t really hobbled. Because Wards never had a wing of its own (it was simply sandwiched in between Sears and the center court), the mall shrugged its shoulders and continued on; mall management covered the entrance (I don’t recall exactly how) and Sears quietly took over the Montgomery Ward auto center. In fact, I have no memory of Wards ever existing (inextricably blended with Sears in my seven-year-old mind, no doubt) and if the former entrance hadn’t eventually been uncovered and an ad hoc hallway formed to be used as an additional entrance during the holiday shopping season, I likely would never have had an inkling that anything had ever been there. From 2001 to around 2005, the mall was still relatively viable, but troubled spots became readily apparent and the whole place earned a reputation as the “white trash mall.” A handful of long-time tenants disappeared abruptly, and it became obvious that the stores surrounding the entrances, never prime real estate in any mall, were going to remain vacant. The food court, always troubled, was not included in the August 2000 renovations and was truly dead in the water. (A bizarre little island between Mervyns and Sears, it is perhaps the least advantageously located food court in the history of malls and never attracted better than the likes of “Aiden’s Pizza” and “Fortune Express” as tenants. Even in the mall’s heyday, the standard response to “Where’s the food court?” was “HA! Chick-Fil-A’s this way, Cinnabon’s that way.”) Sometime in 2005, Mervyns pulled out of Colorado almost entirely and shuttered its Westminster store. (Mall management would later go to court several times in order to keep Burlington Coat Factory out of this space.) Mervyns was never the mall’s most popular anchor, and this news was met with a collective “eh.” Still, although the store itself wasn’t missed much, the now-vacant wing and the food court together created an eerie void that creeped shoppers out considerably and only worked against the mall’s already souring reputation. By the time of the Macy’s rebranding, tenants were fleeing the mall at an alarming pace, and the place got a little creepier and a little sadder each week. By 2008, mall occupancy had dipped below 50 percent, leaving little more than a sprawling and ridiculous ghost town between relatively healthy department stores. Two months ago, Macy’s announced its closure following disappointing holiday sales. The store was shuttered last month, and now it is more painfully clear to me than ever that the mall’s days are numbered.

Factors of Decline:

Demography

Most of the malls profiled here seem to have failed because the surrounding neighborhoods, for one reason or another, became markedly poorer. Something of the reverse is true for Westminster. Without question, the competitor that dealt the deathblow was Flatiron Crossing Mall in nearby Broomfield, but a quick walk through both malls makes it obvious that the two were never truly intended to be competitive. Westminster, though huge, was never meant to be particularly upscale; it was and has always been aimed at young families. Flatirons, on the other hand, was built to capitalize on the luxury condominiums and subdivisions that were springing up all over the area. These two malls ended up in competition because the area around the Westminster Mall has become markedly wealthier and the mall has not kept pace. The people who lived in the Westminster Mall area in the 80s were young families buying their first homes (mine included). 20 years later, the adults in these families are now firmly in their 50s and have been promoted a few times. Their children are grown and can be taken places that aren’t so overtly family-friendly. Naturally, everyone’s tastes skew a bit more upscale with this maturity, and they now have the discretionary income to support these tastes. But they have not moved out of the area, and don’t plan to, as it’s still a perfectly pleasant neighborhood. When Flatirons opened, it was a reasonably close alternative that was much more to the whole family’s taste. Westminster was left a too- family-friendly, too-middle-class mall whose original clientele had no qualms driving ten miles out of their way to shop at a “nicer” mall.

Perception of Crime

The most violent crime that tends to occur here is hair-pulling, but this hasn’t stopped the perception of crime from becoming truly outrageous. In the eyes of most adult shoppers from around here, anyone speaking Spanish is in a gang, and the quiet and eeriness give the feeling that one could easily become the victim of a crime with no one the wiser. Any local teenager can rattle off half a dozen bizarre tales of murder occurring there, none of which are remotely true. Every time someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen drops out of sight of their schoolmates, it seems, stories surface about some horrific thing that befell them at Westminster Mall. In fact, most of my perverse fascination with this place stems from the fact that I am both the original and most prolific victim of “murder.” I transferred to a school outside the local articulation area in 2005 and I’ve been hearing gruesome stories of my own death there ever since. (Most of these seem to center around the former Disney store for some reason.) The most amusingly gruesome and lurid of these stories are told, bizarrely enough, by mall security.

The Future

Westminster Mall’s future is uncertain at this point. The eventual plan for this place is to demolish the mall concourse and convert it into the dreaded lifestyle center. If or when this plan is set in motion, the remaining anchors (Dillard’s, Sears, JC Penney) will remain on the site as part of the new development. (There was some speculation that JC Penney would move into the recently vacated Lord & Taylor space at Flatirons, but it was announced later last year that The Container Store and Forever 21 would be taking that space.) The city of Westminster’s tentative proposal for the mall site was the old “vibrant, mixed-use, urban, transit-oriented” shtick, presumably centering around the eventual RTD Fastracks. However, most of these rosy plans were drafted before the recession started to hit in earnest, and last I checked, the whole Fastrack venture had far exceeded its budget. Everyone involved with this project admits it could take as long as fifteen years, and I question whether yet another lifestyle center is such a smart move after all. The response to Colorado’s two largest centers has been lukewarm at best with Belmar Center (in Lakewood on the site of the former Villa Italia mall) nowhere near the smash hit it was hoped to be and Aspen Grove (in Littleton) so despised that a dying indoor mall in the area, Southwest Plaza, was able to bounce back wonderfully by taking advantage of shoppers’ frustrations with the Grove. A forum post I found somewhere sums up the general local attitude towards mixed-use retail:

“When I go shopping, I really want stores. I want to find that pair of shoes, dress, clothes for my kids, maybe a CD. I don't necessarily want to go out to dinner at a mall, shopping center, or ‘lifestyle center’. I generally don't go shopping and to a movie in the same trip, either… Most people do not care to take transit to shopping, either. You have to carry all that stuff to/from the bus stop.” If the situation were entirely up to me, I would have the people responsible for the resurgence of Southwest Plaza brought in to try their hand at reviving Westminster (Southwest Plaza in its current state is quite similar to Westminster in its prime), but I realize that this is largely wishful thinking on my part, and we’re likely to end up with another miserable Town Centre Promenade Shoppes At Pretentious, Vaguely Latin Sounding Name With No Historical Precedent.

Memories

My recollection of the mall when it was successful is getting fuzzier by the day, but because I’ve always had an obsession with decay, I’ve spent at least forty percent of my entire adolescence here. A few things I will remember fondly when they put this mammoth out of its misery:

The strange and variegated handling of vacant storefronts. Initially, mall management would place large framed photographs of the Rockies over the gates of closed stores. As more and more stores began vacating the premises, they gave up and started installing soda machines in front of shuttered stores. Eventually, they came up with the bizarre idea of randomly arranging cheap furniture inside empty store spaces, making the mall look like one giant, ridiculous piece of conceptual art that goes straight over my head. My personal favorite is the former Woodley’s furniture store, where whoever assembles these things noted that the store had green carpet, laid out a croquet set, and left it at that.

The pathetic, still unrenovated food court. To walk through it is to be shot straight back into the early nineties. One of its three remaining tenants, a grungy little establishment by the name of What-Knots, makes awful and ridiculous soft pretzels that come coated in a mysterious white substance that leaves traces of itself on your clothes. (I particularly enjoy the one that comes covered with rainbow sprinkles, and have yet to meet anything like it.) Between a closed-down Greek place and a closed-down second-tier taco joint, a creepy little arcade has been set up, and a plastic statue of Sesame Street’s Burt in the center of it lets loose with chilling, mechanized laugh every five minutes or so. I like to take my rainbow sprinkle pretzel into the heart of the food court and eat it while Burt looks on and laughs at me.

The transient San Francisco Music Box Company. They were a steady tenant until 2003 or so, and had a gilded storefront that I thought was just enchanting when I was in kindergarten. The store popped up again in the mall shortly after it pulled out, but never went back to its original location, despite the fact that no other store ever occupied it. It operated (mostly) in a former Waldenbooks for around two years, then disappeared, and these days only pops up around Christmastime each year. It has managed to occupy every available storefront except its original one, which has sat empty (and still gilded) for close to five years.

A patently absurd store in the Sears wing that opened quietly in the old Suncoast Video a few years back. It is a blanket and moped store, and I cannot walk past it without cracking wise about how someone finally realized what we’ve all known for years, that blankets and mopeds go hand in hand, saw his golden opportunity, and opened an establishment to fill this void in the market that existed for years. I’ve developed a certain affection for these types of nutball stores that crop up in failing malls.

The “security office” on the Macy’s wing, which is actually a soft play area for children. The mall cops sit all day on plastic logs.

The jewelry store across from the Cinnabon (located on the Dillard’s wing) that has gotten progressively more paranoid as the mall has gotten emptier. The security measures have become more needlessly elaborate every month. The store now buzzes loudly enough to be heard from the center court.

The Macy’s wing, in general. I have been working next door at Pet City for a year now, (my first job, so a whole set of memories there too) and have worked my way up to assistant manager. With Macy’s gone, Pet City is the only remaining tenant on that wing (we’d move, but we need those big glass pet store windows in which to keep the puppies, and no other storefront has those. Instead, we put up a rather harrumph-y sign in the center court announcing that we, by thunder, are still open) so I’m beginning to think of it as “my wing” and will probably continue calling it that long after the mall is gone. The Macy’s void is depressing, but in a poetic sort of way. The doorway is still lined with these beautiful black mirrored tiles. Imagine these surrounding a gaping black hole. (Mall PR is rather insistent these days that we not distribute any pictures of the place.) There was also once a movie theater two doors down from my store that for years managed to remain a first-run theater despite never catching on to trendy things like stadium seating and taking credit cards. It closed sometime in 2007 and wasn’t even covered with a steel grate. I only discovered it had closed when I walked up to the counter and found a gold-plated sign drilled into the counter. It read “We have closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Now, an impromptu arcade has been set up in the theater lobby, with all the original signage intact. Minor fights break out there all the time, and because I am six feet tall, my assistant manager duties now include policing the arcade and threatening people who raise their voices. (The general manager is only five feet tall.) I will probably never forget the time I broke up a fight between two grown women. They were arguing over whether one of them could have turned out to be a talented ballerina.

I am almost embarrassed by how sad I am that Westminster Mall is on its way out. I take comfort in the fact that it had a good run, and if they demolish the building, I fully intend to steal the sign.

Links

www.shopwestminstermall.com - Westminster Mall's official website









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