Matt Peitzman's Commentary

User submitted February 9, 2009

The Park Fair mall was Des Moines' first enclosed shopping mall. The mall opened in 1956 at the corner of 2nd & Euclid in the Highland Park neighborhood on the noth side of town. It was a fairly small mall, 310,000sf spread out over between the Main Level and Basement. It was anchored by Woolworth's and a W.T. Grant Department store. The original tennants of the mall were:

Park Fair Barbershop
Max Harraman's Beauty Shop
Mode O'Day Dress Shop
Walt's Jewlery
Miller-Wohl Clothing
Kinney's Shoes (Des Moines' First Kinney's)
Dial Finance Company (Today known as Wells Fargo Financial)
Norman Cassidy Clothing
Frankel's Clothing
Park Fair Resturant
Lilli-Darlene Florists
Lazy M Shoes
Tripplets Toy Town
The Record Shop
Heaven to Seven Childrens Wear
Mrs. Steven's Candies
Park Fair Fabrics
Seventeen Clothing
Western Auto
Katz Drug (A Branch of the landmark Downtown drug store)

With a few exceptions, most of these merchants were local, some only at Park Fair, some like Frankel's and Tripplet's were branches of sucessful, long standing merchants in downtown Des Moines. Back in 1956, most retail in Des Moines, be it in the mall or downtown was local.

Park Fair enjoyed a couple good years of business until Merle Hay Mall was built 56 blocks to the west at the corner of Merle Hay & Douglas. Merle Hay was on the "edge of town" at the time and was easily accessable for people who lived in the just now awakeing western suburbs such as Clive, Urbandale, West Des Moines, and Johnston. Park Fair was in a older neighborhood developed between the 1880's and 1920's, not near any of the future growth in the metro and in a neighborhood that when it was built was solidly middle class, would soon migrate to the burbs leaving the area to decline quickly.

One sign of a mall dying is untraditional tenants taking up shop there. With Park Fair there has always been a bit of that, even when the mall was healthy. In the first eight years of it's life it held a finance company, optomitrist, massage parlor, Dance School, US Navy Recruting office, and a branch office of the State DOT issuing drivers licences (this will become important later). In 1962, the mall developed it's only outparcel, a drive up facility for the Highland Park State Bank, who's main branch was one block down at 3rd & Euclid. In 1964 it lost a few tennants due to the opening of Eastgate Plaza (a open air mall like Merle Hay) which was just 16 blocks east on the same road. In 1982, Valley National Bank (a large downtown bank that purchased HSPB in 1975) would replace the motor bank with a full service branch, moving all of it's Highland Park operations to Park Fair. This still survives today, as a branch of US Bank.

Entering the 1970's the mall looked to be in good shape. It had some unconvential tennants, but was fully leased and people were shopping there still, but has the decade wore on, things changed. In 1972 Merle Hay Mall, literally just a couple miles west down the road, became fully enclosed and expanded greatly, adding a third anchor and many more retail spaces. The big blow came in 1975 when Des Moines opened two new malls, Valley West Mall at 35th St(100th) and I-235 in West Des Moines and Southridge Mall at SE 14th and Army Post in Des Moines. With the new competition and the fact that the North and East sides of town were full of crime, Park Fair's previous base of customers, people from Ankeny, Altoona, Pleasant Hill and the surrounding areas to the north stayed away and drove further to Merle Hay or Valley West to shop. The Highland Park area could not support this mall any longer as it was riddled with poverty and the mall essentially ceased to be a viable entity. After loosing one of its anchors, WT Grant, in 1976 things contunued to look downward. By the end of the 1970's the vacancy rate hung around 60% as a host of traditional and non tradional shops closed, including the DOT office (but not forever). The only new tennants that could be attracted at this time was the Highland Park Post Office and the North branch of the library (temporarly while it's building was being constructed.)

In 1981 the former WT Grant was leased by Omaha department store chain Brandies, who was an achor at Valley West, to operate as the Brandies Budget Outlet, which closed in 1986 when Brandies was sold to Des Moines based Younkers (who had a similar concept at Eastgate). Brandies was quickly replaced by Sernett's, but then in 1987 Woolworth's closes, leaving the other anchor spot empty. Woolworth's was also the final tennant that had been at the mall since the beginning. In 1989 Sernett's closed, leaving the mall with two empty anchor spaces and 5 stores, it was not a good way to be entering the 90s.

In 1990, the former WT Grant/Brandies/Sernetts was remodeled by Fareway, a Grocery Store chain based in Boone. The DOT also returns this year, leading a slight renesance of the mall, as people will be there renewing their licences and may want to shop for a bit. The old Woolworths was divided between a local video store (later Blockbuster) and the North Side Community Center. The mall was almost back to 100% occupancy, albeit with many untradional tennants such as insurance agents and city public aid offices, but some new retail such as a Hallmark, a Chinese Resturant, and a Ben Franklin were added as well. This was a short lived rebirth as the mall declined again and by 1996 was half empty again. This time the DOT would be the savior again, when it decided to consolidate all of its Des Moines branches to Park Fair, and expanding the facilites. The mall shot back to 100% occupancy only because the DOT leased so much space.

This carried the mall on until 2007, when the DOT moved out of Park Fair to suburban Ankeny in a new custom build facility. This left the mall virtually empty. The latest plan seems to be to sell the idea of it being an office park. The mall has all of it's empty storefront converted into office space for lease, as well as a few kiosk spaces have been finished into 150sf offices. Other than the change to offices, the basement looks like it as for the last 20 years. The upstairs has changed dramatically. The space the DOT and all of the stores in the middle of the main floor have been blocked off, and divided into offices. If you enter the west mall enterence you can access the three stores in the old Woolworth (Blockbuster, a Beauty Salon and the Community Center), then detour through the basement to get to Fareway and the Post Office.

I don't know if selling the idea of Park Fair as an office plaza will work any better than as a mall. The north side of Des Moines is still plauged with crime and poverty. The few who do own business are like the ones who have money to spend, they would rather trek out west than have an office at Park Fair. The mall is almost entierly empty now, save for the few shops listed above, a councling center, a welfare office, and a resturant in the basement that somehow survives. It would not shock me if in the next few years this one is totaly gone.

Links - some pictures of Park Fair that date back to the late DOT days
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