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The Mall Goes Small

Phil Sano mans the register at Anima.Plant.Mineral in Lloyd Center. Jason E. Kaplan Phil Sano mans the register at Anima.Plant.Mineral in Lloyd Center.

The narrative about Lloyd Center has changed. 
Is this its final chapter or the beginning of a new story?


The obituaries for Lloyd Center started rolling in three years ago.

In December 2019 — shortly after the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in China and less than two months before the first U.S. cases were discovered, upending commerce and hitting brick-and-mortar retail particularly hard — Willamette Week asked if the mall would make it another Christmas.

By then the mall had already lost Nordstrom, Sears and Marshalls; its final anchor tenant, Macy’s, closed in January 2021. In October 2021 — 61 years after Lloyd Center first opened — KKR Real Estate Finance Trust announced plans to foreclose on the property.

Many observers concluded the center was dead and speculated about what would happen to the 1.2 million-square-foot mall.

0123mall hallDSCF6697

But shortly after the foreclosure announcement, KKR announced that it had hired Seattle-based developer Urban Renaissance Group to figure out what to do with the property.

That change is in keeping with the state of malls generally. In her 2022 book Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, architectural critic Alexandra Lange writes that the pandemic has merely accelerated a number of extant trends throttling American malls. Lange attributes the decline of malls to three things: first, the U.S. is “overmalled,” having built too many new shopping centers even as the population declined; second, e-commerce was eating into traditional retail before COVID, and now accounts for one-fifth of sales; and third, the department stores that have anchored malls began declining in the 1990s.

By fall of 2022, the narrative around Lloyd Center had changed. The big chain stores were gone, but about 100 tenants remain, most of them locally owned.

It’s not exactly a new story, as Jason E. Kaplan reports in the following pages: Some “new” businesses have been at the mall for years.

The current crop of store owners are calling the new scene the Lloyd Arts District. They offer mixed reports on how their businesses are doing, but they like the low rent, the controlled indoor climate and the fact that security is not an auxiliary cost — as it would be if they did business in a traditional stand-alone store.

But it’s hard to say yet if this revival is the early breath of a new life for Lloyd Center or its last gasp. URG’s managing director, Tom Kilbane, says simply that the company “has begun a visioning process for future opportunities to improve the positioning of Lloyd Center” and that it is “talking to tenants of all types and sizes” about the available space.

An August report from the National Retail Federation notes that store closures were down in the first half of 2022 versus the same period the year before: Retailers announced plans to close 895 stores, a 63% drop from 2,410 closing announcements in the first six months of 2021. The number of new store openings announced during the first half of 2022 — 5,080 — was the same as 2021. In other words, the bleeding is starting to slow. The report also notes that clothing stores are announcing the most closures, with mall mainstays like Foot Locker, the Gap and Bath & Body Works all announcing significant closures in 2022.

If the American mall is to survive the coming decades, Lange writes, it needs to reinvent itself and be willing to embrace the messiness and variety once thought to be the exclusive (and frightening) province of downtown.”

“Shopping isn’t going anywhere, and it’s so much nicer to do it together,” Lange writes.

— Christen McCurdy

‘That Old Portland Spirit’

In recent years, small Portland retailers have set up shop at Oregon’s largest mall as chain stores have fled. They say Lloyd Center offers the perfect combination of climate control, community, safety and low rent — for now.

Story and photos by Jason E. Kaplan

The last time I went to the Lloyd Center Mall was in April of 2021. Even before COVID, the shopping center had been struggling to draw both shoppers and tenants. More than a year into the pandemic, it was a ghost town: The hallways were silent, empty, and most of the storefronts were covered by metal gates.

Before the pandemic shuttered or limited many retail operations, Lloyd Center had been trying to reinvent itself by drawing locally owned independent businesses. An initiative called Lloyd Local meant low rents to small business owners and providing opportunities for pop-up shops. While Lloyd Local was mostly put on ice by COVID, in recent months more independent shops selling locally made products have started opening up. Some of these indie boutique stores have been branding themselves as the Lloyd Arts District.

These businesses are listed on postcards that exclaim “Lloyd’s Not Dead!” in bold print. They include a record store, a comic book shop and a tattoo parlor, among many others. There are even a few stores that sell upcycled and vintage items. Hitherto, secondhand merchandise was not sold in the mall.

0123mall Lloydsnotdeadcopy

On the third floor of Lloyd Center, the food court is down to three open stalls. The long halls past the court — which, in the past, have been occupied by offices and professionals like dentists — are now often vacant, though some spaces are now filled with nonprofits or activity groups such as the Portland Bridge Club and the Portland Chess Club.

While some of the Lloyd Arts shops have been in the mall for years, since the Lloyd Local days, others have just opened in the past weeks or months.

Floating World

One of these is Floating World Comics. Founded 16 years ago by Jason Leivian, the colorful comic book and graphic novel store was a fixture in Old Town. The store briefly shuttered in 2020 due to COVID restrictions; after it reopened, Leivian found that business wasn’t coming back. More people working remotely meant fewer people downtown, but rents in the neighborhood remained high. Leivian decided it was time to move.

0123mall Floating DSCF6421Jason Leivian recently moved his store, Floating World Comics, into Lloyd Center from its previous site in Portland’s Old Town.

He heard that a friend — Tony Remple, the owner of Musique Plastique — had moved his record store to Lloyd Center and decided to follow suit, relocating in September.

The move has been good for business, he says.

“It’s not quite up to prepandemic levels, but the foot traffic has been good. And weekends have overperformed,” Leivian tells Oregon Business.

Mall management was eager to work with smaller stores, he says.

“We’re trying to build something here,” Leivian says. “[Lloyd Center] is like Portland a decade ago,” he adds, referring to the independent-spirited and creative period that was both celebrated in national media and parodied on the TV show Portlandia.

Floating World Comics has signed a two-year lease; time will tell if Lloyd Center will be its long-term home.

In the meantime, Leivian is working to reach out to other independent businesses to encourage them to look at the benefits of mall life. Those benefits include free parking, a controlled climate that keeps weather from discouraging foot traffic, low rent and a community of like-minded business owners.

Access to mall security is another benefit; vandalism and theft are much less common at his new store, he says.

“It makes me sleep better at night,” Leivian says.

Musique Plastique

Musique Plastique is just two doors down from Floating World. Tony Remple closed his Alberta Street shop back in March 2020 and moved sales online.

Opening his mall location in August of 2022 was his first step back into brick-and-mortar retail.

“It’s huge to be back in a physical space,” Remple says.

0123Mall musiqueDSCF6454 copyMusique Plastique owner Tony Remple (center) with occasional staffer Carly Barton (left) and radio station manager and staffer Dane Overton (right)

So far, he says, he doesn’t have a lot of foot traffic, being a niche business that specializes in experimental, avant-garde and electronic music. But his clientele at Lloyd Center is more diverse than the clients he drew in the gentrified Alberta Arts District. He likes that his shop is a “scrappy space” of the sort that’s not easy to find around Portland these days.

The rent is low for now, Remple says, but he adds that if he and others like him are able to bring Lloyd back to life, rent will likely become more expensive in the future.

“COVID taught me not to get attached too far out,” Remple says.

Musique Plastique is also home to an internet radio station, Intro to Rhythm. Most evenings DJs stream live sets from the front of the store between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Brickdiculous

In Between Floating World Comics and Musique Plastique is Brickdiculous, a Lego store catering to serious Lego artists and young dabblers alike. Owned by former comic book publisher James Lucas, this is Brickdiculous’ first retail location, and it has only been open since mid-November.

0123mall brickDSCF6662Brickdiculous owner James Lucas in his store.

Echoing Leivian, Lucas says being in the mall combats a lot of the problems of having a store in inner Portland, including parking and security. Also, the low rent has allowed him to have enough space to host events.

Animal.Plant.Mineral

Faith Jennings, owner of the boutique shop Animal.Plant.Mineral, was one of Lloyd Center’s early indie adopters. Jennings started selling clothes made from upcycled cashmere in pop-up shops in 2016. In 2018 she had a chance to occupy a temporary space in Lloyd Center as part of their Lloyd Local initiative. Animal.Plant.Mineral has been there ever since.

In addition to her own branded hats — Faith Hats — she sells locally crafted gifts as well as some vintage items.

0123mall faithDSCF6472Faith Jennings sells her own branded hats at her boutique Animal.Plant.Mineral.

“Secondhand is an act of sustainability because fast fashion is destroying the earth,” Jennings says. “I wanted to create the kind of store I would want to shop in.”

During the early days of COVID, Jennings says, her shop survived by selling online and through curbside pickup.

Jennings says that the mall offers a lot of advantages over other locations in that it is safe, dry, clean and secure. Like her peers, she sees Lloyd Center as an opportunity to harken back to an earlier iteration of Portland.

“The city has lost track of the identity that it’s a place where you can build your life for yourself,” Jennings says. “Lloyd Center has that old Portland spirit.”

But Jennings says sales and traffic have been slow to rebuild since the pandemic shutdown.

“This year is worse than last year. By next summer, when my lease is up, it will be make -
or-break time,” she tells OB.

Way of Being

Next door to Animal.Plant.Mineral is another shop that takes sustainability seriously and also started as a pop-up. Way of Being is co-owned by Alex Gamboa Grand with a focus on selling products that are made from biodegradable and recyclable materials. Many of her items, such as toothbrushes and cleaning supplies, are things typically made from plastic but are here made of more sustainable materials like wood and bamboo. She also focuses on purchasing products from companies that are BIPOC-, woman- or queer-owned.

0123mall GG DSCF6557Way of Being is co-owned by Alex Gamboa Grand.

Gamboa Grand says that she sees the mall recruiting more independent businesses by offering shorter leases and more flexible terms, but she thinks that it will take a couple of years for it to realize its vision.

Family Portrait Studio

On Lloyd Center’s main floor, near the ice rink, is a new photography studio called Family Portrait Studio. Owned by Michael Raines, a street photographer and photojournalist, he opened the business Nov. 1.

Raines’ goal is “to be a fixture in the photo community.” He says that while he currently takes most of the photos, he’d like to open his studio up to residencies where other photographers take over for a time. Raines also has events such as photography shows and print auctions in the works.

0123mall DSCF6758Photographer Michael Raines’ portrait studio opened in November.

Raines describes his business as “a little tongue in cheek because it’s in a mall”— the idea was to create something akin to a 1980s mall portrait studio. His photographic style features brilliantly lit people against brightly colored, solid backgrounds. The images are eye-catching and sometimes have a campy vibe. But he says he’s happy to do more straightforward work if that’s what the client is looking for.

Raines has a lot of downtime during the week; he is using the opportunity to create a bit of an art project documenting Lloyd Center, saying that if the mall doesn’t survive, “I’ll have a year of photos.”

Cultural Blends

Near the center of the mall is a local store that’s been going since 2018. Cultural Blends sells clothing from local brands and collectible items such as vintage Air Jordans.

0123mall cultDSCF6515Cultural Blends clothing and collectible shop long-time employee Odo Ishkiin

Longtime employee Odo Ishkiin says foot traffic is building back slowly since the mall reopened. Owner Troy Douglass also owns Back to the Basket, a similar shop in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

(Editor's Note: After the January edition of Oregon Business went to press, Cultural Blends announced on Instagram that the store would be closing at the end of December.)

All American Magic

All American Magic has been in the Portland area for decades. The region’s largest magic store — selling magician supplies, books, prepackaged magic tricks and novelties — was founded in 1991 at the Beaverton Mall. From there it moved to Jantzen Beach, then to Mall 205 and recently to the second floor of Lloyd Center.

0123mall magicMagician Mark Benthimer is the proprietor 
of All American Magic.

Owned by magician Mark Benthimer, the nearly 5,000- square-foot store sports a 100-seat theater. Every couple of weeks or so, Benthimer puts on a performance designed to entertain the whole family.

“Everything we sell, we teach,” he says, likening it to a music store providing free lessons if you buy a guitar.

The shop also hosts twice-monthly meetings of the Society of Young Magicians.

Though Benthimer has operated out of several malls, he says that Lloyd Center is his favorite. “Management is great to work with.”

While empty storefronts and gaping vacant anchor-store spaces remain a drag on activity, new and growing creative businesses offer fresh hope for Lloyd Center.

If this trend continues, perhaps Portland’s independent, creative spirit can flourish once again within the confines of Oregon’s largest indoor retail space.

 

 

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