Ghost mall goes indie: Pacific Place gets a new lease on life

As malls across the country peter out, the downtown Seattle shopping center is fighting vacancies with art and local businesses. 

Pacific Place mall on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

On a recent October Tuesday, a young woman strode into Seattle’s downtown Pacific Place shopping mall and, about 30 feet in, stopped dead in her tracks. “Is J.Crew still here?” she wondered out loud. No, the nearby concierge explained. It closed a while ago. “I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend here,” the woman said, still buffering the new data. “I’ll have to text her to meet somewhere else,” she eventually concluded, making a U-turn for the exit.

Less than two minutes later, another mystified shopper walked up to the shiny white concierge counter, looked in the direction of the empty storefront and asked: “Did J.Crew close?” 

After more than 20 years in the mall, the American clothing retailer shuttered its Pacific Place store in early 2020. To blame: financial troubles amid a “retail apocalypse” that was in motion long before COVID-19. Now, as downtown Seattle’s economy wakes up from its pandemic slumber, there’s no J.Crew at Pacific Place — and former tenants like Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors or BCBG are gone, too. Instead, shoppers are finding something less expected than mannequins with empty smiles and $150 handbags: art and handmade objects by local artisans.

On the shelves of the former Kate Spade store now sit — alongside fancy French soaps, stationary, books and vintage treasures — ceramic miniatures by Sharon Jewell, sculptural jewelry by Joan Cihak and Lauren Grossman and rustic pottery by Karra Wise, all local artists whose work is for sale at locally owned indie shop Orcas Paley. Next door you’ll find a brand-new retail outlet of Debonair Decor Couture, a 1-year-old local clothing label that also sells pop-art-style artworks depicting music stars and celebrities. 

A couple escalators up, Destination Maternity and Teavana have been replaced with boutiques dedicated to jewelry, art, home goods and gifts designed and handmade by artists. In the former Victoria’s Secret, new Black healing and art space Wonder of Women has hung paintings of history-making Black women in the niches formerly taken up by brassieres and frilly panties.

Part of a pop-up program meant to reinvigorate the dormant five-story mall, these small, indie businesses and art nonprofits are here on temporary leases to fill the spaces left behind by chain stores — at, yes, bargain prices. 

“It was too good of a deal to say no to,” says Laurie Kearney of Ghost Gallery on a recent Saturday afternoon at her mall shop, which carries affordable art, handmade jewelry, incense and candles, crystals and tarot decks, among other things. Nearby, a mechanical sculpture by Seattle artist Casey Curran, featuring a heap of delicate flowers made from white, laser-cut paper, fluttered open and closed in the display window. “I was excited about the prospect of a lot of small businesses starting to move in here and do some fun experimentation and see how it goes,” Kearney says. 

Located in the former space of a Francesca’s chain boutique, Ghost Gallery, photographed on Oct. 29, 2021 in Seattle's Pacific Place mall, has transformed the changing rooms into a tarot reading room and uses Francesca’s display cases to feature wine and other curated goods. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Although Pacific Place started its “Pop-Up & Grow” program prepandemic, it has proved especially popular in recent months, as downtown emerges from the pandemic and small businesses are, as ever, looking for affordable rent. Earlier this year, after holding on for more than a pandemic year, Kearney packed up her 15-year-old Capitol Hill art gallery meets home goods shop, with plans to operate online only. “I was pretty much hemorrhaging money,” she says. But then she got a tip from Marlo Miyashiro, co-owner and managing director of Pacific Place’s Handmade Showroom and Bezel & Kiln. “I could put everything in storage and see what happens in the future,” Kearney remembers thinking. “Or I could take a leap.”

Standing behind a heavy, faux-antique counter, Kearney recalls the first time she saw what was to become her mall shop. “This space used to be a Francesca’s [clothing store],” she says. “With all the dark wood — I was peeking through the doors — I was like: ‘You know, this might actually work.’ ” Kearney cleaned up the place, painted the walls deep ocean blue and brought in her own electric fireplace (for a touch of cozy Goth). With a set of comfy chairs and a table, she transformed the fitting rooms into a tarot reading space, which can be closed off with the thick, peacock green draperies. “It’s kind of our weird confessional,” Kearney says. 


Mall archaeology 

Francesca’s is among a slew of national retailers that have left Pacific Place in recent years. The company struggled prepandemic after failing to catch up with shifting retail trends and the e-commerce boom, and filed for bankruptcy late last year. Barneys New York, Barnes & Noble, Eddie Bauer and Victoria’s Secret also abandoned ship in the past few years due to financial difficulties. This exodus isn’t unique to Pacific Place, but part of a nationwide retail apocalypse.

A multimillion-dollar renovation, in the works since the mid-2010s, was supposed to help Pacific Place steer a different course by courting tourists, a growing crop of downtown residents and South Lake Union tech workers. The hope was that those working at the nearby campus of Amazon, the largest e-commerce player in the world, would be lured by the dining and entertainment options, as well as a brand-new grand entrance (hailed as an “architecturally magnificent, personally obsessed entrance at Seventh Avenue and Olive Way” in marketing materials) deliberately situated to face the tech giant’s campus.

Some stores left to make way for the renovation; others remained as foot traffic dwindled during construction. And then, a few months before the refreshed Pacific Place was supposed to open, the pandemic hit. More closures followed. 

Just four years ago, Pacific Place had about 50 tenants, according to a Puget Sound Business Journal story from 2017. Today, the tally stands at about half that figure, plus an AMC movie multiplex. 

Pacific Place mall on Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. While many storefronts are empty, foot traffic has picked up, say local businesses. During a recent lunch hour, a few flocks of people sporting blue Amazon badges and others were heading up to the restaurants. Other times, people worked on laptops or charged their phones at large tables in the atrium, an Uber Eats driver waited inside for his phone to ping while it rained outside, and one afternoon, a janitor woke up a person who’d fallen asleep reading a book in one of the plush chairs. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

A few stores have weathered the storm: local favorite Pike Place Chowder, a downsized Tiffany & Co., Aveda, AT&T (a tenant since the mall’s 1998 opening) and Lululemon (now in a larger space) are still there. And popular Chinese hot pot chain HaiDiLao opened on the third floor in September 2020. 

But most of the building’s 339,000 square feet remains unfilled. Walking around, you can play a game of mall archaeology, match store artifacts with former occupants. Of L’Occitane, only its trademark Provence yellow and brown facade remains — black curtains obscure the gaping space. One floor below, a small red placard reading “yogurt and smoothies” is the key to deciphering the ancient text above, only the contours of which are still visible on the metal logo cutout: “Red Mango.” The slogan “Welcome to the great indoors” — plastered on posters and boards covering up empty storefronts throughout the mall — echoes through the vacuous building.  

Madison Marquette, the Washington, D.C., firm that owns Pacific Place, turned down an interview request and declined to release vacancy rates or lease information, but sent a statement that read in part: “The pop-up format gives these growing local businesses a short-term lease that can be as little as one to two days, and provides them with an attractive option for connecting in the physical space with their offerings. It allows them to test-drive a brick-and-mortar store without a long-term commitment.” 


Audre Lorde in the fitting room 

The arrangement also allows these small businesses and arts nonprofits to take up much more space than they normally could afford. Molly Ray, an independent, local perfumer, is moving from a 200-square-foot space in Pioneer Square to a 1,600-square-foot store in the mall, which means she can scale up her perfume-making workshops. Peter Gaučys and Patrick Angus of Orcas Paley moved from a 150-square-foot, atmospheric storefront in Hillman City to a shiny, spacious boutique. 

Gaučys declined to disclose how much the shop pays in rent, but said: “We would not be a candidate for this space under normal market conditions.” 

The most dramatic expansion has been for Wonder of Women International. Veronica Very previously operated the nonprofit out of her Seattle house. Now in the former Victoria’s Secret, she has 11,000 square feet, currently the setting for WOW Gallery's Dear Sista, I See You, an art exhibition of “Iconic Black Women” and “Black Love” paintings by Very’s husband, Seattle artist Hiawatha D. 

“It still shocks people when they come around the corner. They're like, ‘Wow, I didn't expect all of this.’ And to be quite honest, you don't typically find galleries this large,” says Very, sitting on a leather sofa in one of the spacious back galleries. “We're taking up space. Unapologetically.” 

Veronica Very, founder of the Wonder of Women nonprofit and gallery, looks at a painting titled “Four Girls” by Hiawatha D., at Pacific Place mall on Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. “Four Girls” shows the four Black girls who were killed during the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carool Denise McNair. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

WOW doesn’t operate like a traditional gallery — not all of the original artworks are for sale — but focuses on retreats and events around healing and anti-racism work for local and national organizations. On a recent visit, tall, tableclothed tables awaited a group of Black Women in STEM. 

Also unlike a traditional gallery, the fitting rooms have been transformed into “Healing Suites,” spaces for individual reflection and WOW’s Black women artist-in-residency program (currently on view: abstract, multimedia collage-paintings by Jaime Alexandra Escarpeta). Each dressing room is dedicated to a different activity: “Write,” “Listen,” “Remember,” “Affirm” and “Speak” (a visit is included in the $25 entry ticket for WOW, a guided healing session in the suites costs $150 per hour). Spaces may feature a desk, chair, rug or audio recording setup — places to sit in contemplation, write down thoughts and record stories while candles glow.

At the end of the fitting room hallway, above a softly trickling fountain, an Audre Lorde quote is painted on the wall: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The Pacific Place location is personal to Very. Her daughter Ashlé, who passed away in 2017, happened to take her first job in this Victoria’s Secret at 16. And years ago, when Very and her then-fiancé were living downtown, they purchased their wedding rings from Tiffany’s. “It’s the divine orchestration of the ancestors, as far as I'm concerned,” Very says. 

Pacific Place mall on Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Death of the mall 

Malls take up a special space in the American consciousness. For many born before the 2000s, malls were places of hallmark events: First bras. First jobs. First dates. Which is perhaps part of the reason the death of the mall fascinates — with countless photo books, YouTube channels and articles (such as “50 haunting photos of abandoned shopping malls across America”) dedicated to the ghostly remains of consumerist temples. 

Consumer interest in indoor shopping malls has been declining since the mid-1990s, says Vicky Howard, author of From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. That’s about when Pacific Place was being built after its conception in the early ’90s as an upscale shopping destination meant to help revitalize downtown. Although the mall was almost fully leased when Madison Marquette purchased the building for $271 million in 2014, changes in retail eventually caught up with Pacific Place.   

The first time Earnest Thomas of ONYX Fine Arts Collective — a nonprofit dedicated to showing artwork of Pacific Northwest artists of African descent — scoped out Pacific Place as a potential gallery location, in 2017, he noticed many empty stores, he says. “And so they gave us an opportunity. And we have been here for almost four years.” 

Thomas says he’s content here. “We get people coming in here all the time from all over the world saying: ‘It’s really nice to see a fine art gallery — it’s not one of these Kmart kind of things.’” He welcomes the crop of new art businesses joining him here. And, he notes: “There are more Black businesses in here now than they ever have in the history of this mall. It's likely that it's because of the ability to afford coming in.”

But with this affordability and flexibility comes some insecurity. Marlo Miyashiro is the owner of The Handmade Showroom and Bezel & Kiln, two mall-based showrooms for independent makers, including Crystalyn Kae (vegan bags), Five Ply Design (laser-cut wood home decor) and Clay It Forward (ceramics). She has had to move within Pacific Place four times in six years because of renovations to certain spaces and new tenants moving in. 

“We’re coming up on six years, and we’re hoping that we never have to move again,” Miyashiro says, noting that moving is expensive and that she loves her current set-up. “We’re gonna actually see profit this year, and then we would have to spend it on a move.” 

Small business grants have helped keep Miyashiro’s businesses afloat during the pandemic, and foot traffic has picked up, particularly this past summer. While the number of shoppers waned somewhat over the fall, Miyashiro and other small businesses say they're already seeing a surge in early holiday shopping and are betting on that number increasing. 

Bezel & Kiln at Pacific Place mall on Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. Owner Marlo Miyashiro kept the wall shelving left behind by Teavana to display handmade items, including teapots and jewelry. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Ski slopes, schools and housing

With the global supply chain issues, more shoppers may opt for local wares this season. Most indie stores at Pacific Place say they feel as if  they’re rounding a corner, and many plan to extend their leases. But around the country, indoor malls are still struggling, with foot traffic down 6.5%, compared with September 2019. Indoor malls in particular have fared worse than shopping centers in suburban areas and outdoor-indoor malls (with vacancy rates surpassing those during the 2009 financial crisis). And the long-term future doesn’t look so bright, either. Roughly a quarter of America’s 1,000 or so malls are predicted to close by 2025. 

The solution, some think, is to revive dead malls by adding housing, offices, hotels, parks and grocery stores. After owners recently foreclosed on Portland’s oldest shopping mall, a real estate company plans to shift the mall’s focus and redevelop the site to include homes and “creative” offices.

Redevelopment of some Puget Sound-area malls include similar plans, including the famed Northgate mall — one of the first indoor malls in the nation — which became a bit of a ghost mall in 2019, when it lost many tenants in advance of its “complete reimagining.” The mall is reducing its retail and parking footprint in favor of a Kraken hockey training facility, offices, residential buildings, promenade and park.

Some envision malls as future logistics hubs for companies like Amazon. Other malls have received new leases on life by incorporating megachurches, fitness centers, homeless shelters, college campuses, schools, doctor’s offices and ski slopes

Orcas Paley, located at the former site of Kate Spade store, at Pacific Place mall on Oct. 29, 2021, in Seattle. The dressing rooms now show artwork and the display cases that once held handbags now showcase artwork and curated items. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

It’s unclear what Madison Marquette’s long-term plan is for Pacific Place. Could it become the next location for the Seattle Art Fair or Deconstructed Art Fair, its pandemic spinoff — an idea Thomas from Onyx gallery says he has suggested to Madison Marquette? Could it become a permanent hub for creative businesses and art galleries? 

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if this mall was a showcase for local businesses, artists, makers, craftspeople?” says Gaučys of Orcas Paley, as a portable Crosley record player projects a 1958 recording of Mozart and Haydn piano sonatas through the store. “That’s where everybody’s mind goes: Wouldn’t it be amazing if this iconic downtown Seattle shopping center became a showcase for local? People go crazy for that idea,” he says. 

“It’s an amazing idea. But I also respect the reality of what Madison Marquette is dealing with, with his property — they have to have a sustainable business model, too. So I don't know what the answer is.”

“Maybe,” says Kearney of Ghost Gallery, “that’s something the city can get involved in ... subsidizing some of those costs in the name of supporting indie businesses. I mean, they’re trying to get more people downtown and more activated down here. And this is a great way to do it.”

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