The Joan De Arc

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Phoenix, Arizona / Sunday, June 18, 2017
Founded AD 1968 / $10.00

©  2017 by JPB Publishing Ltd.

Avenue Weather: Partly cloudy with possible late afternoon showers. High 111 / Low 81

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Walmart coming to Metro

(BP) – Construction is winding down for the new Walmart Supercenter at Metrocenter, which is expected to open later this summer.
     Ground was broken last July 20 for the 148,000-square-foot store, which represents by far the largest capital investment made in the 44-year-old mall in decades. The store will occupy the site of the old Broadway department store building, which was demolished last year after being vacant since 2006. The new Walmart is expected to employ around 250 workers in part and full-time positions.
     Metrocenter is currently in the midst of a major revitalization plan. Last summer, the Phoenix City Council approved zoning changes that allow for new office space, senior housing, multi-family housing and healthcare facilities. The Walmart center is seen as the first step in the long-term rehabilitation of the once popular mall.
     Warren Fink, COO of Carlyle Development Group, said “our vision when we acquired Metrocenter mall two-and-a-half years ago was to bring in a well-known anchor to serve our local community. Walmart more than fulfills that requirement and we are thrilled to welcome them.”
     Metrocenter mall, about two miles southeast of Joan De Arc Avenue, first opened in 1973.

The rise and fall (and rise?) of Metrocenter
by J. Bueker

       My quintessential memory of that patch of land south of Peoria Avenue along the Black Canyon Freeway is, without a doubt, the smell; that remarkably disagreeable odor that, 50 years hence, still lingers in my nostrils like an eternal miasma dispersed and wafting through my childhood recollection. It was the kind of stink that could only be generated by a rather sizable field of broccoli baking beneath the heat of the central Arizona sun.
     The malodorous veggie field was quite impossible to ignore. After all, our family encountered it each and every time we ventured down the freeway. It was a sort of Van Allen radiation belt of stench through which one was forced to pass on the way to any worthwhile destination south of Surrey Heights. Rolling up the car windows did little to mitigate the pervasive fragrance, which would dissipate only with the passage of time and a suitable distance away from the contaminated area. But pass through it we did, on virtually a weekly basis throughout the 1960s.
     By 1970 however, ambitious plans had been laid for the smelly old broccoli field; very ambitious plans indeed. A shopping mall of unprecedented scope and splendor would rise upon this pungent parcel of agricultural soil, and so the old broccoli patch soon disappeared into Phoenix history, like so many other thousands of acres of cropland that yielded to the ever-encroaching behemoth of Phoenix civilization during that era.
     I think it’s worthwhile remembering that a humble and putrid old field of cruciferous vegetables is where Metrocenter mall was born. That such a lamented and unlikely parcel of real estate very near Joan De Arc Avenue would be transformed into one of the largest shopping centers on earth was no trivial matter. How could we have even conceived of such a possibility as we sped past the fetid rows of broccoli during our early journeys south? We were about to have a world-class mall plopped down in practically our very own backyard.
     We had never seen anything remotely like it. Metrocenter boasted 1.4 million square feet of space and was the first two-story mall to appear in Arizona. There were no fewer than five major anchors situated around its periphery: Sears, Rhodes, Diamonds, Goldwater’s and Broadway. There was a full-sized Ice Capades Chalet skating rink, multiple movie theatres and restaurants, a countless myriad of specialty shops, and a sleek drinking establishment called Metro Port Lounge, which overlooked the ice rink and was designed inside and out to resemble a jet airliner. It was here I first experienced the timeless rite of passage of being carded and then kicked out of a bar. Oh, but I would be back.
     Colossus that it was, the mall proper was only one component of the overall development at Metrocenter. The primary shopping center was enclosed within a ring of paved roadway that was framed by a second outer concentric ring built to accommodate even more businesses along with a variety of residential construction. The result of it all was a mile-long shopping mall development that filled the entire space between Peoria and Dunlap Avenues.
     The original architectural flavor of Metrocenter was uniquely eclectic. Like our beloved Christown, Metro was infused with its own unique architectural identity, but one quite different from the futurist Googie flair of the older mall. Put briefly, Metro’s design was ultra-modern with some very curious exotic influences thrown into the mix.
     Perhaps the most memorable of these influences came from the far side of the planet. Metrocenter architect Robert Fairburn apparently harbored a deep admiration for the legendary architect Le Corbusier and his Palace of Assembly, a rather astonishing building constructed in the city of Chandigarh, India in the 1950s. Fairburn incorporated certain aspects of that structure’s unique design into his vision for the new mall. Most notably, he chose to adorn each of the mall entrances with a huge wave of soaring concrete held in place by a trio of towering parabola-shaped buttresses. The result was a uniquely equivocal architectural effect, yet one that meshed beautifully in the overall design.
     One of the more charming features of the original mall was an eccentric little concourse called “The Alley,” which was located in a rather obscure area on the upper level near Sears.  Decorated to resemble a narrow city alleyway, the passage conveyed an odd sort of hippie vibe and incorporated a few small businesses into its tableau, including a Lotions ‘n’ Potions shop and antique photo emporium. However, for the most part, The Alley served no apparent purpose whatsoever; it was the kind of absolutely frivolous adornment that lends true character and distinction to a shopping institution. So of course, it didn’t last.
     The funny thing about shiny new shopping malls is that they inevitably fall into decline. Exactly when this fate befell Metrocenter is of course a matter of subjective perception, but some of the iconic businesses disappeared surprisingly quickly. The skating rink was closed in a mall renovation in 1986, after only a dozen years of existence, with Metro Port Lounge likewise disappearing at this time. The resulting cavernous empty space was eventually filled with a food court above and a large video arcade below.
     In 1993, Arrowhead Mall opened in Glendale and began luring business away from Metrocenter in much the same manner as Metro had once done to Christown mall. Of the original five anchors at Metro, only Sears and Diamonds (Dillards) now remain, the latter relegated to the diminished status of “clearance center” and utilizing only the upper level of the store. On my infrequent visits there, I cannot help but reminisce about waiting in long lines for Phoenix Suns tickets during their epic 1976 playoff run. The Diamonds box office of course is now long gone.
     A few of the original architectural flourishes at Metrocenter have managed to endure. A prime example is the Western Savings building, with its distinctive rising cone-shaped, ribbed tower. The bank building lives on as a Souper Salad restaurant with a distinctly different color scheme from the original structure. Sadly, the iconic concrete entrance slabs at Metro were removed in a $32 million mall facelift in 2004. I wonder what they did with the things.
     When contemplating the future of Metrocenter, it’s perhaps instructive to review the mall’s parallels with Christown. Both malls were prime Phoenix shopping destinations that fell into decline amid changing neighborhood demographics and the strain of competition with newer malls. No small irony lies in the fact that Christown, whose prosperity was deeply affected by the opening of Metrocenter in 1973, has managed to survive and could conceivably outlive its long-time rival.
     In a sad and eerie reenactment of Christown’s past, Metrocenter recently demolished its old Broadway store building to make room for a new Super Walmart. This certainly signals that the old mall will continue to be a shopping destination of sorts, although some local residents argue that the addition of a Walmart will hasten the demise of the once great Metrocenter rather than inhibit it. Time will tell.
     Ultimately, the fate of Metro may more resemble that of Park Central than Christown:  a hybrid blend of stores, restaurants, office space, healthcare facilities and residential property. This destiny also appears to be the plan for Fiesta Mall in Mesa.
     One reason for optimism regarding Metrocenter’s future is the Metro Light Rail, which will soon be making its way west from 19th Avenue along Dunlap Avenue to the mall, ensuring a resurgence of patrons in the years ahead, just as it has for Christown Spectrum. This should breathe new life into the once invincible shopping mecca on Peoria Avenue.
     And so, while Metrocenter’s finest days are certainly well confined to its past, there now seems at least a smidgen of hope that the senescent mall’s deteriorating condition may at least stabilize in the years ahead. Regardless of what transpires, I am quite satisfied that Metrocenter will continue to be a stellar improvement over that foul-smelling broccoli field of my Phoenix childhood. If all else fails, it’s got that going for it.


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