Malls are facing trouble everywhere. But Totem Lake Mall in Kirkland is in a category of its own. It’s a zombie: an undead mall with just a few remaining businesses. People have been trying to revitalize it for years.
And finally, there’s action. The mall has been bought by a California developer who is reenvisioning it as a place where people can shop, work, play and live. It's a big change from the mall's former identity as a hangout for young people.
The redevelopment is reminding that generation of just how much the Seattle area is changing.
Totem Lake was built in the 1970s and out-of-favor with the fashionable set by the 1990s, which made it really cool to the generation that grew up nearby.
When we mentioned Totem Lake mall on Facebook we got an explosion of responses. Dozens of people wrote their memories. And though their lives are now elsewhere, two former Totem Lake preteens returned to show KUOW their hangout.
Jennifer Weitman and Carrie Anderson were separated by two years in high school and didn’t know each other. But they shared a favorite place at the mall: Denny’s Pet World in the upper mall.
“I used to get cat collars or dog collars,” Weitman said. “And then I wore them on my very first concert” – which was Marilyn Manson.
“To get that at Denny’s Pet World is pretty incredible,” said Anderson, who tests games at a local tech company. She remembers the short-lived water slide at Totem Lake, shut down because it had become a “petri dish,” she said.
Though their interests differed back then, they actually have a lot in common. Totem Lake was a stop on their individual roads to independence. It was a place of first purchases: lip gloss, jeans.
“This was like my test mall,” Weitman observed. If she could handle going there, managing her money and get back home safely then her mother would let her go to Bellevue Square, where the boys were cuter.
Eventually most of Totem Lake’s energy ran off to Bellevue Square or Lynnwood's Alderwood Mall.
The city of Kirkland tried to revitalize the mall a decade ago, but the Great Recession killed that off. The mall’s decline continued, even as neighborhoods nearby prospered.
“For a lot of people who are concerned about growth, Totem Lake is an area where people see the potential and say yes," said Kirkland’s assistant mayor Jay Arnold.
But just how to make a success of the mall has proved elusive. Even malls with higher-end department stores are getting emptier. People's shopping habits are changing; there's the internet.
Now developers including Los Angeles-based CenterCal Properties, developer of Totem Lake, think the solution is to turn the mall into a lifestyle: a place where you can not only shop, but also live, work and get groceries. In fact, the grocery store is the new anchor – if not supplanting the department store, then supplementing it.
“Food is more difficult to shop for online,” said Joe Rogoff of Whole Foods. He said despite the many grocery delivery services out there,“A lot of people want to look at that strawberry themselves.”
And where there is food, there can be places for people to live. CenterCal says more than 800 apartments are a big part of the design. And those apartments will be designed with well-heeled techhies and retirees in mind, said Rick Beason, vice president of development at CenterCal.
“We’re going for what we call a 'higher-end' or quality type product,” said Beason. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere where it is one step better than what is available elsewhere.”
This did not go over well with the former Kirkland preteens who used to inhabit Totem Lake.
“That makes me kind of sad,” said Weitman. She said the new Totem Lake doesn't sound like a place where she will be able to imagine herself. The old mall, she said, “Afforded that feeling of 'I can fit in here,' even just a little bit.”
But now she imagines it will be a place where only people with money will be at home.
Anderson said she is willing to be flexible if it means the mall’s success. "I would like to see this place busy with people rather than not."
It’s another reminder of how fast the Seattle area is changing. "For me there isn't any space left that's familiar anymore," Weitman said.
Anderson works in tech, but she's not a highly-paid coder. “I’m fearful for myself and for my friends,” she said. “It’s scary. I found a studio apartment for $1,300, which is ridiculous. Five years ago that would have been ridiculous. That’s actually cheap now.”
Anderson said she probably wants to keep the freedom to move that renting allows, but having a house isn't likely. “At my level that’s never going, I’m never going to be able to afford the $666,000 median price range that the Eastside now has.”
She's pretty close: the June median for the Eastside is $658,000 according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
"I feel like our city is made for the people moving here and not the people who have existed here,” she said.
Totem Lake will be part of the new vision for the Seattle region. And it is scary, not knowing if you have a place in what emerges.