The Tacoma Sun


Over Tacoma: The Tacoma Mall

By Morgan Alexander

In this series, the Sun explores the city from a thousand feet off the ground. Drawing inspiration from a combination of the cheesy public television “Over..” series and Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then column in the Seattle Times, and using the Aerial Photography layer of the City of Tacoma’s govME mapping website, we take a look at a few different landmarks and neighborhoods to see how land use decisions have impacted our built environment.

This week: The Tacoma Mall

It’s hard to imagine this section of town as wide open scrub land. But that’s what it appears to be in 1931. Just a few well-worn paths bisect the area now consumed with surface parking lots and 20% off sales. To help orientate the reader, an overlay featuring today’s roads and highways is turned on. Not even South 38th Street existed here at this point in time. The dirt road running right to left with a jag in the middle to traverse a steep hillside still exists today.


By 1950, the city’s grid has become more pronounced to the right and left of what will become the mall. South 38th Street has been graded and extended from the Lincoln District to Highway 99 (South Tacoma Way).


By the time this photo was taken in 1973, the Tacoma Mall had been open for almost 10 years. The Mall’s opening coincided with the opening of another suburban phenonemon: the super highway, in our case I-5. With a single slash, I-5 severed the local street grid pattern, removed housing, divided neighborhoods, and effectively cut the city in half. Fifty years later, the city still has not recovered.


By 1990, almost every parcel has been developed. The challenge of building on the steep hillside as seen in the center of the photo – the original “center” of the mall area that had the bisecting road in the 1930 photo above – most likely has prevented new development from occurring there.


By 1998, strip malls and surface parking had eaten up every square inch of the former scrub lands. Only the Tacoma Mall hill was left to develop. But not for long.


In this 2006 photo, we see a top section of the hill has been scraped and is awaiting development of the Apex Condo/Apartments. Since completing the first phase, a second “Apex” has since been constructed. It’s only a matter of time before the remaining single family residences – and a Quaker friends center – is replaced by large multi-family projects.

published May 30th, 2008

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RR Anderson // May 30, 2008 at 9:06 am

    the horror. the horror.

  • 2 michael g. // May 31, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    No joke, RR. What a nightmare. Can we start over and try again?

  • 3 drizell // Jun 2, 2008 at 1:03 am

    It really makes you realize how small Tacoma is. If the furthest extent of the city in 1950 was Nalley Valley, you realize that most of the land in the southern and eastern portions of the city were developed after this time, during the period of mass suburbanization in America. Most of Tacoma is suburban. Just because it is within the city limits of Tacoma does not make it urban: it is suburban in look, feel and nature.

  • 4 S Scott // Jun 25, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    I’d love to see a similar historical comparison of Bantz Boulevard / Cheney Stadium area and the myriad of configurations that 19th Street has endured over the years. I’ve lived in the area since the early 60s and I remember quite a progression. The idea of leveling what is in that Cheney Stadium, Heidelberg, Foss, Metro Parks, Boy Scouts area and turning it into more condos is appalling. Something has to be saved.

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