As Tampa’s malls die, morph or survive, a city remembers life at the mall

TAMPA — Leslie Freed Price can track some teenage milestones back to the mall.

It was 1984 and a dark comedy called Teachers was playing at the mall movie theater. Her boyfriend’s dad bought them tickets and left. “I got my first real kiss at University Square Mall,” said Freed Price, now an executive assistant in Birmingham, Alabama. “After seeing my first R-rated movie.”

A Tampa mall made memories for Cliff Cabrera, too — the day he ditched school at Robinson High, sauntered through WestShore Plaza enjoying his stolen freedom and ran smack into his aunt.

“Who immediately knew I was skipping school,” said Cabrera, now 59 and living in Colorado. But instead of turning him in, she took him to lunch at the mall’s Piccadilly Cafeteria, a secret the two of them kept for decades.

“I had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and chocolate pudding pie with whipped cream on top,” said Cabrera. “My favorite.”

In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, America grew up at the mall. Movies — Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mallrats — captured the vibe. In Tampa, malls were where you got black-light posters at Spencer Gifts, cool clothes at Merry-Go-Round and your prom dress at Maas Brothers. Malls were food court pizza slices and Orange Juliuses, club sandwiches at Woolworth’s, college beers at Mr. Dunderbak’s, birthday sundaes at Farrell’s. Grandmas had their hair done at department store salons and teens hit the midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show. People drove across bridges from Pinellas County to shop Tampa’s malls.

But years passed and customer culture changed. Consumers got comfortable with online retail. Some malls died a slow death, some held on, and some added entertainment and experiences to adapt. On opposite sides of Tampa, where two malls once thrived, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ football training facility and a sprawling office park live on.

But before that, Tampa’s old-school indoor malls had distinct personalities that locals have not forgotten.

WestShore Plaza

Decades before the arrival of upscale International Plaza in 2001, tony WestShore hit town.

Old-timers who lived nearby remember when the land was cleared and kids would catch rattlesnakes there. Opened in 1967 as the first air conditioned area mall — “thrill to an atmosphere of sheer beauty while you shop,” the ads said — WestShore quickly became a South Tampa mainstay.

“My grandmother always got her hair done there at the JC Penney,” dyed and teased “to the sky,” said Tampa native Roxanne Papia, 64 and a retired mortgage broker. “Then they’d meet all their friends. They’d have lunch. It was their form of entertainment.”

WestShore was anchored by the Tampa-based Maas Brothers department store. Its third floor Suncoast Room restaurant had views of planes coming and going at Tampa’s nearby airport. Residents remember special occasion lunches of finger sandwiches, San Francisco Salad, sherbet and cinnamon twists.

WestShore also had The Palm, a steakhouse with walls covered with caricatures of local notables. It had a workaday Sears, but in 1998 scored the fancy New York-based Saks Fifth Avenue. On opening weekend, animal rights activists protested the fur-selling retailer while shoppers got their first glimpses inside.

“Oh my gosh, we were so intimidated by that store. My daughter was a teenager and she was always, ‘I want this purse and I want that purse’” from Saks, said Papia. “And I was like, ‘That’s a mortgage payment.’”

When Saks closed in 2013 — to be replaced by Dick’s Sporting Goods — a headline in the Tampa Tribune declared: “We’re not a Saks kind of town.” But by then, upscale Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus had opened at International Plaza, the shiny new high-end mall just north of WestShore. Analysts said its arrival was a serious blow to Tampa’s old-school malls.

WestShore’s JC Penney and Macy’s survived the pandemic. When WestShore owner Washington Prime Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, the CEO said mall operations would continue as usual.

But big changes are in store for its prime location at Interstate 275 near the bridge to St. Petersburg. WestShore will morph from a shopping center where “everything happens inside and nothing happens outside,” as a project representative told Tampa City Council in 2020, into a mixed-use redevelopment of residences, offices, retail, restaurants and a hotel.

Tampa Bay Center

When Tampa Bay Center opened in 1976 in blue collar West Tampa, the Buccaneers and Rowdies came for the festivities — fitting, since it was next door to Tampa Stadium. An ad for the opening of the two-story mall boasted it would be a financial “shot in the arm” with 3,000 employees on a $25 million payroll.

The mall was anchored by the Miami-based Burdine’s department store, Montgomery Ward and Sears. It featured a glass elevator and a vintage 1922 wooden horse carousel.

Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco remembers getting his first Nintendo system and his prom tux at Tampa Bay Center. He also got caught skipping school there by his mother.

“I can remember me and my two best friends riding our bikes over the Buffalo (Avenue) bridge (later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) in the late 70s and early 80s to go to Tampa Bay Center and hit the record store and Spencer’s and then to the food court to boy-watch,” Tammy Dorotzak said via Facebook.

Tampa Bay Center later fell on hard times with large tenants leaving, and closed its doors in 2002. The Glazer family, owners of the Buccaneers, purchased the property for $22.9 million, and in 2005 then-coach Jon Gruden operated heavy equipment to knock the first hole in Burdine’s. It’s now home to the team’s training facility — once known as One Buc Place and today called AdventHealth Training Center.

University Square Mall

University Square opened in 1974 on Fowler Avenue in North Tampa just west of the University of South Florida. The mall mascot in ads and promotions was a nod to the college community: an owl called Hootie in a graduation cap. The mall had Maas Brothers, Sears and Robinson’s department stores.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said in the late 1970s, the JC Penney gift wrap counter also sold Buccaneers tickets. “I would take my lawn mowing money and my mom would drive me there. You could buy end zone tickets for $5,” he said. ”University was the coolest.”

In the heyday of University Square — later rebranded University Mall — the college crowd ducked into the dark, cozy Mr. Dunderbak’s for big sandwiches and beers.

But over time, the mall declined.

The property is currently undergoing an ambitious transformation called RITHM@Uptown — a multi-story urban neighborhood development and innovation community. Sears — the last in Tampa — was demolished in 2020.

Citrus Park Town Center

When the new mall opened in the far-flung northwest suburbs in 1999, KC and the Sunshine Band were there urging shoppers to shake their booties at a free concert. Thousands turned out for the Citrus Park Town Center’s opening, backing up traffic on the nearby Veterans Expressway.

Inside, the mall was designed to look like Main Street USA, with old-school newsboys calling “extra, extra!” at the opening.

As a teen, Shelby Bersani shopped for cute clothes at Charlotte Russe, ate french fries at Johnny Rockets and got her first job at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels so she could pay for her own cell phone.

“It was fun – I’d see my friends walk by,” said Bersani, 35. “My dad was so tired of me bringing home those pretzels.”

“I always felt safe there,” she said. “It was like, ‘oh, let’s meet up at the mall.’ Now it’s like, ‘let’s hang out and do TikToks’ or whatever they do now.”

The mall was formerly known as Westfield Citrus Park, but Westfield gave back ownership of the mall, and Countryside Mall, when they defaulted on a multimillion-dollar loan. The lenders filed a lawsuit in 2020 and took over the two malls.

Today, the old Sears store at Citrus Park is getting a makeover, being redeveloped into a family entertainment center with go-karts, laser-tag, mini-golf, bowling, and more.

Eastlake Square Mall

People protested plans for Eastlake Square Mall at a still-rural spot on the east side of town at Hillsborough Avenue and 56th Street. It opened in 1976.

Tampa native Marilon Furman worked nearby as a secretary and went to the mall for lunch to get away from the phones. “Eastlake was a beautiful mall,” she said. “It was so clean and it had fountains.” She got to know the manager of the Belk Lindsey store so she knew when the good sales were coming.

For nearly 10 years, Eastlake had a branch of the public library.

The mall spent its declining years as an off-price clearance center before it closed in 1998. Today it’s the sprawling NetPark Tampa Bay office park.

“It was sad,” Furman said. “It just never took off. The surrounding area never took off.”

Westfield Brandon

Brandon Town Center had a lot going for it when it opened in 1995 — a prime location off Interstate 75 with easy access for travelers and Sun City Center retirees, and a convenient location for the fast-growing east and south county suburbs around it.

“It was the bright new shiny object on the side of town that was rapidly growing,” said Angela Sweeney, the head of marketing for Brandon and later Citrus Park when they opened. “There was incredible demand for a shopping mall out that way.” It was later renamed Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon and then Westfield Brandon.

Because it was in a family-oriented community, the mall had lots of children’s programming — including a recurring Santa and Mrs. Claus, Duane and Bea Arisman. News stories recounted how people would stand in line for two hours to get a picture with them, Sweeney said. (The couple, both 90, died in February four days apart.)

The mall once hosted a senior prom in the food court that included an orchestra of retired musicians from Sun City Center. “It was just a hoot,” Sweeney said. “The seniors loved it.”

Malls as a memory

Why did many malls decline?

“Shoppers changed what they wanted, and the malls could not follow them fast enough,” said Paul Rutledge, senior vice president in retail for JLL, a global real estate company.

But those who grew up in them remember.

“The malls were the place to be for teenagers,” said Starr Linette Brookins, an attorney who hung out at WestShore with the other Jefferson High cheerleaders. “But as I’ve gotten older, they’ve become … a far cry from what they used to be.”

“Shopping isn’t the same,” said Papia. “I think it’s sad. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.”