The Changing Face of The Shops at Tanforan Mall in San Bruno, CA

The Transformation of The Shops at Tanforan

Nestled in San Bruno, California, The Shops at Tanforan has long stood as a regional shopping mall, a familiar sight just 10 miles south of the bustling streets of San Francisco.

Opened in 1971, this mall once teemed with the vibrant energy of shoppers and families seeking leisure and retail therapy.

However, as the retail landscape shifted dramatically, so too did the fate of The Shops at Tanforan. What was once a bustling center of commerce is now transitioning, earmarked for redevelopment.

This change symbolizes the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter in the mall’s storied history, evolving from a retail haven to a site poised for innovation and growth.

The Evolution of Tanforan: From Racetrack to Retail Hub

A Storied Beginning: The Tanforan Racetrack Era

The tale of The Shops at Tanforan begins in 1899, not as a shopping destination, but as the Tanforan Racetrack.

This racetrack was more than just a venue for horse racing; it was a vibrant hub for the community, a place where excitement and competition came alive.

The Tanforan Racetrack was a cornerstone of San Bruno’s social and recreational life, hosting races and becoming a part of the town’s cultural fabric.

Transition to Commerce: Building a Shopping Destination

Fast forward to 1971, the racetrack underwent a transformative metamorphosis, emerging as the Tanforan Park Shopping Center.

This transformation marked a significant shift from sports and entertainment to commerce and retail.

The construction and design were spearheaded by Victor Gruen Associates, renowned for their innovative approach to shopping mall design.

Their vision brought a modern retail experience to San Bruno, turning the site into a bustling hub where shopping, dining, and leisure activities converged.

A New Community Focal Point

As a shopping mall, Tanforan became a new focal point for the community. It was no longer just about horse racing; it was now about families spending weekends browsing stores, teenagers meeting up for movies, and holiday shoppers filling their bags with gifts.

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This evolution from a racetrack to a retail hub signifies community spaces’ dynamic nature and ability to adapt to changing societal needs and preferences.

The Shops at Tanforan thus stood as a testament to the area’s growth and transformation, evolving with the times while remaining a central part of San Bruno’s community life.

Tanforan’s Varied Past: More Than Just a Mall

A Tapestry of Histories: Beyond the Racetrack

The story of The Shops at Tanforan extends beyond its days as a bustling retail center. This location has witnessed a remarkable array of uses over the years.

It’s been a racetrack, an airfield, a military training center, and, notably, a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

Each phase of its existence has left an indelible mark on the fabric of San Bruno’s history, reflecting a site that has continually evolved and adapted to the needs and circumstances of its time.

From Internment Camp to Community Center

Perhaps the most poignant chapter in Tanforan’s history was its time as the Tanforan Assembly Center, where thousands of Japanese Americans were wrongfully interned during World War II.

This dark period is a crucial part of not only Tanforan’s history but also the nation’s, serving as a reminder of the injustices faced by many during a tumultuous time.

Following the war, Tanforan returned to its original purpose as a racetrack, incorporating a golf course, before eventually transitioning to retail use.

This diversity of roles underscores the site’s complex and multifaceted history.

A Site of Continuous Transformation

The evolution of Tanforan from a racetrack to a diverse hub of activities and, eventually, to a shopping mall illustrates its ongoing transformation.

These shifts reflect the broader societal and economic changes, showcasing Tanforan as a microcosm of larger historical trends.

Each era of Tanforan’s existence has contributed to its rich tapestry, making it more than just a mall; it is a landmark of historical and cultural significance in San Bruno.

The Transitional Period of The Shops at Tanforan: From Opening to Renovation

The Early Days: A New Shopping Haven

After opening in 1971, The Shops at Tanforan quickly became a central hub for shopping and social activities in San Bruno.

Designed innovatively by Victor Gruen Associates, the mall featured a unique architectural element – a mezzanine second floor allowing a two-story ceiling above the ground floor center.

This design choice provided a spacious atmosphere and set Tanforan apart from typical mall layouts.

Anchored by major retailers like Sears and J.C. Penney, the mall initially boasted 750,000 square feet of leasable area, with space for 65 stores, marking a promising start for the new shopping center​​.

Growth and Expansion

The Shops at Tanforan continued to expand. The end of 1971 saw the opening of The Emporium as the third anchor store, adding to the mall’s allure.

This period of growth highlighted Tanforan’s ability to adapt and flourish, catering to the evolving needs of San Bruno’s residents and visitors.

However, change was on the horizon as shifts in the retail landscape began to emerge in the following decades​​.

Challenges Leading to Decline

By the late 1990s, The Shops at Tanforan had begun to show its age. The once-thriving mall was now perceived as outdated and uninviting, described as “dark and ugly.”

Despite this downturn in public perception, anchor tenants like Sears and J.C. Penney continued to perform strongly, maintaining a semblance of the mall’s former glory.

The occupancy rate, however, had fallen to less than half, signaling a need for change and revitalization.

In 1999, Wattson Breevast LLC acquired the mall with ambitious redevelopment plans.

This marked the beginning of a challenging phase fraught with legal, construction, and administrative hurdles, including an eminent domain lawsuit involving BART and issues with existing tenants and building materials​​.

The Path to Revitalization

The journey to revitalization was fraught with challenges. It took several years to navigate through legal and administrative complexities before renovation could begin.

Finally, in 2003, the transformation of The Shops at Tanforan commenced.

The Modern Mall Era: Revamped Shops at Tanforan

A New Beginning: The 2005 Reopening

After enduring numerous construction challenges, The Shops at Tanforan underwent a significant transformation.

In 2005, the mall re-emerged with a fresh face, showcasing a new entrance, an updated food court, and an expanded array of shops and restaurants.

This $140 million renovation, completed over 20 months, breathed new life into the mall, making it a more attractive and modern shopping destination.

Adding 300,000 square feet of retail space revitalized the mall, contrasting its previously dated appearance​​.

Architectural Innovation and Expansion

The renovation, executed by Altoon + Porter Architects and Brio Engineering Associates, expanded the mall’s total area to 1,100,000 square feet.

This expansion included a significant revamp of the mall’s interior, introducing a two-level Barnes & Noble bookstore and BJ’s Chicago Brewhouse, flanking the new glass atrium entrance.

These additions enhanced the shopping experience and made the mall a focal point for community gatherings and leisure activities.

The renovation project also included plans for a new parking garage and a 20-screen theater complex, further cementing the mall’s comprehensive entertainment and shopping hub​​role.

Impact on the Community and Local Economy

The revitalization of The Shops at Tanforan substantially impacted the local economy. The renovation helped to offset the closure of a longtime Ford dealer in San Bruno with increased sales tax revenue.

The opening of the Century Theatres in 2008, with a skybridge connecting it to the mall, further enhanced its appeal.

These developments attracted new businesses and visitors and contributed to the city’s economic health, showcasing the mall’s importance as a commercial and social cornerstone in San Bruno​​.

Economic Shifts and the Mall’s Decline

The Beginning of the End for Major Retailers

After the 2008 recession, The Shops at Tanforan began to experience significant challenges.

In 2015, a pivotal moment occurred when Sears Holdings spun off several of its properties, including the Sears at Tanforan, into Seritage Growth Properties.

This move was indicative of broader changes in the retail industry. The mall property changed hands in August of that year and was sold to Queensland Investment Corporation for $174 million.

The decline continued with the closure of the Sears store in early 2020, a significant blow to the mall’s retail offerings​.

Impact of Online Shopping and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The shift in consumer shopping habits towards online platforms, often called the “retail apocalypse,” coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, severely impacted foot traffic at The Shops at Tanforan.

This decline was exacerbated by a shooting in July 2019 in the food court, which understandably made some shoppers hesitant to return.

Further, the bankruptcy of Forever 21 and the subsequent closure of its Tanforan location in late 2019 added to the mall’s woes.

JCPenney, another anchor tenant, sold its store as part of its bankruptcy process in 2020, although it remained operational​​.

A Vision for Transformation

In response to these challenges, the San Bruno City Council adopted the “Reimagining Tanforan Land Use Fact Sheet” in July 2021.

The initiative spurred consideration for diverse uses of the site beyond retail, encompassing office spaces, residential areas, and hospitality services.

Following this, in February 2022, Alexandria Real Estate announced the purchase of the remaining central portion of the mall property, including the Target store.

They confirmed plans to transform the property into a “mega campus” for biotech and technology firms, marking a significant shift in the site’s purpose and use​.

The End of an Era: The Shops at Tanforan Mall in San Bruno, CA

Closing Doors and Embracing Change

After 52 years as a key retail and social hub in San Bruno, The Shops at Tanforan are set for a significant transformation.

Once a bustling center of commerce and community life, the mall is razed to make way for a new chapter.

A redevelopment plan is underway to transform the 44-acre site into a modern hub that includes housing, a biotech campus, transit-oriented commercial developments, and an innovation center.

This plan represents a bold step forward, turning the page from traditional retail to a future-oriented, multi-use space​​.

A Vision for a New Beginning

The site’s future, still in the planning stages, is envisaged as a “mega campus” for biotechnology and technology firms.

This vision is supported by a developer from Los Angeles who has purchased the land with a plan to build offices and research complexes catering to technology, biotech, life sciences, and other advanced fields.

The total real estate bid for the site amounted to nearly $330 million, emphasizing the scale and significance of this redevelopment project​​.

Preserving History While Building the Future

As The Shops at Tanforan embark on this transformation, recognizing and preserving the site’s rich historical significance remains paramount.

From its days as a racetrack to its time as an internment camp and then a shopping mall, each phase of Tanforan’s history has left a unique imprint.

The redevelopment presents an opportunity to honor this legacy while ushering in a new era of innovation and growth for San Bruno and the broader region.

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Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of Danielle

    so sad!! why would they ever tear found this newly beautiful mall into a biotech campus…pointless and very unappealing. hope the new campus foes HORRIBLY!!

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Shops at Tanforan. Understandably, you feel saddened by the decision to repurpose the mall into a biotech campus. Change can be difficult, and it’s natural to feel a sense of loss when something we care about undergoes a significant transformation. However, it might be helpful to consider the potential benefits of the new biotech campus. It could bring new job opportunities and contribute to the local economy in different ways.

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