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This Old Mall 

The new Westfield Centre is a magnet for holiday shoppers. But did developers' efforts to preserve the old Emporium make this anything other than another mall?

Wednesday, Dec 6 2006
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This holiday season, Bay Area shoppers have a new destination: The expanded Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, in the space that once housed the old Emporium. Developers retained the Market Street facade of the 1896 Emporium — a defining landmark of the city, which stood for 100 years — and configured the new mall's expansion around the former building's trademark glass dome. But beyond the facade, Westfield, which developers call the largest urban shopping center west of the Mississippi, is being marketed as a mall "like no other place." It's certainly spacious: There are five floors of shops that lead to three floors of offices; a nine-screen multiplex; the biggest Bloomingdale's west of Manhattan; and even a grocery store. There are also upscale restaurants and countless dizzying design elements, from stainless steel escalators to glass-roofed walkways. And while developers promised to incorporate the historic facades and design details of the old Emporium, they tore down everything behind the facades; when preservation groups sued, Westfield agreed to pay the city $2.5 million for other preservation efforts. Are you an apologist for the new Westfield Center? Take our quiz and find out!

1) The Westfield Centre sits across the street from the Metreon (now also owned by Westfield), which less than a decade ago was heralded as a "mall of the future" because of its blend of unique retail stores, different food options, and multiscreen cinema. In your opinion, what does the Westfield Centre have that the Metreon didn't?

A) Shoppers.

B) Business transactions.

C) A Microsoft store. Oh, wait ...

2) Among the most striking historic elements in the new mall is the 102-foot-wide dome, built in 1908 and blacked out during World War II, which was raised 60 feet from its former location to rest atop the new mall. Developers call the dome a "symbol of San Francisco," and city officials have hailed its preservation. What do you think of the dome's refurbishment?

A) Splendid. If only it didn't take a mall to start a preservation drive.

B) Honestly, I'm torn over which dome is more gaudy: City Hall's or the Westfield's.

C) It's beautiful. And you can almost see it from inside the mall, if you stand in just the right place and climb on top of a mannequin's shoulders.

3) Vince Zawodny, vice president of design for Westfield, said before the opening: "We wanted an experience that reflects the complexity of the city. We wanted to reflect that this is not just a machine for selling." Do you think the design succeeded with those aims?

A) Well, it's certainly hard to get around, if that's what he means by the "complexity of the city."

B) A machine for selling? Nonsense. It's an enormous machine for selling.

C) When is a mall not a mall? When it reflects stuff. (Bonus point for adding: "Either that, or it's made entirely of glass.")

4) One of the mall's selling points is its collection of high-end restaurants, a far cry from usual food court options (although there is a "food emporium" in the basement concourse). Seven full-scale restaurants operate throughout the mall, featuring $25 entrees that run the gamut from Mexican to steak to fusion. Do you appreciate the choice of more sophisticated menus in a retail environment?

A) No thanks, I'll stick to Sbarro.

B) Of course. I always appreciate the chance to pay too much for a burrito in San Francisco.

C) Finally! Overpriced restaurants with shaky service near downtown shopping zones! Why didn't somebody think of this before?!?

5) Do you have any memories of shopping at the old Emporium?

A) Very, very vague. I was just a young girl during the Roaring '20s, you know.

B) Oh, sure. I remember coming downtown in my Sunday best for an all-too-rare trip to the Emporium; it's one of my fondest childhood memories, along with rooting for sports teams that didn't want to move to the suburbs.

C) Ah, yes, it was called the Queen of Market Street back then. Now, of course, that honor belongs to a tranny who hangs out near the BART station.

6) Despite developers' claims that the new Centre is a seamless blend of historic elements and new innovations, preservation proponents have expressed dismay at the way old design details were used — or not used. (Art Deco escalators from 1936 and staircases dating to 1908 were about the only fixtures retained.) "It's nice the facade has been restored, but everything behind it is fake," said G. Bland Platt, a former member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. "You don't keep one wall, and a dome you move somewhere else, and call it 'preservation.'" What do you think of the Westfield's mix of old and new?

A) Wait a minute, should we be glad that they kept the old escalators? Hasn't science marched on since 1936?

B) I'd say it's thoroughly convincing. Especially how the mall's exterior walls go from old to new to old again as they wrap around the block. It's like seeing the cycle of life, writ in commerce.

C) I disagree with Mr. Platt: You can keep one wall and a dome you move somewhere else and call it "preservation." You just can't do it with a straight face.

7) Critics have contended that the mixed-use mall is a symbol of modern life in San Francisco, where day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping become tangled with shopping, working, dining, and transit — all under one roof. Do you think the Westfield represents a new kind of civic life in the city?

A) Sure, one without the bothersome reminders of homelessness.

B) You mean there are people who could live their whole lives inside the mall? Wow ... would you get a special discount shopping card for something like that?

C) Don't ask me. I thought the Metreon represented a new civic life in the city. Turns out it just represented the possibility that someday we might all live on Mars. Someday.


How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: We know, we know. They shouldn't call it Black Friday. They should call it Black December.

7-10 points: Not sure how to feel about the new mall? Hey, at least it doesn't have Serramonte in its name.

11-14 points: Congratulations! You're a true apologist for the new Westfield. Now go get lost on the escalators!

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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