When Interstate 44 was under construction in the mid-1950s, real estate developer Max Campbell was living on a quiet farm near the southeast corner of 41st Street and Yale Avenue.
The new expressway was cutting diagonally across what was then more-or-less the southern edge of Tulsa, which meant it was going to pass Campbell’s property twice — on Yale Avenue not far south of his land, and again on 41st Street not far east of it.
To Campbell, who had been building retail and housing developments in Tulsa since 1918, the convenient highway access seemed to make his farm an ideal spot for a giant shopping center. And in 1955, he asked local architect Malcolm McCune to draw up plans.
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McCune had designed Utica Square just a few years earlier and gave Campbell’s project a similar mid-century modern atheistic. A 40-foot-wide courtyard ran through the middle of the shopping center with flower gardens and fountains, and an underground tunnel let delivery trucks come and go without blocking traffic.
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The shopping center opened in 1965. But Campbell wasn’t the only ones to see potential at 41st and Yale.
The city’s first indoor shopping mall, Southroads, opened directly across the street in 1967, when a newspaper article described it as “a city within a city,” where shoppers could find everything from high fashion to housewares.
Southland and Southroads competed against each other as well as against other suburban shopping districts, especially after Woodland Hills Mall opened in 1976. Whatever advantage Southland gained from its convenient location, Tulsa couldn’t seem to attract enough retailers to go around and the shopping center struggled to keep tenants.
Southland closed in 1985 and underwent an extensive remodel that left it unrecognizable, reopening as an indoor mall with a new name: Promenade.
Southroads, ironically, took the opposite approach and converted itself into an outdoor shopping center in the 1990s.
Nonetheless, in recent years Promenade has been hit hard by a nationwide “retail apocalypse,” with tens of thousands of shops closing as consumers switched to online shopping and home-delivery services.
Macy’s left Promenade in 2017 and triggered a mass exodus of other national retailers, including Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle Outfitters and Charlotte Russe.
By 2019, the mall appeared to be 60% empty, according to the Tulsa World archives. And city officials were openly discussing “a strategy that transitions the mall and surrounding properties into an area that, while still heavily commercial, incorporates more mixed-use opportunities.”
Such an opportunity has now come.
As they try to survive in the Amazon era, malls all across the country are reinventing themselves as “entertainment centers,” where shopping is just one of the attractions — and not necessarily the main one.
In suburban Dallas, for example, Grapevine Mills Mall has Legoland and Pepa Pig’s World of Play. And a shopping mall in Dayton, Ohio, recently converted an old Macy’s store into 224,000-square-feet of go-karts, arcade games and indoor rides.
In Tulsa, a professional hockey team wants to convert the old Macy’s store at Promenade Mall into a practice facility that would include public ice rinks that could accommodate as many as 600 people.
In other words, the Tulsa Oilers want to create a reason to go to the mall other than shopping. But of course, the Promenade hopes people will stick around to do some shopping too. And maybe eat. Or see a movie.
The plan faces several hurdles, including a rezoning application that will be discussed during a public hearing this Tuesday at the Board of Adjustment. But if the Oilers get their way, the mall might finally become as popular as Campbell thought it would be.
Throwback Tulsa: Tulsa’s Promenade mall through the years