Century III Mall - West Mifflin, PA | ExLog 14, 35 and 36
The Century III Mall is a titan in the dead mall community. Still standing, yet abandoned, it remains one of Edward J. Debartolo's finest malls, and a masterclass in retail architecture. I've visited this mall countless times, most trips to just walk around the space taking it all in. But on a few of these trips, I filmed the mall, including the inaugural Dead Malls of Discord Summit back in 2018.
The first video I produced on this mall was in February, just months before the first DMOD Summit:
This was nearly 60 episodes ago, and I still made my fair share of mistakes in my videos back then...one of which was the block of no video right at the beginning of the video. I accidentally clipped the video, and the screen was black for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Sorry about that...
But, in a bit more of an egregious error, I seem to have fumbled the history slightly, and I'd like to clear that up in this blog. I'll be typing out the rough script I had for this episode, but with the corrections made. For your consideration, the history of Century III Mall:
In 1913, Carnegie Illinois Steel Corp, which was part of the US Steel Corp, purchased 410 acres of land to use for dumping slag, which is the by-product of smelting metal from its raw ore, and is disposed of when in a molten state. The Pittsburgh Steel industry was booming, and the slag dump, which became known as "Brown's Dump" had been a symbol of America's industrial age.
People would come from distant locations to watch Union Railroad slag trains dump their molten waste continuously for over 50 years, day and night. The show was especially brilliant at night, as it resembled several bright streams of molten slag, which looked just like lava flowing down a mountain.
Ultimately, Brown's Dump was a slag pile weighing over 70 million tons, towering West Mifflin at over 200 feet tall, and spanning what would equate to over 130 city blocks. Dumping here ceased in the late 1960's.
In 1969, USS Realty Development (which was a division of US Steel) took control of Brown's Dump and began looking for an alternate use for the land. By 1974, 25 acres of land were cleared, and a few businesses opened at the foot of the slag heap. Then, in 1976, USS Realty formed a partnership with the Edward J. Debartolo group of Youngstown, Ohio. They cleared another 110 acres of land, and made plans to open a shopping mall on the site. Taking inspiration from the start of America's third century as a nation...the first being 1776-1876, the second being from 1876-1976...They decided to kick off the 1976-2076 century, our third as a nation, by naming the mall Century III.
The first construction permits were granted for the $2.8 million JCPenney building on June 18, 1978, and on October 10, 1978, the first steel laying and superstructure work began on the $100 million, 1.6million square foot Century III Mall, complete with 6000 parking spaces, and even a skatepark for locals to shred gnar. I'm still trying to track down pictures of this fabled skatepark, and if you have any, please leave a comment, or reach out to me at DMOD!
The grand dedication for Phase 1 of the mall kicked off on October 25, 1979. Serving as the first senior anchors were a JCPenney and Kaufmann's, along with 75 in-line tenants, and multiple eateries. The following year, on August 1, 1980, Gimbel's opened as the third senior anchor space. A few months after Gimbel's opening, the Phase 2 dedication was celebrated on March 12, 1980. At the Phase 2 ceremony, a 3-floor Montgomery Ward opened as the fourth anchor, along with 46 new in-line tenants. Just a couple of months after Wards came to the mall, a Sears opened as the fifth senior anchor.
It was in the 1980's and 90's that the most tumultuous shakeup would occur at Century III for anchor spaces. The first anchor to change hands was the Montgomery Wards, which was replaced by a Joseph Horne Department Store (Horne's) on October 30, 1986. According to locals, the Horne's was beautiful and overwhelming. It was the product of an $11 million renovation to the space, and out of every mall I've ever visited, the area around the former Montgomery Ward's - turned - Horne's is my favorite space inside any mall I've seen. It used to feature small waterfalls in the planter wells, and still retains the old streetlamp style lights, even today in its abandoned state.
By 1988, Gimbel's had closed, and would sit abandoned for 6 years. Then, in 1994, TJ Maxx opened in the bottom floor of the old Gimbel's space, while a Marshall's opened simultaneously on the top floor. It was also in 1994 when we saw Horne's close, to be reopened as a Lazarus Department Store the same year. One year later, Kaufmann's was acquired by Federated Department Stores Lazarus division, however the parent company chose to keep the Kaufmann's masthead in place, and not to redevelop the store.
It was in 1996 that one of the biggest mergers would occur in the world of real estate, which was several years in the making. While both DeBartolo and the Simon group wanted to take their companies public, the markets wouldn't have been able to handle both happening at once...so Simon went first in 1993, and decided to give Eddie DeBartolo a couple of years, which would help ease both companies into their respective IPO's. But, in 1996, it was decided between both parties that a merger would benefit them both, and the Simon Property Group acquired the entire DeBartolo portfolio for a whopping $3 billion, of which Century III was included, along with its $80 million mortgage.
If there's one thing that I can thank Simon for, its for not ruining the original aesthetic of Century III. Simon is notorious for renovating malls into super bland, white walled monsters of mediocrity. But they chose to spare Century III, and I'm grateful for this, despite the mall eventually closing. The Marshall's closed around the time of the merger, and the next year in 1997, a Wicke's Furniture Store opened in its space in (the top floor of the former Gimbel's).
Right at the end of the 20th Century, things at Century III took a turn for the worse. In 1999, the Waterfront Shopping Center opened in nearby Homestead, which directly siphoned traffic away from Century III, causing many tenants to vacate, and even more shoppers to choose the newer retail outlet. After the turn of the millennium, we saw another change in anchor tenancy, when Lazarus shuttered in 1999, turning their store into a Kaufmann's Furniture Store in 2000. The TJ Maxx would close a few years later in 2003, with Wicke's Furniture closing in early 2004. Both spaces would quickly fill again, when Steve and Barry's opened on the bottom floor of the former Gimbel's space, and a Dick's Sporting Goods opening on the top floor, both in mid-2004.
By 2006, the Century III Mall had a fair market assessment of $150 million, and at this time Federated Department Stores chose to convert the Kaufmann's over to a Macy's. They did the same with the Kaufmann's Furniture in the old Montgomery Ward space, converting it to a Macy's Furniture at the same time. A couple of years later, Steve and Barry's filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, and liquidated all of their stores, leaving the top floor of the old Gimbel's space abandoned in 2008. One year after this, Macy's Furniture would shutter, leaving the former Montgomery Ward completely abandoned in 2009.
Simon defaulted on their $79 million Century III mortgage loan in 2011, and by 2012 the market assessment for the mall had plummeted to $27 million. Deciding to just cut ties and get out while they still had some equity left in the mall, Simon sold Century III to Moonbeam Capital in June 2013 for a meager $10.5 million. In a not so surprising move, a mass exodus of tenants left the mall after Moonbeam took over. One year later, Sears closed their doors on December 7, 2014, and Macy's followed suit two years later in 2016, leaving both anchor spaces abandoned. You can catch the video of my tour through the abandoned Sears here:
By the late 2010's, only a handful of in-line tenants remained, and the only anchors left were the JCPenney, and Dick's Sporting Goods on the top floor of the old Gimbel's, and by 2019, I published the sequel to my first Century III experience, culminating in ExLog 36:
In January of 2019, it was reported that aside from JCPenney and Dicks Sporting Goods, the only remaining inline tenants were New Dimensions Comics, the Massage place, two nail salons, Life Uniforms, Century III Travel and the Vape shop. The vape shop has since announced it's departure, along with Life Uniforms. The massage place had a tarp up in front of the entrance, yet claimed to be open, and you have to flip a coin on whether or not Century III Travel was open on any given day. Then, in the beginning of February 2019, there was a burst water main that afflicted New Dimension Comics. Water was gushing inside the store, and the Mall Manager was helping the comic shop staff move stock away from the back of the store, to avoid water damage. Working to protect the stock, and while carrying a folding table amidst the spouting water, the table collapsed, some ceiling tiles fell, and the Mall Manager suffered a leg injury, for which stitches were administered. The manager made a complete recovery. However...just a couple days later, on February 6th, the West Mifflin Borough slapped signs on the front of Century III which read "Unsafe and Uninhabitable Structure...This structure is UNSAFE and UNINHABITABLE" and that the signs will stay and closure effective until the mall is repaired, vacated, or demolished in accordance with the notice.
On February 7th, Moonbeam was granted the ability to borrow $5 Million from Columbia Place Mall SC LLC...which they also own. Moonbeam stated that they would use this money for repairs to the mall, and as of February 10th 2019, Moonbeam officials were on site with contractors actually working on repairs! However, Moonbeam then faced some legal troubles with the mall, with harsh litigation for the first water main break, in debt to the cleanup company for over $800k which they failed to fight in court. On top of the first cleanup bill, and the newly borrowed $5Mil at 3% interest, they still owed Sears $4.2 million after failing to buy back the department store location when Sears terminated the lease early. Sears won the lawsuit, and by mid 2019, Dick's pulled out. The mall itself shuttered the doors to its concourses just after Dick's departure, leaving JCPenney as the last remaining retail option at the mall. But, it just wasn't viable any longer, and with the dead mall community rushing to the mall to capture a photo from within the Penney's of Century III's dying palm trees from afar...the Penney's finally closed on October 26, 2020, leaving the mall completely shuttered.
Century III mall is legendary, and I have a profound sense of saudade when I think of it. Of course it wasn't my local mall, it was a 4 hour drive for me...but I made that drive countless times just to be able to walk around inside, maybe to pick up a comic or two at New Dimensions, or to sit and stare at the empty fountains. Century III is currently abandoned atop shifting slag, in extremis. It is at the point of death, and Moonbeam let this property fail. Plans to demolish the structure have been announced, but if we've learned anything from Moonbeam's management style...the mall will sit abandoned for years.