Nordstrom is Closing two San Francisco Stores. Could Portland be Next?

A long time ago, at a time of retail exuberance, Nordstrom announced it would be opening an avant-garde 300,000-square-foot Nordstrom store in downtown San Francisco’s Westfield Centre at the base of Powell St. in August 1988. 

Inside Nordstrom’s Westfield store in San Francisco

“We’ve been asked to make this a major flagship store for Nordstrom, so the quality level of the building and its merchandise is being escalated in a significant way,” Charles McKenzie, Nordstrom’s project manager, told me for a story I wrote about the company for The Oregonian that ran on June 14, 1987.

More than twice the size of Nordstrom’s downtown Portland, Oregon store, the high fashion emporium in San Francisco was expected to be a long-lasting shining beacon in the magical city by the bay.

So much for that. 

Earlier this week, Nordstrom announced the Nordstrom at Westfield will close at the end of August 2023 and a Nordstrom Rack store across the street will close in July. 

The news came on top of recent announcements that Anthropologie’s Market Street location in San Francisco will close on May 13 and Saks OFF 5TH will shutter no later than this fall.

The dynamics of downtown have changed dramatically over the past several years, and impacted customer foot traffic, Chief Stores Officer Jamie Nordstrom told The San Francisco Standard, with unacceptable levels of disturbance by organized criminals and destitute people.

Blame for the Nordstrom closures has been placed partly on the rise of e-commerce, but more on the deteriorating scene in San Francisco’s downtown core that has contributed to 20 retailers in or near San Francisco’s Union Square shuttering or announcing plans to close since 2020. 

A spokesperson with Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, which owns the Westfield mall, blamed the city for “unsafe conditions” and a “lack of enforcement against rampant criminal activity.” 

Sound familiar?

In 1977, Nordstrom Inc. took the wraps off its spiffy brand new $8 million store in downtown Portland. More than 15,000 shoppers and gawkers squeezed into the city’s newest attraction on opening day, Oct. 31.

It may have been just another store to Nordstrom, but it represented a lot more to Portland. As the first new retail building to be built downtown in 15 years, the store served as a catalyst for a spirited revival of downtown as the place to be. 

Over the next ten years, the downtown Portland area bounded by NW Glisan St. on the north, I405 on the west, SW Arthur St. on the south and the Willamette River on the east witnessed at least $906 million in new and rehabilitated commercial and residential development, compared with just $89 million in investment during 1970-1976, according to the Portland Development Commission. 

In 1982, at an Association for Portland Progress luncheon, Bruce Nordstrom, co-chairman of the company, said his company had no intention of building until he received a call from Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt. 

Pioneer Courthouse Square, which opened in April 1984, solidified the emergence of a revitalized downtown retail core. 

Nordstrom’s downtown Portland store overlooking Pioneer Square

Now not a day goes by that television, radio and newspapers don’t bemoan the deterioration of Portland’s once lively downtown.

In mid-2021, people described Portland’s downtown to The Oregonian as “destroyed,” “trashed,” “riots” and “sad.”  “Persistent vandalism, accumulating trash and homelessness have soured attitudes about Portland’s economic, cultural and transportation hub,” the paper reported. 

In a poll of people in the Portland metro area commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive, residents across the metro area said downtown Portland had become dirty, unsafe and uninviting. Many reported the presence of so many homeless people and their outdoor camping as a particular concern. 

The city had moved far too slowly, for far too long, to address critical needs said poll respondent Myrna Brown, who lived in Southeast Portland, and she wasn’t optimistic the crisis would resolve itself anytime soon.

She was right to be pessimistic. 

Downtown Portland has continued to struggle. As News Nation put it in March, “Two years after riots plagued the city, two years after a pandemic and the push for social justice collided, the model liberal enclave has turned into a social mess.”

A homeless camp in downtown Portland

Chet Orloff, adjunct professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, said Portland’s mess is partly “because we’ve been so lax in how we’ve unfortunately treated criminals, and we’ve been lax in our support of the police. That has simply allowed people to continue to damage the city.”

 In mid-April, outdoor retailer REI, citing frustrations with break-ins and theft, announced its 35,000-square-foot  Pearl District store, in place for nearly two decades,will close when its lease comes up at the end of February 2024

“You’re really betting on the future when you invest into a retail store,” PSU Professor Thomas Gillpatrick told KGW8-TV. “So what this is really sending a message to all of us in Portland, is Portland looks not as attractive as we have been in the past.”

KGW reported viewers reacting to the REI story said they were fed up with city leadership and the state of downtown.

“Yeah, this is a travesty.,” said one. “Our mayor has done nothing. All these businesses are folding up, leaving, moving on and just plain going out of business and he has done not one thing to help prevent this from happening.”

“What will it take for our elected officials to take concrete action to improve downtown and bring back the vital city I moved to in 1999?” said another viewer “I will not go into downtown Portland anymore, due to the open-air drug use, the ever-present graffiti and trash, the people passed (out) on the sidewalks, and the general sense of lawlessness that pervades downtown.”

“Whether you’re very conservative or very liberal, at some point everybody just gets fed up,” added Chris Ham, manager of Oregon’s Finest , a marijuana dispensary in the Pearl District.

How long will Nordstrom tolerate the situation in downtown Portland?

If it can abandon a flagship store in San Francisco, it can walk away from the once charming Rose City, too.


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