Faced with obsolescence, Lloyd Center — a Northeast Portland shopping center that opened in 1960 — pulled a classic Portland move: It got creative. The “punk rock mall” now hosts only-in-Portland events and houses homegrown retailers that have found passionate followings. In doing so, Lloyd Center is attracting a new generation of shoppers looking to support local businesses and experience the off-kilter, counterculture spirit of Portland. Here’s how those changemakers are waking up the once-sleepy mall.
Curious to learn more about Lloyd Center? Here’s the skinny on the largest mall in Portland.
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History of Lloyd Center Mall
When it opened in 1960, the open-air Lloyd Center mall was among the country’s largest shopping centers and represented a seismic shift in Portland retail — drawing shoppers out of downtown proper and into the city’s eastside, where they could buy clothes, see the dentist and grab a meal all in one stop.
In the early 1990s, Lloyd Center kept pace with newly constructed suburban malls by evolving into a fully enclosed shopping center. For years, the mall served as an after-school hangout for local teens while its ice rink welcomed casual skaters and Olympic hopefuls (such as Tonya Harding). Eventually, online shopping largely replaced trips to the mall — forcing most of Lloyd Center’s biggest tenants to close their doors and leaving the mall a shell of its former self. (One thing that never changed? Shoppers of all ages have always indulged in Joe Brown’s Carmel Corn, a mall staple since the beginning.)
This was not the end for Lloyd Center Mall; in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, new management stepped in to reimagine a future without big-box stores. Today, the mall is undergoing yet another transformation — a celebration of and investment in Portland’s makers, entrepreneurs and artists.
Portland-Based Businesses Find a Home in Lloyd Center
In the summer of 2022, Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics, was looking to relocate his Old Town Chinatown comic book shop. Around that time, he saw that other small, local shops had recently moved into Lloyd Center — and were enjoying success in the new space.
Sensing that something unusual was happening, Leivian visited Lloyd Center himself and was quickly taken with the grassroots energy surrounding locally owned small businesses. Today, some of the mall’s unlikely tenants include Brickdiculous Shop & Gallery (an independent shop dedicated to all things LEGO), and Family Photo Studio (which puts a kitschy spin on the old-school portrait studio experience). “I think it was just the potential of creating this, like, neighborhood — this new community — in the mall,” he says. “And how weird and fun would that be?”
Floating World Comics opened in Lloyd Center soon after Leivian’s visit, breathing new life into the 16-year-old business. “We’re definitely seeing new families and random people coming in because they were at the Lloyd Center for some other reason,” he says.
It’s not just newcomers capturing the attention of families and mall walkers, either. In 2019, Alex Gamboa Grand and Lindsay Janssen Smith launched an online store for Way of Being, their low-waste health and wellness company, before spearheading a holiday pop-up at Lloyd Center. The pop-up enjoyed so much success they soon opened a permanent shop on-site.
Long before co-founding Way of Being, Gamboa Grand had worked at another mall — and swore she’d never do so again. But she noticed Lloyd Center’s commitment to local businesses and got excited to join the movement. “It’s what makes Portland cool,” she says. “It’s what makes Portland a special place. To me, this was a new vision of what a mall could be — one that’s actually reflective of the community.”
Today, in addition to running an online store (and in lieu of keeping regular hours), Way of Being uses its space to host community events and pop-ups that support local companies. “It’s its own creative use of what stores in the mall have traditionally looked like,” she says.
Secret Roller Disco and Other Events Create Community in Empty Storefronts
Even the mall’s still-empty stores are part of its locally minded renaissance.
When the COVID-19 pandemic became an inescapable part of our daily lives, friends Francesca Berrini and April Hasson wondered how they would safely see their loved ones. The pair eventually decided on roller skating as a pandemic-friendly activity, later laying the groundwork for Portland’s Secret Roller Disco. More than two years after its first event, the Secret Roller Disco moved into its biggest, best-known venue when it threw a free, 1990s-themed skate party inside an empty Marshalls department store at Lloyd Center.
“It’s so fantastic to see how joyous it is,” Berrini says. “It’s got a real DIY feel. When you’re in there, you can tell we’re not a real roller rink; we’re something else.” Today, Berrini says 60 or more skaters participate in each upbeat event, generally held at parking lots and elementary schools around Portland; rentals are typically available from the Rose City Rollers Skatemobile, and a local DJ provides a blistering soundtrack.
Though the Secret Roller Disco rolls through a variety of local Portland haunts, other Lloyd Center events attract visitors year-round. During the 2022 holiday season, shoppers strolled through the Mall Rats Art Market for locally made prints, paintings, ceramics and other gifting goodies. An art pop-up dubbed chimaera.site/afk was featured in May 2023. And throughout the first half of 2023, Lloyd Center welcomed the International Art Festival, featuring artists and makers from countries like Nigeria, Mexico, Morocco and more — events included one-act plays, cooking classes, dance and poetry.
The eclectic events and boundary-breaking use of space at Lloyd Center show no sign of stopping. The former Marshalls will be reinvented yet again as the site of a summer camp for local kids. And new interesting, innovative events are always on the horizon — keep an eye on their events calendar for more.
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