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October 15, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, October 15, 2004

Mayfield Mall once a hot item Mayfield Mall once a hot item (October 15, 2004)

Flashpoint of current debate was a popular spot in the '60s and '70s

By Nick Perry

Few who drive by Mayfield Mall's former location at the corner of Central Expressway and San Antonio Road realize they are passing the site of one of the first fully carpeted, air-conditioned shopping centers in the country.

Fewer still realize the mall's buildings remain intact, albeit heavily remodeled. However, if you want to see them, you better go soon -- they are not long for this world.

After over a decade of use as a Hewlett-Packard Co. campus, a new chapter in the site's history is about to unfold. The city has begun reviewing proposals to build a new housing development at the site, which some nearby residents are not looking forward to. The new residential neighborhood will replace what was once the Peninsula's premier shopping destination.

A center of community life

In 1966, Mayfield Mall opened to great fanfare and thousands of Peninsulans accepted its invitation to "escape into a magic world of sheer beauty and shopping comfort." Straddling the border of Palo Alto and Mountain View, the mall took its name from Mayfield, the town that once existed between them.

The indoor, air-conditioned and carpeted suburban shopping mall was a new idea when Mayfield Mall opened its doors. Things taken for granted in malls now, such as escalators, were not a very common sight in the still semi-rural Santa Clara Valley. (To the chagrin of the mall security guard, some local youth rode the escalators just for fun.)

At the expense of downtown Castro Street, residents flocked to the mall to fill their daily shopping needs and soak up its modern and stylish ambience.

Unlike today's mega-mall "shopping towns," Mayfield Mall had a uniquely local vibe to it. Except for its anchor, J.C. Penney, and a handful of national chains, most of the tenants were locally-based operations.

The mall housed its own Hart's Department Store, a venerable San Jose institution since 1866. Joseph Magnin, a women's clothing store based in San Francisco, was located just inside its main entry. The list of smaller tenants included names of stores that relocated from Castro Street, like Kitty O' Hara, or were new locally-owned businesses.

Mayfield Mall was also a center of community life. Throughout the year, it housed dozens of exhibits and local festivals. The Friends of the Mountain View Library held its annual book sales there. The annual Charity Bazaar, Peninsula Photo Festival, floral exhibits, dog shows, mini-circuses and cultural festivals all took place in the mall.

Even an early attempt to create the world's largest burrito occurred at the mall. (Back then the goal was just 52 feet. When Mountain View finally did get around to setting the world record in 1997, the burrito was 3,500 feet long).

The end of an era

So why did the mall close? New malls including The Old Mill, Sunnyvale Town Center and Vallco Fashion Park, and newly expanded malls like Stanford began to give the comparatively small Mayfield Mall tough competition.

Like a well-loved sitcom that went off the air before its ratings dropped, in 1983 Mayfield Mall's owners decided to close the center before its competition did it for them.

Residents of the adjacent Monta Loma neighborhood tried to prevent the mall from closing and being converted to an office park. The local media mourned Mayfield's closure; headlines read, "Even a mall may not be permanent" and "Closing 'our mall' will leave us feeling somewhat empty."

But in the end, the mall's doors were shut, its bright '60s style banners were taken down, and its landmark tower sign with its trademark "M" logo was bulldozed. Conversion of the mall into H-P offices was completed by 1986.

Just as many had predicted, the mall's closure left a gap in the city. To this day, there is not a pleasant place to walk around and shop without breathing in car exhaust in Mountain View. However, the closure did set the stage for the eventual revitalization of downtown Mountain View and the center of community life has shifted back to Castro Street.

And in an ironic twist, the very malls that drew customers away from Mayfield are facing similar fates. The Old Mill is a distant memory, Sunnyvale Town Center is slated for demolition, and Vallco Fashion Park is just barely hanging on. Unlike Mayfield, these malls have disappeared slowly and painfully.

Mayfield closed before the glamour had completely faded, forever ensuring that it will be fondly remembered by residents who once walked along its air-conditioned and carpeted corridors.

Nick Perry is a resident of Mountain View. He is currently an urban studies student at UC Berkeley and on the board of the Mountain View Preservation Alliance.

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