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Michael Overall: How the failure of Eastland Mall still haunts Tulsa

Michael Overall: How the failure of Eastland Mall still haunts Tulsa

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About 2 o’clock in the morning, sometime in the late 1980s or early ’90s, three janitors sat down for their lunch break at Tulsa’s old Eastland Mall, which was otherwise deserted for the night.

“Do you see that?” one of the janitors asked. “There’s somebody standing over there.’`

A man wearing blue jeans and a red plaid shirt was watching them from the hallway behind the food court.

“We’d better find out what he wants,” the second janitor said. But as the three men stood up, the stranger took off.

“We started running like crazy down the hallway,” one of the janitors told a Tulsa World reporter several years afterward. “And he dodged into another hallway.”

The chase led to a dead end — “there was no way to get out,” the janitor insisted — but the mysterious man had vanished. And the incident, in various exaggerated forms, became part of Tulsa folklore as one of several ghost stories that revolved around Eastland.

The real mystery, of course, was the mall itself and why it failed.

A well-known local developer, I.A. “Jake” Jacobson, announced plans for the mall in 1969 and construction started in ’72, when it was supposed to be part of a trio of shopping centers spread across the growing suburbs. Northland had opened in the late 1950s, followed by Southland in 1965.

But Eastland’s progress stalled. Investors backed out. Financing fell through. And potential tenants hesitated to sign leases. The 750,000-square-foot building sat unfinished, a cavernous shell full of weeds and graffiti, for more than a decade.

New owners finally opened Eastland in 1986. By then, however, Woodland Hills Mall had been in business for 10 years, and south Tulsa had become the fastest-growing part of the city for both housing and retail developments.

Eastland, while somewhat successful during the ’90s, never matched Woodland Hills’s success. And the mall declined rapidly after the turn of the century. By 2005, “mall walkers vastly outnumbered shoppers,” according to the World’s archives.

More recently, however, the old mall has been enjoying new life as Eastgate Metroplex, converted mostly into office space. A New York real estate company has owned it since mid-2019 and has invested more than $6 million in the building, which is about 85 percent occupied now, according to a recent Tulsa World article.

Nonetheless, the demise of Eastland Mall sparked a chicken-and-egg debate that still hasn’t been answered: Did the growth of south Tulsa cause Eastland to struggle and ultimately fail? Or did Eastland’s troubled development help push development toward south Tulsa?

If the mall had opened on schedule in the early ’70s, Black Friday traffic might be jamming 21st Street this week instead of 71st Street.

Video: South Tulsa’s failed Galleria mall might have been ahead of its time.


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