Amid a midtown Anchorage mall’s rebirth, is downtown retail in decline?

The new Carr’s grocery store at the Midtown Mall on opening day (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

It is the middle of a workday. But you might never know that, because it is packed inside a sparkling, brand new Carr’s grocery store in the southeast corner of a Midtown mall. There are long, snaking lines at the hot food counter and the Kaladi Brothers Coffee stand, and there’s a constant, low-level traffic jam by the parking lot entrance.

Anchorage resident and former state representative Eugene Kubina wanted check out the newest grocery option in town.

“I live closer to another Carr’s but I was driving by and I just thought, ‘Well, let’s go to the new store today.’ And it’s impressive,” Kubina said, pushing a cart through mounds of onions and seasonal gourds.

Anchorage is seeing a shift in retail shopping. After surviving a tumultuous few years, this commercial complex, formerly (and sometime still) called the Sears Mall, is at the heart of a business boom in the city’s midtown district. But earlier this year, Sears left. Now, the Midtown Mall, as it’s been re-named, has secured several prominent tenants and is seeing a steady increase in traffic. In the wake of a major department store closure this year further north at the 5th Avenue Mall, some residents are wondering if shopping downtown is on a permanent decline.

Related: After 44 years, Nordstrom store to leave Anchorage

After its namesake of 51 years left, the mall’s commercial prospects were grim. But on this particular Wednesday, the mood was celebratory in the new store.

“I’m glad this happened,” Kubina said. “You just hate to see places sit empty.”

This branch of Carr’s could fairly be described as upscale. There are a lot of health foods, plastic bins full of mushroom varieties priced by the pound, and produce you rarely encounter in Alaska, including black radishes, yellow tentacled Buddha’s hand, and a spiky oblong orb called a jackfruit.

It is something of a coincidence that the opening of a Carr’s grocery store marks a return to prominence for this sprawling commercial building. As recently as 2015, the same franchise had a branch on the other side of the mall. The property sat mostly empty until it got a big boost this past January, when outdoor lifestyle store REI took over the large lease. That’s where Ruth Take came from on a break, not expecting the big crowds.

“I came over on my lunch to get some Kaladi Brothers, and the line was like wrapped around and way out,” Take said, holding a pre-made sushi roll.

As both as an employee and a resident, she says she is thrilled with the building’s latest tenant.

“The mall is slowly improving,” Take said. “I hated it when it was Sears, I never came here.”

She is far from the only one happy to see the retail complex’s fortunes turn around. Amid a very busy day, the mall’s marketing director took a break from hanging Christmas decorations.

“This is Santa’s House, so right now I’m just putting the garland on it,” said Amber Musso, exiting the basket of a cherry picker.

For a long time, the commercial outlook at the mall was rocky, Musso said. Businesses left. New ones spent months renovating. And people who were used to coming to a particular destination for specific stores stopped showing up. But according to Musso, things look a lot better now. In between the anchor stores are a number of smaller businesses, including new ones set to open soon.

“I feel like we weathered the hard times, and now we’re back in the swing of things,” she said. “It’s very exciting, and all the tenants are excited as well.”

These developments are good for the Midtown Mall and surrounding areas. And they are in stark contrast to the downtown commercial district, where Nordstrom’s closed up shop in September after decades as a local shopping institution.

“I think it’s stagnant,” said Anchorage Community Development Authority director Andrew Halcro of the downtown area.

There are a couple of good explanations for this, according to Halcro. For one, it’s costly to develop properties downtown. That has not been the case in the last few decades for other parts of Anchorage like midtown, or neighborhoods in the south and east areas of town, so new businesses have had a lower barrier to entry there.

One of the biggest economic stumbling blocks downtown, though, is a lack of housing.

“Unlike midtown and south Anchorage, where people live in those areas or they’re traversing them to get home, people leave downtown,” Halcro said.

He and other planners see the goal of economic efforts downtown to make the area a destination, whether that’s for food, shopping or cultural events. But, as someone who commutes through Midtown on his way home, Halcro said he understands the appeal of grocery and retail stores along some of the city’s busiest traffic corridors.