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Part 1: The history of Kirkland's Totem Lake Malls
The Totem Lake Center was touted as completely modern and the only air-conditioned and all-weather climate controlled malls on the Eastside when it opened in 1973. Built in a style reminiscent of a Native American longhouse, the malls featured hand-carved benches and a Native American motif that drew shoppers from all over the Eastside.
“It was very exciting,” said Bill Woods, who was Kirkland’s Mayor from 1969-73. “We were convinced it was going to be successful.”
Woods said that it was such a hub for the community that some of the older generation, 20 or 30 a day, would meet at the malls to walk around and visit with each other: “It became a gathering place.”
But the differences from opening day until now are stark.
Many Kirkland residents have asked why Totem Lake Malls, as it is known today, continues to struggle while other Eastside developments have thrived such as Redmond Town Center, Woodinville Town Center, Crossroads Mall and Bellevue Square.
The Reporter will publish a five part series on the site that was once the pride of Kirkland. The series will include what is going on now, a look at the two owners and the lawsuit between them, the decline of the site and the economic impact to the city and residents and what might lay ahead for one of the most important pieces of real estate in Kirkland.
This week we will explore the history of a mall that was originally called Totem Lake Center.
A lake unseen
Totem Lake Center had a huge impact on Kirklanders’ lives. It even had an impact on the small lake that rests a stone’s throw to the southeast, which is blocked from view by a line of trees on Totem Lake Boulevard during the summer and businesses on the north side of N.E. 124th Street.
“I tell everyone who will listen, Totem Lake was named Lake Wittenmyer ...,” said Kirkland Heritage Society President Loita Hawkinson. The lake was named after Walt Wittenmyer, a former logger and city clerk in Kirkland. “It did have an Indian name before that but I do not know it.”
In Kirkland’s earliest days the lake and surrounding wetlands became part of local lore. Hawkinson said the lake’s name was changed a third time in 1964 to Lake Watstine, but the reason is unclear. Mudd Lake was a nickname that stuck until the construction of the mall.
Jerry Rutherford lived near Mudd Lake in the 1950s. She said in an interview with the Kirkland Heritage Society, published in the January 2009 newsletter, how children were kept away from the lake by telling them the bodies of all the people that fell out of boats were on the bottom.
The name was officially changed when developers did not want to build near “Mudd Lake.”
Developing the center
The mall was the second phase of a large project proposed in 1968 that consisted of the construction of Evergreen Medical Park, which included the current hospital and some apartment complexes. “Totem Lake Center is a new concept. It’s a total living environment,” the president of the Puget Sound Land Company, John Stuart, told the Eastside Journal newspaper in 1972. The PSLC was the original owner of the land and the $3 million development. “We hope, eventually, one can bike or walk to all these facilities. They’ll all be in one place.”
The 220,000-square-foot center was designed by Richard C. Bouillon & Co., which also developed the Lake Forest Park Center in 1964.
“We went through two or three developers,” Woods recalled.
There were originally some issues with building the mall, since nearly 600 acres drained into Mudd Lake at the time, leaving just 16 acres to develop. The wetland and lake, which was sold to King Conservation District in 1979 by the mall developer, would eventually encompass 26 acres.
Richard C. Bouillon & Co. chose a theme that would resonate for years.
“It was built to resemble a longhouse and had a neat Totem Pole sign,” said Hawkinson. “The pole is still there inside the Totem Lake sign so that the sign could remain ... heights are grandfathered in if the same sign is used.”
The Native American designs were done by Kenton Pies, a Northwest artist, in wood, by hand and with power tools.
“The high cedar-shake covered beams and sky-lit ceilings will add to the openness of the mall,” reported the newspaper.
In the early days, the mall held special events with a Native American theme, including Indian Summer Days that featured a salmon bake, tepee construction, tribal dancing and a tepee encampment set up on the upper mall lawn. Parking could accommodate nearly 1,000 cars.
“I remember when the Totem Lake Mall opened,” said current Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride. “There used to be a large clothing chain called Rhodes, and my mother bought a dress for my first junior high dance there. The Totem Lake Mall was full of activity and it was so exciting.”
And while Bellevue Square was the big shopping center, Totem Lake was a huge addition for the Eastside, opening in May of 1973. The opening was attended by many dignitaries, including M.L. Bean, the owner of the Pay N' Save Corp.
“I am very excited about the new center and hope it will regenerate traffic back to the Eastside,” Woods told the newspaper in 1972. “This will do the Kirkland businessmen good, some housekeeping needs to be done. We welcome you to Kirkland.”
First mall occupants
Getting tenants was not easy at first.
“We struggled to get local businesses to move in because the area was under-developed,” said Woods, noting the chicken farms and small ranches that surrounded the malls.
“The anchor was the Pay ‘n Save (Company’s) chain with Ernst, Malmo, Schuck’s, Lamont’s, Sportswest and Pay ‘n Save Drug,” said Hawkinson.
Pay ‘n Save featured a pharmacy, large cosmetic area and a large sound and camera department.
Lamont’s at Totem Lake, which was a family clothing store, was only the sixth in the Seattle chain’s history. It eventually had 70 stores nationwide.
Schuck’s Auto Supply, which is the 21st in the chain’s history, remained on the property until last fall when it changed its name to O’Rielly Auto Parts and moved across the street from the original mall property.
Kirkland resident Cynthia Jones was one of the first employees hired to work at Ernst Hardware when it opened. Malmo was the nursery for Ernst.
“Ernst was brand spanking new, sparkling, and I answered a local ad to work there,” Jones recalled. “Ernst hired everyone at once, bringing in some management temporarily to set the store up.”
The cash registers were state-of-the-art, she said, and “people paid as much using cash as using a credit card. Ernst, Pay ‘n Save and a restaurant were there, and that was about it. No other shops had come in yet.”
A second mall was later built across 120th Ave. N.E. The street still divides the two malls.
“They had to do that because Evergreen Hospital needed access from the south at the time,” said Woods, who noted there was no exit ramp to the north off I-405.
“Denny’s has been a part of the mall since the opening of the upper mall in 1974,” said current owner John Fleshman, who began working at his brother Dennis’ store when he was 13 years old and purchased the business in 1985.
The first year of the upper mall did not go as planned. A 20-foot section of roof collapsed into Olsen’s Market Place in October of 1974.
Jake Meyers, manager of Olsen’s, said a weak beam breaking under the weight of water build-up was the probable cause, but the damage was not major, reported the Journal American in 1974. Roof problems would become a running theme in later years with Totem Lake Malls.
The addition of the upper mall brought 35 new shops, increasing the total number of businesses and services available at Totem Lake to about 70.
The project, originally built in unincorporated King County, was annexed into Kirkland in 1974.
“It was a big development for Kirkland at the time,” said Woods. “Our Planning Department just could not handle it.”
John Spangenberg, Kirkland city planner from 1970-1979, said that during this time with the city, the malls were not the primary focus.
“The big question mark was related to the hospital,” said Spangenberg. “A lot of focus went into the hospital and surrounding land in terms of supporting facilities nearby.”
The rest of the Totem Lake neighborhood was incorporated by Kirkland in 1993.
The 1980s and beyond
A big addition came in 1980 when the Totem Lake Cinemas opened. One of the first big movies to be played at the theater was “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The cinema was a big deal and had positives and negatives for the other businesses.
“It used to be really busy every Friday night, but we had absolutely no parking out here,” said Fleshman, who recalled seeing the movie "Top Gun" at the theater.
The cinema has since been converted into one of the only Bollywood theaters in Washington State.
“Funtastic Shows used to put on a carnival in the lower mall once a year,” said former City Councilmember Santos Contreras. The malls were also known for hosting a circus and many other events. One of the more interesting stores in the upper mall was Turbo Tube, a water-slide and swimming pool business, where customers could glide down an actual water slide.
Fleshman recalled the only major upgrade in the mall’s history took place in the late 1980s with a new faćade being installed and most of the Native American motif being covered over. The current Wells Fargo Bank, which began as Capital Savings Bank, in the parking lot of the upper mall is the only remaining business with the original Native American motif on the site.
Roof issues continued with the malls into the 1990s during the infamous inaugural day windstorm of 1993. Looking out the front window of his business, Fleshman remembered when the windstorm ripped a portion of the roof off the lower mall.
The malls began to decline in 1996 when Ernst closed, due to the company’s bankruptcy issues. Since then, Totem Lake Malls has steadily lost tenants and gained a dubious reputation.
Fleshman said that Pietros Pizza used to occupy the space between Denny’s and the Trading Post in the upper mall: “That space has been vacant for over 15 years.”
The mall featured hardwood parquet floors for the first three decades, but they would be replaced after a roof collapse in 1997 due to snow, which triggered sprinklers that destroyed the unique aspect. The collapse temporarily closed 12 stores in the lower mall. The flooring was replaced with ceramic tile.
The malls original ownership sold the site in 1998 for $25.8 million to AMB Property LP. The property was then sold one year later for an $8.2 million profit to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, according to King County tax records. Since then, the malls have been sold one more time in 2004 to the current owners, Coventry/DDR. Neither of the current owners or their lawyers returned numerous phone calls and e-mails from the Reporter.
A third strip mall with five storefronts was eventually developed in 1994 that is currently located between 405 and Totem Lake Boulevard. The Reporter could not completely verify the actual date of construction. Tax records show the land being purchased by The Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority in 2004. The building has the same architectural design as the malls.
Land in the parking lot of the upper mall was sold off to Washington Mutual, now Chase Bank, in 2008 according to tax records.
Some of the stores that have populated Totem Lake Malls: Book Market, Big 5, Car Toys, CompUSA, Chevron, Computer City, Chase Bank (Washington Mutual), Denny’s Pet World, Diss-igns Northwest, The Dried Poppy, Ernst Hardware, Eagle Furniture Outlet, Famous Footwear, Family Christian Stores, The Frame Up, Gottschalks, Guitar Center, Grab Bags, Hallmark, Halloween Express (seasonal), Jay Jacobs, Key Bank, Lamont’s, Malmos, Mondo’s Espresso, Miniature Golf East, New Attitude Beauty Supplier, National Bank of Commerce, Old Country Buffet, Payless, Piccolino Deli, Pietro’s Pizza, The Pretzelwich, Ross Dress for Less, Pay n’ Save, Rite-Aid, Rapid Refill Ink, Radio Shack, Racquets Club-Sports Court of America, Seattle Sporting Goods, Shady Lady, Shoe Repair Shop, Sweet Shop, Schuck’s Auto Supply, Sleep Country USA, Sit ‘N Bull Pub, Sakran Teryaki, State Farm, Standard Oil Company, Top Dog Styling Salon, Totem Lake Florists, Totem Lake Furniture, Totem Lake Cleaners, Totem Lake Cinemas, Totem Book Shop, Totem Lake Tire and Automotive Center, Trading Post, Trader Joe’s, Travel Unlimited, Thrifty Foods Supermarket, Trinity Training, Tuoi’s Olympic Tae Kwon Do Center, Two Men and a Truck, Vitality Health Products, Verizon, Vern Fonk Insurance, Wells Fargo.
Look for the Reporter’s second part of this five-part series next week.
Editor Carrie Wood contributed to this report.