Named after the United State’s 1976 bicentennial, Century III Mall is an abandoned shopping center in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. The Century III Mall was built on a former slag dump in 1979. The Century III Mall planning began in 1976, opened in 1979, and closed in 2019.
It was the third largest shopping mall in the world at the time of its opening. The mall was originally developed and owned by Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation. The vacant Century III Mall is one of the sites the Pittsburgh Young Preservationists Association is targeting for its 2022 preservation efforts.
History of Century III Mall
The development of the Century III Mall began as a collaboration between the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation of Youngstown, Ohio and the Pittsburgh-based United States Steel Corporation in the mid-1970s. When the mall opened in 1979, it was the third largest enclosed shopping center in the world. The name Century III had been conceived at the time when the DeBartolo Corporation began involvement in the mall’s development during the 1976 bicentennial of the United States. Hence, the mall’s name was in respect to the third century of America’s independence.
The man-made mountain in which Century III Mall would later be built has a very storied history. Known as Brown’s Dump by locals, it was one of the symbols of industrial America. The material that formed the artificial mountain was steel slag. Slag is the by-product of the extraction of iron ore in steel production. Consisting of silicates, alumino-silicates and calcium-alumina-silicates, the material was very valuable and can be used in concrete and other applications. For over 50 years, the molten slag waste was transported via Union Railroad by insulated ladle rail cars from the mills of Pittsburgh to the industrial dump site. According to a news article in the Pittsburgh Press, an estimated 70 million tons of slag were dumped on the 410-acre site. At night, people from miles around would come to Brown’s Dump to witness the molten slag flowing down the hillside. Witnesses who saw the spectacle described it as appearing like lava from a volcano. Even those not in sight of the mountain would know when the slag was being dumped because the night sky would glow a bright reddish pink color.
In 1969, United States Steel discontinued slag dumping on the site. Portions of the land were eventually used for commercial development. The first development to take place on the reclaimed land was a 115,500 square foot Murphy’s Mart store as part of the 60-acre Bellview Plaza South development. It was developed in partnership with United States Steel Realty Corporation and opened in April 1972. The slag excavation went so well that in 1976, the United States Steel Realty Corporation decided to become partners with the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation to develop the largest mall in the tri-state region. As a result, the idea for the 1.6 million square foot Century III Mall was born. West Mifflin officials issued a building permit in January 1978 and construction on Century III Mall began later that spring. According to Joseph R. Dembeck of the United States Steel Realty Corporation, “We expect construction work to be hectic there as many of the tenants of the mall are wanting to get their stores opened by 1979.
“Workers building the mall had to use jackhammers to break through the slag. Throughout the duration of construction, remnants of the site’s industrial past were uncovered, including a ladle rail car, which was refurbished and is now on display near one of the entrances to the mall, and iron buttons, which were mushroom-shaped chunks of metal that solidified in the ladle cars and came loose during the slag dumping process. Due to abandoned coal mines beneath the construction site, real concrete had to be pumped underground before construction could begin. More concrete was said to be used in the filling of the old mines than was used in the mall itself.
Century III Mall opened in two phases. The first phase opened on October 25, 1979 with seventy-five stores. A second phase came four months later, opening March 12, 1980 with forty-six stores and a food court. During the first phase, the grand opening ceremony was well-attended, drawing an incredible amount of traffic to the mall from state routes 51, 885 and Lebanon Church Road. Thousands of shoppers from throughout the tri-state region crowded the newly opened mall as half of the mall structure remained under construction. Its original department stores included JCPenney, Gimbels, Kaufmann’s, Montgomery Ward and Sears. Three of its department stores – JCPenney, Montgomery Ward and Sears – also featured an automotive center. In addition, the mall featured an extensive array of approximately 35 eateries, including a 21-eatery food court, as well as several dine-in restaurants and specialty foods located throughout the mall.
Once fully operational, Century III Mall boasted five department stores and over 200 stores and services, which, at the time, was the largest enclosed shopping center in the Pittsburgh area by the number of department stores and total store count. The mall’s customer base was far and wide, often attracting shoppers from as far away as Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio. By 1988, the DeBartolo Corporation established full ownership of the mall from United States Steel Realty. A culmination of factors beginning in the late 1990s would eventually erode the mall’s popularity and market share, including intense competition from nearby retail developments, oversaturation of retail in the area, and the inability to adapt and reinvent itself, which ultimately led to a gradual change in the mall’s dynamics. Adding to the issue was the public’s perception of safety in the immediate area of the mall, which became an increasing concern for some local residents.
The transition of multiple anchor tenants over the years would also be a common occurrence at Century III Mall, although in its early years, there was minimal impact to mall operations as a replacement tenant was found. In 1986, Montgomery Ward would be the first anchor store at the mall to close. It was quickly replaced with Horne’s, another Pittsburgh department store retailer. Two years later, Gimbels also closed. The Gimbels space proved to be difficult to fill, as the owners couldn’t find a suitable department store anchor to occupy the space. It would eventually be split into retail space for two off-price department stores in 1993. Marshalls would occupy the upper level and T.J. Maxx occupied the lower level. Additional space was also carved out from a portion of the Gimbels building on the lower level to accommodate a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, two retailers and a new mall entrance. Marshalls would only last for about three years, however, closing in 1996. In 1997, it was replaced with Wickes Furniture. T.J. Maxx remained and was eventually rebranded as T.J. Maxx ‘n More.
In 1999, the Waterfront open-air shopping center opened for business in nearby Homestead. The complex, with more retail space than Century III Mall, quickly became the new center of retail for the area. The enclosed South Hills Village, located about five miles to the west in Bethel Park, also underwent a major renovation, incorporating a large food court among its amenities. The proximity of the Waterfront and South Hills Village greatly affected Century III Mall’s ability to retain customers. Likewise, economic turbulence in the early 2000s resulted in the bankruptcies of many retailers, many of which had stores at Century III Mall. In some cases, these spaces were never replaced with another major chain tenant and still retained their old store designs.
Lazarus, formerly Horne’s, would be the third anchor tenant to close at Century III Mall. Federated Department Stores closed the store in 1998 due to under-performing sales. It was replaced with Kaufmann’s Furniture Galleries in 2000. The furniture store, with its low foot traffic, eventually resulted in decreased traffic to stores surrounding it. It would also become increasingly difficult to find national chain tenants to fill the third floor, which was losing tenants. By 2003-2004, both T.J. Maxx ‘n More and Wickes Furniture were gone. The former was replaced with Steve & Barry’s in 2003, whereas the latter became Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2004.
The vacancy situation at Century III Mall had become apparent by 2003. According to news reports, 20 percent of its spaces were vacant.
Many of the vacant spaces were centralized near Kaufmann’s Furniture Galleries and towards J.C. Penney. Just three years later, the vacancy rate grew to 30 percent. Century III Mall was beginning to suffer from its inability to reinvent itself when market conditions changed. By 2006, Simon Property Group began making plans to sell off any malls that didn’t fit the company’s portfolio. Century III was placed on the selling block, but no buyer was found. As Simon continued to seek a new buyer, the mall’s vacancy rate continued to climb as additional stores such as The Children’s Place, CVS Pharmacy, KB Toys, Express, The Disney Store and Old Navy closed or moved to nearby centers.
Unable to find a buyer for the mall, Simon Property Group defaulted on its $78 million loan for Century III Mall in August 2011, ultimately transferring ownership to its lenders. From September 2011 to May 2013, the mall was managed by Jones Lang LaSalle. As the mall continued to languish, this also affected the mall’s assessment value, which stood at $66 million in April 2009, a 40 percent decrease from the previous $112 million in prior years. In its prime, the mall was valued at $128 million. In June 2009, it decreased further to $58 million. Moreover, the struggling mall was noted as being one of America’s most endangered malls in a published report by U.S. News & World Report.
On May 13, 2013, Century III Mall was purchased by Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital Investments, LLC, a real estate investment trust which operates other ailing shopping centers across the United States. In July 2014, a new double-decker carousel opened in the center court to encourage customers to return to the mall. A few stores and an Old Mexico restaurant also opened under the new management. Occupancy rates remained steady between 65-70 percent but dropped to 60 percent as Sears closed on December 7, 2014. Following Sears’ departure, the mall’s occupancy rate tumbled, from 60 percent to less than 40 percent by the end of 2015.
In 2015, Moonbeam announced redevelopment plans for the mall, which would’ve included a partial demolition of the complex and turning the enclosed mall portion inside out, although nothing had ever materialized. Trouble would come in earnest for Century III Mall by January 2016 as Macy’s announced it would close its store as part of a larger round of closings across the country. Macy’s departure resulted in a mass exodus of retailers to leave the moribund mall. Its occupancy rate fell from 40 percent in January 2016 to 10 percent as of January 2018.
The once-sprawling food court, previously home to over 20 eateries, is now abandoned after the last remaining food court tenant, Italian Village Pizza, closed on July 1, 2017. Old Mexico, the last restaurant in the mall, is expected to relocate sometime in 2018, leaving the mall with no food tenant. As of January 2018, only 23 stores and one restaurant remains, including anchors J.C. Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.