County residents react to Tanforan mall closing

The decades-old venue will be transformed into a biotech campus, housing


Christian Carlo Ceguerr

After the third transaction, Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. (ARE) officially owns The Shop at Tanforan’s retail space and food court

After 51 years of serving as a staple shopping destination in San Bruno, The Shops at Tanforan will soon close after it was bought by a Pasadena-based real estate developer.

Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. (ARE) from Los Angeles envisions turning the 44-acre lot into a biotech campus and housing units. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the Bay Area to be a “bright spot” in the biotech industry as the region’s a great source of graduates of “well-educated graduates and research opportunities from UC Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF.”

The Peninsula Museum of Art exhibits artworks curated by students from the San Francisco School and pieces donated to the organization inside the mall since May. Volunteer art ambassadors Vivian Walz and Billy Kaktis said that rumors of the mall closing have been on the air for a while now.

“It’s not surprising because we’ve seen the way that malls have been going with online shopping becoming such a dominant way to purchase,” Walz said. “And, of course, we’ve seen the decline of shopping in general over the course of COVID-19.”

“It’s more like confirming speculation,” Kaktis said. “I heard about it like, three or four months ago, and I’ve been kind of talking to people here in the mall.”

Over the summer, San Bruno rolled out its redevelopment plan to revitalize “Tanforan as a modern, mixed-use development that includes office, hotel, retail, entertainment, and housing.

Former Skyline student Bella Cortezzo works at one of the retail stores in the mall. She said that she was aware of the rumors through the years, but working at the establishment and witnessing other stores close only confirmed her suspicion.

Cortezzo described Tanforan to be a “dead mall,” as it struggled against its competitors like Serramonte Center at Daly City and Hillsdale Shopping Center at San Mateo.

“I feel like people only come to Tanforan for Target, the movies and Barnes and Nobles,” Cortezzo said.

Business management student Andrew Jimenez felt a “bittersweet” ending with the mall’s denouement after learning that it was bought.

“I used to hang out there with my friends after school on Fridays, get some food, watch a movie, go home,” Jimenez said. “It’s kind of sad seeing that kids won’t get to experience that similar experience.”

Aside from being sentimental, San Mateo County residents are also concerned about how the redevelopment might gentrify San Bruno as a whole.

Cortezzo said that changes might affect people who commute using public transportation. The Shops at Tanforan serves as a convenient stop and nearby transfer point for different transportation systems like SamTrans buses, CalTrain, BART and the San Francisco Airport (SFO).

Skyline College custodian Israel Angeles expressed his opinions on the development of housing units at the estate.

“I’m afraid of all the apartments, they didn’t want to build any more like single-family houses,” Angeles said. “My concern is about the rent. People, they can’t afford.”

The property was bought for a total of $328.5 million, broken down into three transactions, as reported by The Mercury News. Alexandria first acquired the JCPenny sector, followed by the Sears’ and the mall’s galleria.

Before buying the San Bruno Mall, Alexandria also purchased properties from Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

The mall historically served as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Recently, the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee is set to construct a memorial plaza outside San Bruno BART station, with a bronze statue in honor of two girls who were imprisoned at that time.

The assembly committee, together with the Contra Costa Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), sponsored a photo exhibit inside the same station, documenting the internment of Japanese Americans through the lens of renowned photojournalists Dorothea Lange and Paul Kitagaki Jr.

The bronze statue of the memorial plaza was based on one of Lange’s photographs. Their works have been displayed since April 2012.