Joe Henderson: Wrecking ball can demolish University Mall — but not the memories

From first jobs to first dates, University Mall became a mini-community and changed Tampa.
Published Feb. 28, 2019

When we think of our shared history here, places like Ybor City and West Tampa probably come to mind. There is the Tampa Bay History Center and the Plant Museum at the University of Tampa. The fight to preserve important remnants from the past is a righteous one.

But another important link to the way it used to be is slowly disappearing. Recently, demolition began on the University Mall in North Tampa. Like Tampa Bay Center and East Lake Square Mall, it once was a center of activity for thousands.

It opened in 1974, four days before I started working at the Tampa Tribune. I lived out by USF in those days and the mall quickly became one of my go-to places.

It bustled with activity during the Christmas season. It was a gathering spot to grab a bargain from any of the 165 stores that occupied its 1.3 million square feet of retail space.

You could catch a bite and brew at Mr. Dunderbak's, which opened its first pub at the mall.

You could go to a movie. I saw Grease there.

People got their first jobs at the mall. They took dates to the mall.

That mall is where I interviewed the great Oscar Robertson at a book-signing in the Robinson's department store. The Big O, as he was known, was the Michael Jordan of his day.

They get breathless on ESPN when a basketball player has a game with a triple-double (for non-sports types, that means reaching double figures in scoring, rebounding and assists). Piffle. Oscar became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season.

Shoppers that day had no idea who he was as they filed past him looking for this or that. But I knew who he was, and so we chatted for 20 minutes or so in the middle of that store and he was great. I remember thinking he was somewhat bemused that no one besides me seemed to know who he was.

But that was the essence of the mall. You never knew who you might see or what might be happening. The malls changed Tampa. They became mini-communities, a place to see and be seen. Important news happened at those malls.

Tampa Bay Center is where a news conference was held that revealed talks had collapsed with a local would-be ownership group to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That led the way for Malcolm Glazer to purchase the team.

Over the years though, we know what happened to these gleaming structures with water fountains in the atriums. Where it once was normal to battle for a parking space and fight the crowds at Sears and JCPenney, the advent of online shopping made that unnecessary.

A movie? Crank up your home theater system and hit the on-demand button. You even save money on the popcorn and drinks.

To be fair, many malls are doing OK. Westfield Brandon, which to me will always be the Brandon Town Center, seems to do a brisk business most of the time. But the overall trend is not good for malls and the big-name stores that anchored them.

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Even the tradition of meeting people at the mall is being replaced by social media.

University Mall will soon become something called Uptown, a mixed-use technology, life sciences and research project.

I'm sure it will be a wonderful addition to the community.

Conversions like this are taking place all over the country. Former malls are finding new lives as medical facilities, office parks, and so on. Some are being renovated and some are being bulldozed in the name of progress. That's what you have to call it, I guess.

But 40 years from now, I wonder if people will have fond memories of how a drone delivered their Christmas purchases?

Not a chance.