Under the management of the Martel family, Harrison Plaza opened its doors in 1976. Photograph by Renzo Navarro
Culture Spotlight

One last look at Harrison Plaza, the first mall of all our childhoods

Once an upscale shopping complex, Harrison Plaza is now known as a mall stuck in the past. As the structure prepares —okay, as it idly waits— for its impending demolition, one of its habitues ruminates on what is, what could’ve been, and what should be.
Patricia Chong | Jul 06 2019

Rumors that Harrison Plaza is being closed and demolished to make way for a shiny new shopping complex have probably been around for at least 10 years. All you really need is a good look at the place to understand why: it is rundown and dimly lit, its wide wings filled up with un-curated, randomly zoned stalls all battling for space and customers. It looks straight right out of a bad day in the Marcos era because, well, it is.

 

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But when my editor asked me—a Pasay brat that pretty much grew up in Malate — to write about Harrison Plaza’s impending doom, I find myself overtaken by a surprising amount of dread. Oh, I think. It’s actually happening this time.

Over the years, the cinemas and Rustan’s disappeared in the mall, with tiangge stalls and ukays moving in.

I started going to Harrison Plaza in the early aughts, long after its prime as an upscale shopping complex. As a kid, I’d trail after my mother as she made her way past the blocks of stalls selling anything from karaoke machines and Casio keyboards to designer knock-offs and, of course, pirated DVDs. On the end of one wing, there was an SM Department Store, and on the other, a Shopwise Supermarket—it was and still is the only place you’re going to see the two under the same roof. Sandwiched in between were blind massage therapists having a go at the knots in someone’s back, a weird store selling exercise equipment and musical instruments, and even an old-school tailoring shop. When we’d come out in the evening, we’d drive out past the glimmer of Century Park Hotel and the beckoning neon lights of the now-an-SM-Hypermarket Jai Alai fronton with its massive painted figures on its façade.

The land the mall occupies had already seen its share of history at that point, going from a cemetery (Google it) to a lush green space called Harrison Park. It was a good match for its neighbors, the Manila Zoo and the still-gleaming Rizal Memorial Sports Complex—all before the City of Manila decided to have the land leased out and turned into a shopping center.

Many now consider Harrison Plaza as a mall stuck in the past.

If you ignore Ali Mall in Quezon City (which you do, if you’re from this side of Metro Manila), Harrison Plaza was the first major mall in the country. Under the management of the Martel family, it opened its doors in 1976 to a Philippines that hadn’t yet discovered its national pastime of whiling away an hour or six in an air-conditioned space that’s got it all for you. The concept of having everything you wanted and needed in just one place — rather than in many shops and establishments along bustling streets like Escolta — was simply new. And in its heyday, the mall had four cinemas, a Rustan’s and an SM department store apiece, a huge fountain, and an atrium that hosted events like fashion shows. You had foot traffic from the Sheraton hotel in Vito Cruz, Bangko Sentral across Mabini, and a few universities by Taft Avenue—this isn’t even to mention the proximity of the CCP Complex and Roxas Boulevard. How could you top that?

But soon enough, there were more malls in so many more convenient locations across Metro Manila with much the same things—only they offered more and more to get their share of shoppers. That’s how most of them are still thriving in the wonderful world of commercialism we live in today. But instead of matching their offerings and changing with the times, Harrison Plaza simply didn’t. The cinemas and the Rustan’s disappeared, with tiangge stalls and ukays moving in on the territory. Bad maintenance made the good lighting and tiling disappear until the place began to look as haunted as it probably is.

The mall that I explored as a kid hadn’t changed one bit when I found myself passing through it every day on my walks home as a college student. Heck, it seemed right out of my childhood when I finally started coming back this year to enroll in the driver’s school onsite. Harrison Plaza is not called a mall stuck in the past for nothing. And to my dismay, the streets around it have mirrored its stagnation.

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Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC.

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Over the years, bad maintenance have left the complex with a decrepit and haunted ambiance. Harrison Plaza's lease is set to end in two years, and will be taken over by SMDC. 

Forty-three years into its tired life, there are now plans to redevelop the shopping complex. The current lease for the property ends in 2021, and SM Prime Holdings is set to buy out the Martel contract with the City of Manila to manage all seven hectares of Harrison Plaza. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, it looks like another SM mall is in the works, complete with a condominium.

Looking at this place, we can only hope that this chance to start over will amount to something that will actually stand the test of time—maybe even help clean up the streets and not just sit as another property in some developer’s portfolio. Anyone still using Harrison Plaza as their stomping grounds just wants something good.

But when I look at this place and remember—killing afternoons in my favorite branch of Book Sale, staring at the Mabini art by the escalators, learning how to drive in its potholed parking lot—I can’t help but wonder if there was ever a chance for something more, instead.

 

Photographs by Renzo Navarro