City of Manila

Of Bygone Days and An Uncertain Future: The Saga Of Harrison Plaza

Before there was the mall, there was a park. Harrison Park as it was called and it was a pretty wide open green space. It served as breathing space in the midst of the growing congestion in southern part of the city. It also served as a natural extension to the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex located right across it as kids played football and softball in the greens. There is also Manila Zoo nearby, which made the park a children’s zone for play and fun. You can imagine how big the old Harrison Park was.

Unfortunately, the bigwigs at Manila City Hall (the land where the park is located is city government property, by the way) decided that the park had to give way to a commercial complex, the Harrison Plaza we know today which opened in 1976, a short while after the opening of Ali Mall.

When Harrison Plaza first opened, it was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first airconditioned shopping mall the City of Manila has ever had, right at the heels of the successful opening of Ali Mall earlier that year. At a time when Manila was beginning to lose its luster as a commercial and business hub with the emergence of Cubao, (which itself would fall into decline by the 1990s) Makati, and Ortigas Center, many hoped it would be the shot in the arm the city needed to at least maintain that luster.

At its heyday, there used to be some children’s amusement rides located in this area

In addition to the mall, there was also a hotel and (during the 1990s) a jai-alai fronton site during its brief revival in the city in the late 1990s. So the land was leased to pave way to this development in the 1970s. At its height, Harrison Plaza was a go-to place for those living in Malate and nearby Pasay City. It was not much a standout then but it served a purpose to be a commercial hub for that part of the city, especially given its proximity to Roxas Boulevard and Manila’s tourist belt that stretched from Intramuros to Malate.

The former Jai Alai fronton in Harrison Plaza

Unfortunately, like many things that have befallen in the city, Harrison Plaza did not manage to keep up with the changing times as it now finds itself less relevant than before as it faces an uncertain future with the promise of “redevelopment.”

The old fountain area; the fountain no longer in operation

And while newer malls were built with better things to offer to shoppers and visitors and its commercial contemporaries like Ali Mall went through a makeover to keep up with these changes, Harrison Plaza sadly remained stagnant. There was nothing added that would have excited shoppers and visitors. While it still enjoyed some foot traffic, (given its strategic location) it soon became a joke of itself as it was “trapped in the past” so to speak. Not to mention the environment surrounding the complex has become quite unpleasant as well with urban decay, squalor, and disorder all around.

It is ironic that the people behind this mall, the Martels who happen to be the ones behind the high society magazine Philippine Tatler could not bother to give even a tinge of class in the mall itself. Then again, maybe they don’t seem to really care about it anymore. Not to mention there are reports that the Martels are being cheapskates with their rental payments to the city government, denying some additional revenue the city direly needs at the moment.

Shopwise, one of the establishments that have opened here in recent years that has kept Harrison Plaza alive, despite the fact SM decided to compete against it by putting up a Hypermart branch in the complex as well.

Now there are plans of possibly redeveloping the Harrison Plaza complex as the current lease for the property will be ending by 2021. It remains to be seen whether the Martels will make a bid for the property at least through an extension of the lease. But a new player has entered the picture, the SM group with a redevelopment plan of its own that it is proposing. SM has a longstanding stake in the complex thanks to its significant presence there with an SM Store branch (which was opened in the 1970s, long before they began building shopping malls themselves) and an SM Hypermarket branch at the site of the old Jai Alai Fronton. Reports say SM is in talks to purchase the property from Manila outright; should those talks bear fruit, SM plans to demolish the whole complex and rebuild a new one from scratch. What is SM’s plan? A shopping complex (of course) with BPO office buildings, not unlike its development at the SM Bay City complex with the Mall of Asia and eCom buildings.

The story of this place we know now as Harrison Plaza has become a story of the city as well, great potentials ruined by a drive for short-term gains that became long-term liabilities. And now that there is a a chance to “start over” as far as this property is concerned, we can only hope that it will take into account long-term and sustainable development plans for the property that will benefit all parties, not only the city and the possible developers but also the public who deserve more sustainable projects in the midst of a congested and poorly planned metropolis.

 

Acknowledgements as well to the Philippine Daily Inquirer

6 Comments

  • JB Rodriguez

    My childhood was basically spent in that mall. I live and went to school around the area and I have great memories of it. It pains me to visit HP nowadays, it looks like that old friend who just gave up on life. But with Robinson’s and Mall of Asia nearby, it’s really hard to keep up with the times.

  • Hannah Neemus

    We cannot dispute the fact that Harrison Plaza is the only mall that housed the then masa SM and elite Rustan’s all in one roof.

  • Benay Barairo

    Being a long time resident of Adriatico St. (formerly Dakota), my fond memories long before Harrison Plaza brought me back where me and my brothers used to play among the talahibs and the nearby creek beside Manila Zoo. The area used to be set up with peryahans during summer and a battle field of various notorious gangs like Bahala Na Gang, OXO, Sputniks, etc.Over the years, especially the 80’s and 90’s, HP became the hub of arcade games like the Pacman, Space Invaders, Galaga, Donkey Kong, and others where half of my childhood was spent. I’m just looking forward that when these developments come, at least I could have a share to have an investment.

  • ron d.

    I hope they’d come up with new ideas of renovating the area and not build another SM. What the city needs are open spaces with trees and green spaces.

  • sd

    Harrison Plaza was the prime shopping hub in the late 70s. It was the first fully air-conditioned mall in the Philippines and housed the biggest department store – “Shopper’s World” and the most popular supermarket that time : “Queens”.

    I think you missed mentioning that Harrison Plaza caught fire in 1979(?) and was subsequently shut down to be renovated, unfortunately for those prime businesses inside the mall then, most of them never got the chance to retain their positions in the mall. SM and Rustan’s eventually took over the main attractions within the mall, and anchored its re-opening in 1984. When it caught fire in 1979, Harrison Plaza…first to boast of having multi Cinemas, the Philippines’ biggest Department Store, several local brands, and a huge supermarket was in its prime, it even had a recreation centre and Arcade (Did I mention the majestic fountain in the middle? all the rage during those times). It was the most advanced and sophisticated shopping complex in the country. Way before Ayala malls, SM malls, Robinsons malls came to life. If the fire did not happen, and Harrison Plaza kept on updating and improving it’s facilities and services – Harrison Plaza would’ve figured even until this day. Maybe not anymore the go to place and the apple of the eye of the Manilenos, but would still be a good choice for malling since it is strategically located with DLSU, St.Scholasticas, and offices and hotels nearby…unfortunately, the owners probably got tired of ‘managing’ the place and she now has become a 3rd class shopping center. I miss the glory days of Harrison Plaza what a waste it has become…

    ** My dad was an industrial partner and Operations Manager of Shopper’s World

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