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.
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.
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.”
And while newer malls were built with better things to offer to shoppers and visitors and its 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.
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.
*12/29/2019 update: Harrison Plaza is set to shut down by the end of this year with SM having acquired the property and set to redevelop it starting next year (2020)
Acknowledgements as well to the Philippine Daily Inquirer