Power Plant Mall

The Saga of Rockwell’s Power Plant Mall

As we have seen here in the Urban Roamer, Metro Manila has changed rapidly over the past 30+ years. Even during the past 12 years of the Urban Roamer, there have been so many changes that have occurred that some of the places featured here before would warrant an update somewhere down the line.

But going back to the topic at hand, among these transformations that have occurred in the metropolis over those past 30+ years, one of the most stunning (if not the most stunning) transformations that we have seen is the one in Makati when a former power plant was transformed into a modern commercial hub that rivals the Makati CBD which is just a few kilometers away, mind you.

Rockwell rises

The 1950s saw the Philippines recovering from the ravages of the war a decade prior. With the recovery came the growth of the metropolis that we know today as new developments were rising outside the boundaries of the City of Manila and prewar posh neighborhoods at what is now south Quezon City, (which by then had been proclaimed the country’s capital) San Juan, Pasay, and Mandaluyong.

The most notable of these developments is Makati, a former hacienda farmland being developed by its Zobel de Ayala landowners to become this modern city. Businesses were being enticed to set up office around the former Nielsen Airfield and families were encouraged to move into the different residential development that began to prop up at the time, villages like Forbes Park, Dasmariñas, and Bel Air to name a few.

With this changing and growing demographic, the energy consumption of this burgeoning metropolis was growing swiftly. To meet this growing demand, the Manila Electric Company (MERALCO) proceeded to build a thermal plant, to be built on the northern portion of Makati near the Pasig River. Yes, at that time MERALCO was not just distributing power, it was generating power as well. (i.e. building power plants) before National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) took over the generation part in the 1970s.

Photo of Rockwell Thermal Plant complex in 1965 (courtesy of the Museum of MERALCO History)

The power plant would be named Rockwell, in honor of MERALCO’s first president, James Chapman Rockwell. It was completed by 1961 and its completion helped usher the growth of Makati into the premier business and commercial district that we know today. It was also a turning point for MERALCO as well as it would be the last major project completed under the company’s American ownership before Eugenio Lopez Sr. took over the company the following year.

A sudden end and prolonged dormancy

For the next 10+ years, the Rockwell Thermal Plant served not only as a landmark at this part of the metropolis, but also a symbol of progress. However, it was a flawed symbol at that. Looking at the map. Rockwell Power Plant was sandwiched between residences on the left (Poblacion Makati), right (Guadalupe Viejo), and south (Bel-Air). Given the dangers a power plant can pose, Rockwell was a ticking timebomb in danger of going off. And sadly, it did in 1973.

On December 14. 1973 a huge fire engulfed the Rockwell Thermal Plant. It was one of the worst fires the metropolis witnessed as it involved huge chemical-induced flames that required special firefighting equipment which had to be sourced from the then-US military base in Clark Field. Fiery debris reached some residences damaging at least the roofs. The fire would only be extinguished 23 hours later, at the cost of 3 lives, all firefighters.

Rockwell Thermal Plant after the 1973 fire (image courtesy of Manila, Manila on Facebook)

The event left a deep scar that MERALCO (which had a management change a year prior in the wake of Martial Law) closed down Rockwell completely and was left dormant for 20+ years. Meanwhile, no new power plants would be built within the metropolis as power plants were built far away from the metropolis this time around.

Rockwell reborn

In the wake of the People Power Revolution in 1986, the heirs of Eugenio Lopez Sr. managed to take control of MERALCO again, including the dormant Rockwell site. There were initial plans to reopen the plant but the residents surrounding the plant, still traumatized by the fire, vehemently opposed to this. So in 1995, the Lopezes decided to bring new life into the area. Under the family’s newly-formed development firm Rockwell Land, plans were unveiled to redevelop the site into a commercial and business hub, the first that would arise to challenge the near-monopoly of the Ayalas in Makati. And the old thermal plant structure would serve as the commercial hub of this new development which was to be called Rockwell Center.

The mall, aptly named the Power Plant Mall, would be opened on December 28, 2000 and was immediately a hit among the community that used to live in fear of the old plant and beyond. While the original mall structure was not as large as the malls being built around that time (its retail area corresponds to that of SM Makati), the 4-level mall (+3 underground parking levels) was the “it” place because of its upscale feel that rivalled Shangri-La Mall. It also had this Mediterranean-Pacific ambience which gave a warm feel, accentuated by the palm trees and the roof which allowed natural light to shine through at daytime.

Power Plant Mall was one of the first shopping malls that practiced the concept of “adaptive reuse” which meant the reuse of an existing building for a purpose other than which it was originally built or designed for without totally demolishing the structure. Interestingly, the mall opened months after the demolition of the Jai Alai Building in Manila, purportedly to give way to a Manila Hall of Justice that has not yet materialized until now, despite calls from cultural activists and conservationists to preserve the historic landmark and still make use of it for some other purpose…you know, adaptive reuse. Seeing what has been accomplished with Power Plant Mall was a welcome but bitter moment for what could have been for the Jai Alai Building.

The Power Plant Mall in the 2000s was the place to be, with tenants such as the massive Page One bookstore (which would become Fully Booked), Starbucks with its alfresco cafe environment (the first in the country), Play Underground with its massive wall climbing area that scaled from the lowest of the basement levels to near the ground level, and the alfresco dining area which was teeming with patrons, especially on weekends.

Fun fact: Fully Booked originally occupied two levels, which Zara now occupies

The mall expands

Changes in the retail environment in the 2010s changed the landscape of Rockwell and Power Plant Mall. The former massive Fully Booked branch which was an anchor of the mall had to be downsized with the decline of bookstores. On the other hand, more retailers were coming in and the mall was becoming too small to accommodate them.

An expansion of the mall was undertaken beginning in 2014 which expanded the mall eastward, with three additional floors. Plans are also being made for a residential tower named Balmori Suites on top of the expansion part of the mall. One drawback though is that the expansion and residential tower does not complement well with the original architecture of Power Plant Mall, giving the whole area an uneven look.

Balmori Suites atop the Power Plant Mall expansion

Despite this, the extension of Power Plant Mall managed to match the ambience and look of the original mall, though it may seem to be too on the nose, so to speak. Indeed, one may think the extension may be reminiscent of another extension project, the East Wing of Shangri-La Mall.

The significance of Power Plant Mall

While it is easy to overlook Power Plant Mall in the context of the thriving (to a fault) retail environment, there is no denying how significant this mall has been in the development of the metropolis.

For the Lopezes that already achieved success in power distribution and mass media, Power Plant Mall helped them gain a foothold in a competitive retail development industry with an impressive and formidable project, which led to a string of successful property developments like Santolan Town Plaza.

For those who appreciate the metropolis’ past, Power Plant Mall was proof that past and present can coexist despite big business and developers saying otherwise. Indeed, it was a marriage of past and present done right. Sadly, it is a rarity even to this day as the past continues to be obliterated in the name of progress.

With the changes going on in the area, here’s hoping that the Power Plant Mall remains this unique landmark that will inspire the future development of the chaotic metropolis.

Acknowledgements as well to the Manila Standard, ABS-CBN News, Wikipedia, SkyscraperCity, and Talonggo

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