In Nov. of 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Portlanders took another hit with the announcement that the Lloyd Center shopping mall might be closing its doors for good. Many mourned the assumed closing of the mall, but the announcement proved premature.
“The pandemic hit, and so a lot of people panicked, thinking [Lloyd Center was] closing, and then people started leaving,” said Eric W. Mast, the owner of Dreem Street, a shop in the Lloyd Center. “It was basically just a bad rumor, and the news of its [Lloyd Center’s] death was greatly exaggerated.”
Many people “missed the follow-up story,” said Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics and new resident at Lloyd Center. “That a new owner… stepped in to essentially save the Lloyd Center from demolition.”
In Dec. of 2021, Tom Kilbane told the press that he had a goal to revitalize the mall in two years, but since then the press has been mostly silent about this process—until now.
“There is, like, a two-year period right now where they’re offering these reduced rents for local businesses,” Mast said. “It’s definitely a specific moment in time, that’s kind of why I feel like it’s an interesting thing to get involved in just because it might be very temporary.”
While the owners have not nailed down the exact timeline, local businesses—specifically art-centric businesses—are taking the leap and are excited at the opportunity the space holds.
“The longest lease they can offer right now is two years,” Leivian said. “But the goal for those two years is to essentially do what we’re doing now, which is revitalizing the retail space… Once that phase is done, I know that the owners have a five to 15-year plan, which probably does involve transforming the way that this space is used. We don’t know what that entails, but I know that they have some very big ideas.”
Leivian went on to say that the owners hinted at moving the local art-centric businesses to a particular part of the mall, but at the moment future plans are just speculation.
As of right now, however, all the artists are excited about the space. “It feels like the sky’s the limit,” Leivian said. “Like whatever you can imagine. Come do it at the Lloyd Center.”
Leivian’s business, Floating World Comics, has been around for 16 years and was a staple of downtown Portland, where they offered “not only mainstream genre comics but also… independent comics, underground comics, self-published… and international comics,” according to Leivian. Leivian held out for two years in downtown Portland, but ultimately realized that his current path was unsustainable and he could no longer wait for things to fix themselves on their own. He had to act.
Dreem Street was started in 2007 when Mast and his friend Matthew Chambers decided to exchange art between the two of them via mail, and then turned it into a business. They have done mostly mail orders with pop-up shows in New York, Los Angeles and even the former Floating World Comics space in Old Town, Portland.
While Mast never had plans to open a space, his experience living and working with other artists during COVID-19 made him long for an artistic community. So when the opportunity to lease the space in Lloyd Center presented itself, he jumped on it. “It was just this opportunity that doesn’t ever happen, where I would just be probably bummed if I didn’t do it,” he said.
For differing reasons, both of these businesses needed a place to call home, and with the rise of inflation and everything trying to return to business as usual, artists and small businesses struggled to recover or even to relocate. “What made Portland?” Leivian asked. “You know what it is, and it’s always been—artists. And what allows artists to do what they did in the past? It was cheap rent… If you wanna keep Portland weird, keep the rent cheap.”
Yet many buildings downtown sit empty because it seems that landlords would rather have an empty complex than lower the rent on their units, with seemingly one exception—the Lloyd Center.
“Everywhere else in town when you’re looking at rent for commercial spaces, most places have gone back to pre-pandemic levels, right?” Leivian said. “The narrative is—pandemic, it’s over, we got the vaccine, so we’re just going to say things are back to normal and hope that everything falls into line. But I didn’t feel like that was congruent with reality. And then I look at a place like the Lloyd Center… they’re offering affordable rent, understanding that we’re in a different situation. That things are not back to normal.”
Things in Portland are very much not back to normal, and Portlanders are far from happy with the state of their city. Yet so many are trying to return to business as usual while so many others are still hurting.
Leivian said that he lost his passion for doing the work he used to love so much, until the Lloyd Center came along and reinvigorated his work. “It took something to re-energize me,” he said. “It took something for me to get inspired. I needed a new project, you know, to dive into, and that’s what this new store is. I feel very inspired to make something here.”
Leivian and Mast both have big hopes and dreams for their spaces. “In my wildest dreams, I wanna see more and more of the local businesses that I love in Portland moving in here and bringing all their energy,” Leivian said. “We’re going to do comic shows down on the first floor, big art exhibits, pop-up art exhibits and Hollywood Theatre already reached out to me, and they have this 15-foot inflatable screen that they do for movies in the park. So we’re gonna bring that here, do some movies in the mall… I feel like it’s just beginning, like all this has happened in the last, like, six weeks.”
While the city still has a long way to go on the side of east Portland, at least one might witness some hope, a light in a difficult and dark moment in history.
Leivian said he hoped to see a new rush of creative work in the wake of the pandemic. “You imagine that a lot of people and artists did a lot of reflecting during that time on what’s important to them and what’s valuable to them in their lives,” he said. “So I hope that we see just a great outpouring of art now that we’re able to come out and express ourselves again and see each other again.”