Lloyd Center becomes Portland’s new arts district

In November 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Portlanders took another hit with the announcement that the Lloyd Center mall might close for good. Many mourned the alleged closure of the mall, but the announcement turned out to be premature.

“The pandemic hit, and so a lot of people panicked, thinking [Lloyd Center was] closing, then people started leaving,” said Eric W. Mast, the owner of Dreem Street, a Lloyd Center boutique. “It was basically just a bad rumor, and the news of his [Lloyd Center’s] death was greatly exaggerated.

A lot of 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 December 2021, Tom Kilbane told the press that he aimed to revitalize the mall in two years, but since then the press has remained silent on this process – until now.

Entrance to the Lloyd Center. Jeremy Hayden/PSU Vanguard

“There’s, like, a two-year stretch right now where they’re offering these reduced rents to 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 with just because it could be very temporary.”

Although the owners haven’t set an exact schedule, local businesses, especially art-focused businesses, are jumping on the bandwagon and excited about the opportunity the space presents.

“The longest lease they can offer right now is two years,” Leivian said. “But the focus for those two years is basically to do what we’re doing now, which is to revitalize the retail space…Once that phase is over, I know the owners have a five to 15 year plan, which probably involves transforming the way this space is used. We don’t know what that entails, but I know they have some really big ideas.

Leivian went on to say that the owners had suggested moving local art-focused businesses to a particular part of the mall, but at the moment future plans are just speculation.

Entrance to Floating World Comics at the Lloyd Center. Jeremy Hayden/PSU Vanguard

Right now, however, all artists are excited about the space. “It’s like the sky is the limit,” Leivian said. “Like anything you can imagine. Come do it at the Lloyd Center.

Leivian’s stuff, Floating World Comics, has been around for 16 years and was a staple in downtown Portland, where they offered “not only mainstream genre comics, but also…indie comics, underground, self-published comics…and international comics,” according to Leivian. Leivian held out for two years in downtown Portland, but eventually realized his current path wasn’t viable and he couldn’t wait for things to fix themselves. He had to act.

Dreem Street started in 2007 when Mast and his friend Matthew Chambers decided to exchange art with each other by mail and then made a business out of it. They mostly did mail order with pop-up shows in New York, Los Angeles, and even the former Floating World Comics space in Old Town Portland.

Inside Floating World Comics at the Lloyd Center. Jeremy Hayden/PSU Vanguard

Although Mast never intended to open a space, his experience living and working with other artists during COVID-19 made him yearn for an artistic community. So when the opportunity to rent the Lloyd Center space presented itself, he jumped on it. “It was just this opportunity that never happens, where I’d probably be disappointed if I didn’t,” he said.

For different reasons, both of these businesses needed a home, and with rising inflation and everything trying to return to the status quo, artists and small businesses struggled to recover or even to relocate. “What made Portland?” Leivian asked. “You know what it is, and it always has been: artists. And what allows artists to do what they have done in the past? It was cheap rent… If you want to keep Portland weird, keep the rent cheap.

Yet many buildings downtown are empty, as it seems landlords would rather have an empty complex than lower the rent on their units, with one exception: the Lloyd Center.

Entrance to Floating World Comics at the Lloyd Center. Jeremy Hayden/PSU Vanguard

“Everywhere else in town, when you’re looking at leasing commercial space, most places are back to pre-pandemic levels, right?” said Leivian. “The narrative is – the pandemic, it’s over, we have the vaccine, so we’re just going to say things are back to normal and hope everything is back to normal. But I didn’t feel like it corresponded to reality. And then I look at a place like the Lloyd Center…they have affordable rents, knowing that we’re in a different situation. That things have not returned to normal.

Things in Portland have not returned to normal, and Portlanders are far from happy with the state of their city. Yet many are trying to get back to business as usual while so many others are still suffering.

Leivian said he lost his passion for the work he loved so much, until the Lloyd Center came along and reinvigorated his work. “It took something to re-energize me,” he said. “I needed something to inspire me. I needed a new project, you know, to dive into, and that’s what this new store is. I feel very inspired to do something here.

Entrance to Floating World Comics at the Lloyd Center. Jeremy Hayden/PSU Vanguard

Leivian and Mast both have high hopes and dreams for their spaces. “In my wildest dreams, I want to see more and more local businesses that I love in Portland move here and bring all their energy,” Leivian said. “We’re going to do first floor comic shows, big art shows, pop-up art shows, and Hollywood Theater have already contacted me, and they have this 15-foot inflatable screen that they make for movies in the park. So we’re gonna bring it here, make movies in the mall… I feel like it’s just getting started, like it’s all been happening in the last six weeks.

While the city still has a long way to go on the east side of Portland, at least there could be some hope, some light in a difficult and dark time in history.

Leivian said he hopes to see a new wave of creative work in the wake of the pandemic. “You imagine a lot of people and artists have been thinking a lot during this time about what’s important to them and what’s valuable to them in their lives,” he said. “So hopefully we’ll just see a great outpouring of art now that we’re able to come out and express ourselves again and see each other again.”

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