Davao City: Exciting Times in the South

JP Laurel Avenue, Davao City

I still vividly remember the time when the first mall opened in Davao City, two decades ago more or less. Victoria Plaza was “revolutionary” in the local shopping scene. For the first time, a multitude of shops could be found on one sprawling roof, with an attached grocery, department store and a collection of fast food outlets and restaurants. The Davaoeno was introduced to Guess!, McDonalds, and the concept of movie houses within shopping centers. It was the “in” thing, and if you wanted to strut your stuff, you head to Victoria Plaza to see and be seen.

Two decades later, Davao has moved on. Victoria Plaza has been reduced to a budget center that’s sort of on its way to becoming Tutuban. Guess! no longer makes heads turn. People no longer go to McDonalds to hang out and talk nonsense…they got cafes now. And, the young twenty-something generation no longer knows that once upon a time, movie houses weren’t attached to malls.

While I would admit that I couldn’t really call Davao’s growth as “fast”, it could be described as “steady”, helped in no small way by its much talked about peace and order success story.

During my college days, and just as I left Davao more than a decade ago, the city had two local malls, a couple of new or newly expanded high-end hotels in the downtown area, and a recently developed business park featuring the city’s first pair of high-rise office buildings. The places to be back then for the college crowd and the young professionals were the bars and “gimikans”…places where people drank beer and danced to the music of show bands, belting out Earth, Wind and Fire’s September almost every evening.

In the following years, the city gained a couple more malls. Economic activity sprawled away from the “old downtown” into areas that used to be grazing land for cows (literally), and it gained an airport that I dare say is one of the most modern looking in the country. The city also got its fair share of the country’s “BPO boom”, and office space for the fast growing industry started rising from bare ground. The young, both in age and at heart, also shed the outward craving for alcohol and went for the more refined “cafe lifestyle”, where the battle is no longer for the places that have the widest dance floors and the most “in” crowd, but rather, for the places that host the coziest chairs and the fastest Wi-Fi.

And, it doesn’t stop there. As I write this article, back hoes and bulldozers are busy at work, flattening the ground for the country’s largest mall operators and real estate developers. The country’s most prolific mall operator, SM, started testing the waters a several years ago by opening a modest mall in the south side in the city, and just very recently, rival Ayala Malls upped the game by opening a larger, and much more upscale mixed use development up north called Abreeza.

The city's sky line, seen from Abreeza.

Abreeza is the newest mall to open in the city, and I would say the first one it could really brag about. Built in the typical fashion of Ayala properties, it is part garden, part public park and part shopping/dining destination – a concept that’s due for introduction to the city. The lush greens and beautiful landscaping reminds one of the Terraces in Ayala Center Cebu, or Greenbelt Park in Manila. What’s more, Ayala brought, or will bring with it, its usual list of valued tenants, bringing Davao its first outlets of Marks & Spencer, GAP, Fully Booked, Bread Talk, T.G.I. Friday’s, Italiannis and Starbucks, among other notable newcomers…shops you would typically find only in Manila’s upscale malls. No wonder that when it opened, my Facebook news feed got filled with everything Abreeza, including praises of its design, and rants about how it smelled like paint and fresh cement (Of course it would. If you wait for that smell to go away before opening a building, it would be old by then).

While the Davaoenos are enjoying their newest playground (malls in the Philippines are all treated as such), the anticipation doesn’t end there. Within a year or so SM will again answer the challenge with a second mall not far from Abreeza, and looking at what they did with SM Cebu or SM North in Quezon City, this mall operator does know a thing or two about style as well. Who knows, maybe that new mall could also spring a surprise…like an  ice skating rink (one could wish).

Some people dismiss malls as cathedrals of materialism, or bastions of “wannabees”, but regardless of how you see it, these are reflections of a people’s spending power…de facto weather vanes of a region’s economic potential. And, judging by the confidence of the two giants to take each other on in the Davaoeno’s turf (the Ayala group especially, are pretty conservative in their ventures), it looks like exciting times ahead for my hometown.

* We last visited Davao in August 2011. All photos taken with Panasonic Lumix LX 5. More photos of Davao City below, taken from inside a vehicle.

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