The age of the shopping mall is ending. The age of innovation has come—and we have front-seat tickets to the change. Northgate Mall was the country’s first-ever shopping mall, and now it’s leading the way in adapting to new, 21st-century demands.
Northgate Mall opened in 1950 as the first post-war, suburban shopping center in the United States. What began as an open-air collection of 18 stories quickly grew—by 1952, it included 70 stores, the Northgate Theater, and a four-story medical/dental building. Predating what is now the food court, the mall even had its own supermarket. Developers put a roof over everything in 1974, fully enclosing the shopping center and making it more like the Northgate Mall we know today.
Northgate Mall led a national shopping trend. Giant, suburban malls sprung up throughout the country, each surrounded by a seemingly endless parking lot. Mall culture peaked in the mid 1990s when, 1,500 shopping malls dominated the U.S. retail world.
But then—the Internet. Other factors contributed to malls’ decline, too, but online shopping fundamentally changed the retail experience, to the detriment of mega-retail. Today, only 1,000 malls remain in the country, and many of those are losing tenants, feel like wastelands, and face a choice: adapt or die.
Northgate Mall chose to adapt. It’s adapted very well.
Recognizing their shrinking customer base, and admitting the unnecessary cost of using valuable real estate for unused parking spaces, Northgate Mall tore up parts of its parking lot and made them useful again. Those parts now house LEED-certified apartments, a medical center, senior housing, and more.
My favorite of Northgate’s adaptations, though, is the new light rail station. Northgate Mall is in the process of trading parking for public transit—a forward-thinking view that should work out nicely for them, especially if ST3 retains its funding. The new Northgate Mall light rail station will open in 2021, linking the once-suburban shopping center to the rest of Seattle. In just 14 minutes, customers will be able go from downtown to the Northgate Mall. No traffic or parking necessary.
Other malls are surviving by adapting, too. Some try to become “destination malls,” imitating Mall of America’s roller coasters and status as a cultural icon. Others are transforming themselves into “ethnic malls” that target one specific community. Most, though, are turning to the same multi-use techniques as Northgate Mall.
As malls see major department stores close, some are letting unconventional organizations move in: organizations that need lots of square footage and ample parking. The newcomers include gyms, public libraries, churches, and medical clinics.
The smaller shops between the department stores are changing, too. These spaces are becoming apartments, indoor farms, DMVs, town halls, and a number of other venues.
Food courts, formerly filled with cheap, low-end chains, are reforming themselves into groups of high-priced restaurants. Other food courts have turned into daycare centers and spaces for community groups.
And as for those endless parking lots: they’re the perfect space, many malls are realizing, for farmers markets, outdoor concerts, or other community events.
This is the future of American’s malls. It’s a future less about shopping and more about community (after all, we can shop from home, but we need to leave the house to find community). Like anything that fosters community, I’m all for it.