This Ain’t Indiana

Northgate Mall Aerial

I  have this dream.  Others share it, too.  Northgate Mall as we know it today: vast surface parking lot, underused retail, no housing on site, pedestrian dangerland, becomes a memory.   In its place is a vibrant, attractive, walkable, mixed-use community with retail, housing (including affordable housing), office space and open space.

Northgate Mall was the first shopping mall in the United States, built just after World War II when Americans left their core cities empowered by automobiles and the Federal Housing Administration with a dream of single-family homes with green lawns and ample parking.  That was two generations ago.  The world we live in now is as different from 1950 as 1950 was from 1890.  The City of Seattle population has grown.  And, we understand the impacts of over-reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.

We are investing billions to bring light rail to Northgate and the City of Seattle has invested over $50 million in recent years in a library, community center, parks, a p-patch, the new Thornton Place Water Quality Channel and street improvements in Northgate.  As taxpayers, we should expect the return on that investment to be richer than an easy way to get from the U District to a shopping mall.  We should a complete transit-oriented community where residents can live, work and shop, without relying on a car. We should be creating transit-oriented development on the current King County transit center surface parking lot.  We should be moving forward on the proposed Northgate Way rezone and urban design framework.  And, more than anything, we should move forward with a complete redevelopment of Northgate Mall.

Lorig Associates and Wallace Properties recently completed projects in Northgate that are forward thinking.  But, without a larger vision for the entire urban center that includes rethinking the Northgate Mall property, these piecemeal developments will not be enough to transform the area to a transit-oriented neighborhood.

Environmentalists, urban planners, pedestrian activists, community organizers, and property owners (including single family property owners) in Northgate would like to see a new vision for the Northgate Mall property.  Let’s start this discussion for real.  We should begin the dialogue with Indiana-based Simon Properties, the current Northgate Mall owner.  While they have not been progressive in the past, maybe times have changed.  And, if they are not willing to come to the table, perhaps they would be willing to sell the property to new owners who have a different vision and are able to transform Northgate to its full potential and to give all of us proper return on our investment.

Northgate Mall Ground

37 Responses to “This Ain’t Indiana”

  1. Thomas

    Renee has this right. The Northgate parking lot wasteland is in stark contrast to thriving shopping districts with families and etc. Just redesigning the parking lot to include more lush walking areas leading from the main building to the adjacent projects (Northgate North, the library/community center, Thornton Creek) would really improve the desirability of this property and the neighborhood as a whole. Walking to the mall from the north or east also needs big improvement. Sidewalks, better separation from traffic, and more trees would help. And property values would climb. But there are many choices for dense and affordable, but clean and attractive housing. We need 2 things – good development and good citizens.

  2. Lance

    Really good thoughts.

    I’d really like to see some demographics describing where Northgate Mall’s customers drive from. Is it even feasible that this could be a self-sustaining mall/retail without people driving in from other locations, relying only on a local community via pedestrian or light rail access? Also, having communities centered around a shopping mall just sends off alarms in my head… if anything, that sounds like 1960’s thought…

    But, I guess the mall isn’t going anywhere, so might as well make the best of it given the set of circumstances.

  3. Jon Morgan

    I work right by Northgate, and this area definitely has to be overhauled. Given the transit center’s existence, and the use of the mall as a node for so many things, I was very surprised the first time I walked through the mall–decidedly underwhelming and small, a real waste of land.

    These ideas are raw, but every time I walk through that mall, I think how I’d fix it. For starters, rip off the roof, enclose the stores’ fronts, and add housing above them. You could extend it north-south and create a really great pedestrian space. Fountains, outdoor performance space, benches, etc. The outrageously huge parking lot(s) need to be filled in with useful things too. I don’t know if that means completing more of the street grid through the site, adding green space, adding housing (though that seems to be what Seattle most needs), or adding jobs or shopping. If it’s to succeed as a transit node, my guess is that the “neighborhood” needs many more jobs at its core than it has now.

    Northgate Way and 5th Ave NE definitely need to be more bike- and pedestrian-oriented too. I walk from south of 100th St. to Target, and I’m driven nuts by the closed sidewalk on 5th and the ridiculously laid out crossing signals and “no crossing” signs on Northgate Way. I won’t ennumerate all the details, but it’s a disater if you’re not in a car. In the short term, we need a crosswalk on the east side of the street (3rd?) across Northgate Way, a shorter wait time to cross the road there, and it’s idiotic to have a median in a 5-lane, high speed road with a fence and “no crossing” signs. The fences should come down and a real crosswalk between 5th and whatever that western access is. You’ve got destinations facing each other, plus a good median to wait on, and you ban peds from crossing there? Stupid with a capital S. No amount of signage would do it. Fences would, but they’re ugly and I don’t see why we’d want to do this, other than to make it easier for cars to speed through there without paying attention. I wonder if Northgate Way would be appropriate for a road diet.

  4. Jon Morgan

    Simon is in Indiana, but I can see their HQ is in downtown Indianapolis. Which is where I was born. And IN went for Obama. So it’s not like they’re in Muncie or South Bend; they should be somewhat familiar and open to these issues.

  5. Matt the Engineer

    [Lance] I don’t see this changing all at once. Change zoning immediately, and start building upwards with housing. As housing fills with people to shop, start replacing parking lots in stages. Build highrise housing on top of retail, and design for walkability. As Link ridership builds, Northgate will be an attractive destination if it’s walkable once you’re there.

    It would be crazy to go from all parking to no parking in one step, but slowly replacing cars with people sounds like a winning strategy to me.

  6. Jon Morgan

    This is what the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, VA looks like from above: It also is near a major highway and on top of a rail station. Far less parking, though in this case I don’t know how much housing really surrounds it. I took the Metro there all the time when I lived in DC. I can’t say whether the Metro station or the mall came first, but they’re quite well integrated.

  7. alexjonlin

    I completely agree. It would be wonderful to replace that with mixed-use development. It would also be great if they could break up that block, it’s way too long.
    I was thinking along similar lines the other day with the University Village. It has actually turned itself into a very vibrant place, with people out on the sidewalks in the mall sitting and eating ice cream, and many people eating in restaurants and shopping. If we could just replace those parking lots with mid-rise mixed-use development and leave wide pedestrian thoroughfares throughout the complex, that place would actually be quite incredible.

  8. Renee

    Great comments!

    Jon, Thank you for the links.

    I agree with Matt the Engineer that a project of this scale would need to take place in stages and that it would take a number of years to fully realize Northgate’s potential.

  9. Jon Morgan

    For sure, but we shouldn’t let that push us into a myopia of thinking small. You can’t do too much too quickly, but you also can’t go piecemeal without a coordinated vision or goal of the end result. Look at the massive transformation trying to happen at Tysons Corner! As Daniel Burnham said, make no small plans. :)

  10. david

    @Lance – this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for (demographics for where Northgate customers drive from) but your question reminded me of a survey that the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce conducted. They were trying to figure out what neighborhoods people visited etc, and of course they focused on Capitol Hill. But one thing the survey found was that there was a strong Capitol Hill – Northgate connection. They asked what neighborhood people visited outside of Capitol Hill; out of Seattle residents as a whole only 5% chose Northgate, but among Capitol HIll residents 21% chose Northgate. Not sure what this means exactly… but I guess for one, it’ll be a lot easier to get rid of parking once light rail is open between Capitol Hill and Northgate.

  11. Chad

    I like this discussion. With the recent public improvements, the City seems to be pushing Northgate into the mold of a traditional urban village like Greenwood or Lake City. But it doesn’t fundamentally have the features, i.e. fine-grained, pre-war development with a tight street grid, that make these centers work.

    Perhaps a better model for Northgate is downtown Bellevue. They have the same starting point – centered around an enclosed shopping mall that is surrounded by strip malls and superblocks. But in the past ten years Bellevue has transformed into an urban environment with a profusion of high-rise offices and homes and multi-level shopping complexes. Bellevue Square has converted almost all of their surface parking lots into multi-level retail and structured parking.

    Northgate is one of the few places in Seattle where I could see office and residential towers rising without too much incongruety (besides downtown and the U District). Then the investment in light rail could truly be utilized.

  12. jbb

    Jon Morgan- Actually, Pentagon City makes a decent model for Northgate; the mall is completely surrounded by high-rise residential (at a density level that would probably not be tolerated in Seattle), office space, and hotels. Also more shopping.

    I will say it’s not a great pedestrian space with all the highways, but I’d guess a very large percent of the users arrive via Metro. The mall does have huge multistory parking garages — but like the mall itself, they are pretty well screened by the surrounding buildings.

    The biggest issue is that it is something of a self-contained development — and is not connected with its neighbors at all. They (the Pentagon itself and the Crystal City area) are themselves self-contained pods, separated from each other by highways…but interestingly, connected by transit (they are consecutive stops along the Metro).

  13. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I’m curious about how much say the city or community has in Northgate Mall. Obviously there is zoning and design review, and probably some kind of alley vacation agreement.

    I bet Simon is quite aware of the economic fate of stale indoor malls. The redevelopment of the northwest corner with Barnes and Noble and Macaroni Grill is an attempt to become more like University Village already. (And UVillage is a just fake neighborhood main street.) It’s probably a matter of some sort of return on investment formula, or in today’s economy maybe even financing.

    If it were up to me I’d first go after the southeast parking lot along 5th Ave NE (between Red Robin and Thorton Place) because it’s across from the library and community center. I know the issues with attracting grocery stores, but an anchor like PCC or maybe even a new startup like Portland’s New Seasons would be a big boost to walkability. When you walk or ride a bike to get groceries, the closer the better.

    By the way, here are a couple useful aerial photo links of Northgate and UVillage. You really have to be on the ground to realize how much more walkable and pedestrian friendly UVillage is, though. The stores are in several islands which are connected by wide landscaped sidewalks. You do unfortunately have to wade through parking to get to the bus stops… unless you take the secret path to the east of Crate and Barrell that connects to the UW’s Radford Court family housing apartments, which are old but a really great design with buildings surrounding playgrounds. Sorry, I guess this was supposed to be about Northgate. ;)

  14. Steve

    On groceries: I’m not going to be able to find the source for this right now, but I read an interview with someone from Lorig that mentioned that they’d tried to find a PCC-like grocer for Thornton Place but that the education levels nearby were too low to support an upper-end grocery store. (As an aside, I found it fascinating that they look at education rather than income.)

    On bikeability: I’ve ridden both 5th Ave NE and 1st Ave NE a number of times, and neither is bad for someone used to hills and city biking. That said, neither is good for a novice biker, and getting the novices is key to getting more than a trivial biking population. I think the top bike priority ought to be roughly flat ped/bike I-5 crossing connecting North Seattle Community College and Northgate.

    On walkability: Northgate Way is going to be a busy arterial for the foreseeable future, and I’m skeptical that the city could stomach traffic calming measures on it, given its role as a connection between a highway and a number of car-oriented neighborhoods. Given that it’s always going to be an impediment to North-South pedestrian traffic and that Northgate North already brings pedestrians up a level, I wonder if this is the rare case where an elevated walkway could increase pedestrian-orientation. (Not to say it’s the only thing: clearly more residential density and less surface parking, etc. would help too…)

  15. Jon Morgan

    U. Village is actually harder to get to on foot than Northgate. The 25 offers scant service, and connections to the south/west are pretty bad. You often have to go to Campus Pkwy or the Ave and walk down (then back up) a big slope. Walk to U. Village from the southbound 65/75 stop on the west side of Montlake just south of 45th St. in Google street view and you’ll see what I mean.

    Radford Court is also managed by Lorig, the firm that put together Thornton Place. They’ve proposed something similar at U. Village. So the two aren’t so unrelated (I temped there for a few weeks last spring). ;)

  16. Cindy Martin

    Wow, I am really trying to get on board with this and appreciate the thoughtful comments that praise this project but I just can’t get my head around the fact that it is an oasis in an asphalt desert. Urban Density sure lost something here in this Suburban location. My hope is that the neighborhood will blend around Thornton Place and help it have more of a Home Sweet Home appearnace rather than another Mall Plaza. It is great to have Transit so accessible, but do you have to live at the Park and Ride?
    Time will tell and I am eager to be swayed.

  17. Jon Morgan

    jbb: Points well taken on Pentagon City and Crystal City. Arlington was much more aggressive much longer ago about creating height and density around its rail stations to trade car mode share for transit and foot. To the extent they expected anyone to come to Pentagon City from outside the station area, I think they overwhelmingly expected those trips to be on Metro. I suspect Northgate attracts a lot of people from all over North Seattle (to 145th and beyond) who don’t have a bigger concentration of shops any closer to them (a result of too much old single family house zoning). Ironically, because DC has a low citywide height limit, you can see where Arlington and Bethesda start at the borders b/c of the 20+ story buildings that aren’t allowed in DC.

    I haven’t found any mode split info for Pentagon City yet ( might be a good place, and some 1990s highway corridor studies suggest transit shares up to 36% and SOV shares in the same ballpark), but among lots of interesting planning going on around Crystal City and Potomac Yards, I did find this:

    “Arlington [County] has 12 miles of Metrorail lines and 11 stations, operated by WMATA. … In FY2008,
    approximately 65.5 million Metrorail trips began or ended at an Arlington station. The most heavily used Metrorail stations in Arlington, based on average weekday ridership are Rosslyn, Pentagon City, Pentagon, Crystal City, and Ballston. Average weekday boardings and alightings in June 2008 totaled 211,071 for all Arlington stations (a 2.6 percent increase over the previous year and a 22 percent increase since 2000).”

    For perspective, Sound Transit projects that our whole light rail network will serve 230,000 daily trips in 2030.

  18. JoshMahar

    Thanks Renee! This is a great discussion and really engaging for us readers (keep that in mind other posters!)

    I think one simple step here is to talk with Simon Properties about widening the uses within the mall. Crossroads on the Eastside did this and it can really humanize the mall and give it more life throughout the day, instead of just for destination shopping. Something like a pub, a grocery store, or an art studio could liven the area up at night. Of course, this goes along with other pedestrian improvements from the surrounding area so people don’t have to walk through asphalt oceans to get there.

    I will wax poetic about U-Village here myself. I used to hate the place but over the years I’ve learned that (once you park) its actually an amazing place for pedestrians. There are lots of activities and places to interact with others. My gf’s family goes there all the time and always sees people they know or chit chats with the business owners.

    Us livable streets advocates tend to have negative feelings about malls, but in essence they are designed as an enjoyable walking environment. The problem is there lack of connection to the rest of the community and the autocentricity. But I think the physical structure that is Northgate and U-Village have a lot of hope for the future.

    I will know we have succeeded when U-Village removes parking and daylights the Ravenna Creek through their property. Someday…

  19. Jon Morgan

    Interesting tidit:

    “Once you park” is a big caveat. U. Village is still designed for access by car. I don’t have one and have a hell of a time getting there. Check this out: SDOT hopes to rebuild part of the 45th St. Viaduct next year:

    I think an overhauled mall could make a good liveable street. Commerce tends to be necessary for those (not always, but much of the time). If nothing else, you need tax revenue to pay for stuff. I have disconnected details in mind like cobblestone streets (ADA problems I know), stucco building faces, narrow corridors, hanging flowers, and accordions a la France or Italy. Amphiteatres are cool too (people like to sit in downward sloping areas, such as the Seattle Center fountain).

  20. Jon Morgan

    Overall transit share in Arlington County is 23%. But you can bet it’s higher for Pentagon City.

  21. RK

    I think the retailers are not going to go for any eliminating of parking. However, moving as much of the surface parking into a new parking structure or two would greatly free up space for new development. I agree with the above comment about removing the roof and introducing mixed-use. I know Northgate takes pride in having the (infamous) claim on being the first covered shopping mall, but I don’t think that fact should leave it stuck in a fading era. It’s not like there is anything of architectural or historical value to save.

    I also agree that a elevated walkway over Northgate Way to the shops on the north side would be a big improvement. It is frustrating how hard it is to get from the Mall to the other surrounding retail by foot. I think 99% of people drive this short distance. Of course, right now there is nothing on the south side to connect the walkway to, just a sea of surface parking. So building something in that space would be necessary too.

  22. Jon Morgan

    I oppose grade-separated pedestrian paths pretty much anywhere there’s another option. First of all, how would I cross Northgate Way if I use a wheelchair, crutches, scooter, stroller, or walker? You could put elevators in, but for the cost you could probably do more with the street itself. Broadway, Stone Way, and Nickerson are important arterials too, yet SDOT successfully put road diets on the first two and plans another on the third. Second of all, taking pedestrians off the street reinforces the idea that streets are only for cars, or at least not for pedestrians. In fact, peds need to use the streets as much as possible, and we actually make them safer by slowing car speeds and narrowing roads. Except for crossing water or facilities like I-5 and SR-99, ped bridges tend to be bad ideas.

    Light rail goes north from Northgate to Lynnwood in 2023; I believe there’s a stop planned for Jackson Park. Development at that and other nearby stations may reduce the draw for people to come to Northgate from further away (especially by car), and will certainly make North Seattle less car-centric and attract lots of people to live there without cars.

    We shouldn’t take a step backwards; we should push for a pedestrianized Northgate Way. Sometimes I think planning in this region thinks too small. Peak oil and global warming are here; we need to adjust to them.

  23. RK

    Yeah, I agree that elevated walkways are not ideal, and a pedestrian-friendly Northgate Way would be far better, I’m just not sure how realistic that is to happen. Maybe, but with the freeway exits right there and the connections to Aurora and Lake City Way, it seems like it will be politically difficult to lower capacity on it. Of course it is all theoretical until something is done about the north side of the Mall. As long as there is a huge gray-field there, not many people are going to be wanting to cross Northgate Way anyhow.

  24. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Take a look at the last picture of the post–the one of the elevated pedestrian walkway that is the main south entrance to the mall. It’s not ideal, but it works. I’ve used it with a stroller several times. I don’t see why a similar ramp couldn’t go across Northgate Way from near the totem poll to the second or third level of Northgate North.

  25. Jon Morgan

    I hate that walkway. Its access is clearly designed for people leaving their cars in the parking garage, and drivers seem to resent anyone walking across on the ground underneath it. It also is entirely on private property, funded no doubt by the mall to get customers to and from stores. And it’s supplemented with an elevator, also privately funded on private property. Would Simons pay for an elevated walkway across the street with elevators on each side?

  26. Jon Morgan

    A pedestrian-friendly Northgate Way is exactly as realistic and politically feasible as we make it.

  27. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    You are probably correct, Jon. I don’t like the south entrance myself, but then again I don’t like the mall. :)

  28. Jon Morgan

    I’ll drink to that!

  29. LisaB

    As a possible interesting example of a functioning mall looking to densify, check out Oakridge Mall in Vancouver, BC:

  30. Sue

    I’m sure everyone knows the neighborhood took Simon Properties to the Hearing Examiner years back in an effort to make the Mall more pedestrian friendly. The claim is they have an agreement with store owners that they will not build in front of them on the Malls east side. Pedestrian street codes are pretty clear. Unfortunately only a small part of the Mall is located on pedestrian streets.
    As far as rezoning, come on folks. By the time Wallace, Loring and Mullay are up to capacity it will be total gridlock. Many of us need to use Northgate Way to access I-5.
    I have no faith when I daily see folks unwilling to walk that extra half block to a crossing light, and instead drag their children through dangerous traffic. Signs and fences have no effect. Very sad.

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