Originally published in The Stranger on 29 March 2018.
Growing up as a mall rat in 1980s suburbia—long before I had formally studied architecture or explored any major cities—the big regional mall was the closest thing to a grand civic space my friends and I had yet experienced. When the American “inner city” was still perceived as a cesspool of crime and dysfunction by “Middle America,” the local suburban mall was the place to see and be seen. Once you found a parking spot and made it inside, it was about the only pedestrian-scaled environment we had access to.
The enclosed marketplace traces its roots thousands of years back to the Greek agora and the Middle Eastern souk. We have our own version of it at Pike Place. In contrast to those precedents, the suburban mall was on the urban periphery, and designed for easy freeway access. (Downtown malls like Pacific Place essentially replicate the suburban shopping experience within an urban setting, with mixed success.) But the automobile-oriented suburban malls of the postwar era are a dying breed, soon to be replaced by Amazon-branded drones and God-knows what else.
Seattle’s Northgate Mall, built in 1950, is one of the oldest enclosed shopping malls in the United States. Northgate’s retailers have seen flagging revenue in recent years and the mall’s owner, Simon Property Group, has read the tea leaves and recently proposed a “a complete re-imagining of Northgate.” The idea currently on the table would halve the amount of retail space while adding up to 750,000 square feet of office space, a hotel, and several hundred units of housing.
More specific plans for the site haven’t yet been disclosed, but if recent developments around the mall’s periphery are any indication, we can expect a small collection of buildings topping out at five or six stories each, with housing or offices above a retail podium and lots of parking under the new buildings or tucked away toward the rear. Think Redmond Town Center or The Landing in Renton.
Such developments check off all the requisite New Urbanist boxes in order to pass the design review process, but still manage to feel about as sterile and manufactured as any suburban strip mall. And as far doing something meaningful about our housing shortage is concerned, building a few hundred units amounts to a drop in the bucket.
The political pressure to minimize density at Northgate will be immense: neighborhood groups dominated by homeowners who stand to profit handsomely from the housing shortage will demand shorter buildings, more nebulous “open space,” and always more parking. The comments on the Seattle Times article about reimagining Northgate already contain the usual sophistry about traffic and “light-blocking” towers; rhetorical gymnastics to avoid saying, “We don’t want more people in our neighborhood, especially if they’re black or brown renters who use transit.”
Every city has a certain kind of neighborhood activist who longs for that city’s bygone glory days—usually a time that happens to coincide with the month and year they arrived in town—and any development that disturbs their concept of that golden era is to be resisted at all costs. These activists don’t want to live in a dynamic city; they want to live in a museum diorama forever frozen in sepia-toned amber.
Seattle, settled by whites on Duwamish lands less than two centuries ago, is still a young city. Compared to other major cities it’s barely an adolescent; it has undergone periods of massive change and will continue to do so. Such change can be shaped for better or worse, but to resist it altogether is ruinous. It’s a kind of class warfare waged by people who bought homes here decades ago against newer arrivals who can’t even find an affordable apartment, much less a condo they could ever dream of owning.
If a bunch of us 80s kids donned our old Members Only jackets and packed public hearings to demand that Northgate Mall be preserved exactly as it was when Fast Times at Ridgemont High was in theaters, we’d rightly be laughed out of the room. But many local homeowners feel entitled to demand that Seattle’s neighborhoods conform to the puritanical, racially segregated, auto-dependent mores of the Leave it to Beaver era.
It may be too late to change direction at Capitol Hill, where not enough housing and too much parking is planned, but at Northgate we still have time to aim higher. Literally.
Done right, a redeveloped Northgate Mall would combine the high-rise density of Atlanta’s Buckhead district with the pedestrian-scaled retail experience of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Buckhead, anchored by Lenox Square Mall and a MARTA transit hub, was ironically made possible by Seattle’s rejection of a rapid transit system in 1970. Atlanta got the federal money instead, and built MARTA. Seattle has been lamenting that lost opportunity ever since, but we are now—finally—building the rapid transit system this young city needs.
We should be aiming for new developments at transit hubs like Northgate with thousands of housing units, not hundreds. Again, it’s probably too late to do anything about the plans for Capitol Hill. But with light rail and easy freeway access, there’s no reason Northgate can’t become a satellite downtown core. Think Bellevue without Kemper Freeman.
The city, for its part, could help matters by increasing the current height limit at Northgate from a paltry 95 feet, which limits buildings to no more than about eight stories. Adding a zero to that number and changing minimum parking requirements to maximum parking requirements would be a good start. Future generations will judge us as much by what we fail to build as by what we build.
I’ll probably always have a guilty soft spot for the postwar shopping mall, complete with its earth tone color palette and fast food of questionable origin. I still recall the scent of Karamelkorn and soft pretzels in the old food court of Florence Mall near my hometown of Cincinnati. My favorite leather jacket, now faded and cracked, was purchased years ago at Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey. Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was my gateway drug to high-rise urbanism.
But I wasn’t feeling particularly wistful while wandering the concourse of Northgate Mall this past weekend. More than anything else, it felt like this type of environment is well past its prime. Nostalgia has its place, but it’s a terrible basis on which to design our future.
Now is the time to move on to bigger and better things. During an era of ever-diminishing civic expectations, resistance means building as if our glory days are still ahead of us.