With the coming light rail expansion to Northgate in 2021, it’s a good time to start talking about what things could be done to make Northgate a much more interesting place. By creating better spaces in Northgate, we can advance the goal of making the most effective use of this new station. New growth for Northgate is already planned for nearby properties under the city’s current zoning and growth strategies. But, Northgate Mall (owned by Simons Property Group) has a particular opportunity to redevelop as a regional employment center and neighborhood core for the greater Northgate community. With a train station at the southwest edge of the mall property, Simons could implement a number of strategies through redevelopment and infill of the property to become an even more active (and profitable) destination in the years to come.

1. Reconnect the pedestrian grid.

Reconnecting Northgate Mall’s indoor pedestrian walkway to the Northgate street grid by strong connections to existing and adjacent pedestrian infrastructure should be a top priority in order to support future development and growth of the site. Connecting the central portion of the mall with a causeway to 3rd Avenue NE and NE 105th Street, the mall could become a common pedestrian pathway between new apartment structures, the light rail station, and other shopping and entertainment options. This increased foot traffic would drive additional impulse sales to stores at the mall than would otherwise be possible if the mall owner solely relied upon auto-oriented traffic to the site. On top of these benefits, a new pedestrian grid would provide new and useful pathways employees, residents, and visitor alike throughout the site that is dry, secure, and pedestrian-friendly zone.

Northgate Redevelopment

2. Let the air in.

The climate controlled mall has been falling out of favor in the last decade. Many malls have since experimented with outdoor shopping streets on mall grounds. Property owners of Northgate Mall and Alderwood Mall have taken note of this, too, and begun to experiment with new outside uses. These outdoor venues are popular in the summer time, but less so in the colder, rainy months of the year.

Perhaps Simons could make a bold decision to remove the closed entrances to the mall while leaving the corridor roofing intact. Shopper would keep their rain protection from the roofing above, but have the fresh air of the outside. Think of it as a European arcade. In order to achieve this though, stores would likely need to modify their storefronts to retain their climate controlled interiors. So it’s not without cost, but it could also allow more stores to pick their own hours of operation rather than being required to close when the mall itself closes its doors.

3. Shotengai it by lining pedestrian causeways with shops.

By converting Northgate Mall to a fully open air (though covered) shopping street, the mall could extend its shopping reach across the current parking lot toward its new pedestrian connections to the edges of the mall property. This would make for a larger and more varied shopping experience.

4. Aim taller.

Building taller buildings in place of some of the existing storefronts and throughout the current parking lots would allow more uses like residential, office, services, and more to locate in the core of Northgate.

5. Build a public square.

Creating a civic space space like a large neighborhood park or square go a long way to anchoring Northgate Mall as the neighborhood’s center. Programming public events like music performances or a farmers’ market on the mall property or on a civic space would be a constant draw for people to visit Northgate for more than just retail shopping. Northgate could be a new center for cultural and civic engagement in an area of north Seattle that is in serious need for those kinds of social spaces and activities.

6. Bring the living space into the mix.

Building space for apartment dwellers, hospitality, offices, and services in taller buildings on mall property would drive even more people into the heart of Northgate, which could perhaps help establish a “Downtown Northgate”. The enhanced economic activity of people living and working in Northgate would further push the need for better access to goods and services in their immediate surroundings.

7. Don’t forget the groceries.

Unlike some of the hotter real-estate markets in Seattle, the greater Northgate area has very few grocery shopping options within walking distance. In order to support the growth of both Northgate and its surrounding neighborhoods (Licton Springs, Maple Leaf, Pinehurst, and Haller Lake), there needs to be a new grocery store near or on the mall property. Locating a pedestrian-oriented grocery store near the new light rail station would make it incredibly accessible to thousands of transit riders and local residents. By extension, these individuals could forego driving or making a separate trip to reach a grocery store while encouraging more pedestrian and retail activity in Northgate.

8. Keep it entertaining.

The neighboroods on the north end of the city (north of 85th Street) have very few local entertainment options outside of bars or movie theaters. Things like game centers or rentable karaoke rooms could help feed the growing hunger for something to do in the evenings and on weekends outside of home. Northgate is already a major transit hub, and so it’s highly accessible from many places in the city and region. It could certainly become a prime location in the north end of the city for some new kind of compact indoor entertainment venue.

9. Make Northgate Mall into ‘Downtown Northgate’.

If the Northgate Mall were truly to embrace its future as Downtown Northgate, adding office space in mixed use buildings on the mall property should not be out of the question. The combination of high capacity transit service and an existing shopping and restaurant base, the mall property is ripe to support the kind of office space demand that’s likely to be headed Northgate’s way. Downtown Seattle and South Lake Union certainly has growing competition for office space. Inevitably, supply will become more scare as they build out, and this could drive price-conscious companies to relocate to more affordable, but desirable and highly accessible locations like Northgate.

10. Tower above it all (make an observation tower).

Perhaps a far-fetched idea–but a fun one–would be to create a greater-than-200-foot tower with an observation deck. Visitors and locals alike could take a short elevator ride to the top and get stunning views of the surrounding cityscape and countryside in this quickly growing community. There are few options for such views this far north in the city and it might be time to rethink where to focus tall buildings; restricting them only in and around Downtown Seattle doesn’t seem reasonable going forward. Of course, in order to allow such a structure, zoning rules would have to be changed to accommodate skyscrapers in Northgate.

Summing it up

Though not all of these options would be necessary in order to turn Northgate into a more dynamic and fun neighborhood, many of them would go a long way in contributing to increased livability and walkability of this growing neighborhood. Northgate should make it a priority to capitalize on its largest tract of land so that it can become the regional center and community core that Seattle and Northgate need and deserve.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I recently did a similar exercise for Northgate Mall in an urban design class. While it was fun to squeeze in new residential and office space, the biggest challenge was providing enough parking. Commercial retailers actually have spreadsheets that dictate how many spaces they need per square foot for each hour of the week, and they are very hesitant to deviate from that if they are within the zoning code. The property owners/developers would need to see how much less parking they’ll need with the LRT station coming up, which is maybe something the City could educate on.

    • Yeah, other than the first suggestion, parking is what it is all about. If parking becomes less desirable, then there will be plenty of apartments, office buildings, grocery stores, medical centers and shops replacing the parking lots. I think the zoning allows fairly high buildings, but the owners are afraid of hurting their parking business. A tax on development won’t help, either. The city should be encouraging such a transition, not penalizing it.

      Attractions (like a public square) would make sense, but would seem silly at this point, because there is so much parking (and parking is pretty ugly). As it is, the covered nature of the mall is actually an attraction — I know that the indoor playground gets a fair amount of use (because it is indoor). Oh, and I remember when the old movie theater got converted to a concert hall. Unfortunately that was short lived. With the light rail, it might be worth it to give it a try. After all, it works both ways. Capitol Hill or the UW (where plenty of people live) will only be a very short ride away (and the train should run at night). I could easily see this area actually being vibrant at night (The Ram might not be the only place awake after dark).

        • Interesting. So that means that we won’t have any huge buildings (forget suggestion number ten). But it still means that the parking lots can be replaced by six story buildings (the standard for the area as well as much of Seattle). If I’m reading the maps correctly then the entire section commonly considered “The Northgate Mall” is between NC-65 and NC-125 (the mall being defined as between 1st and 5th and 103rd and Northgate Way). As has been described on this site there is no practical difference between these designations.

          So, if I were to modify the zoning, I would probably start with the “Northgate Urban Center”. After all, from a political standpoint, this is supposed to be the center. NC3-160 would be a start, but I wouldn’t mind something even bigger. But either way, I think you would have support for such a move. The area is quickly filling up with very similar looking 6 story buildings. Allowing a taller building (in the “center”) would be a welcome addition in the eyes of many.

          I haven’t delved into the entire neighborhood, but from your links, it looks like much of the area is already NC-3. It isn’t until you cross the freeway, Northgate Way or go south that you get into single family or low rise zones. In both situations (especially after you build the much needed bridge) a case can be made for upzoning. But in many instances, changing the zoning will have no effect, unless you upzone dramatically. For example, the first low rise zone to the south already has two and three story buildings. I doubt that replacing these with six story buildings makes sense unless rent (or office space) gets really expensive.

          In summary, if you look at the area from the air and examine which areas have the greatest potential for growth, it is actually one of the rare places in the city where the zoning is OK, if your goal is relatively cheap density (wooden buildings, typically six story). All of the big parking lots are zoned NC3-65 to NC3-125. It is only their value as parking lots (and the cost of development) that keeps growth from happening there.

    • The key is “shared parking”, that is choosing to add new uses that have parking demand the inverse of that for shopping mall retail use. When one use is at peak demand, say retail, is usually when office is at low demand (and therefore parking demand). That way you get the most efficient use of the shared parking space pool.

  2. I remember running from side to side dodging pouring rain in that far gone open air Northgate Mall. There was a grocery, drug store and even a medical facility. There was a large theatre and restaurants with live music!. Don’t forget the totem pole in that lovely garden that is being neglected by the contracted maintenance crews. I bet Northgate had an in-house grounds crew that nurtured those gorgeous Rhododendrons and Hydrangeas that will most likely be yanked like the totem pole when they too are no longer cost effective for Simon properties to keep up. Even though this mall, like most, has not been very pedestrian or bike friendly, the city buses had stops close in for decades where passengers could access the mall without having to dodge cars through the parking lots. Metro closed that access when the traffic became too congested getting in and out to the arterials.

  3. I served on a city advisory committee for the Northgate Mall master plan and expansion around 2000. Simon Properties, the owner of the mall, fought every creative idea for pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development. They fought storefronts on the street. They fought pedestrian improvements on the perimeter. They fought the public plaza that had been a feature of Maple Leaf/Northgate plans for decades. They see North Seattle as middle-market, car focused, and they want to maximize activity in the central mall corridor above all else. This is why the redevelopment to date is half a lifestyle center on the west side of the mall (so the storefronts can face I-5) and a big parking garage. Thankfully they were persuaded to sell the Thornton Creek parcel, which has become a community asset.

    • Hopefully they are watching Tysons Corner’s transformation and it will change their perspective on the huge returns with walkable mixed use.

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