From its inception, Northgate Mall has been a beachhead of autocentric suburbia within Seattle’s urban landscape. So it came as a surprise and joy to many urbanists when the Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal and other outlets wrote last week that Simon Property Group plans a major redevelopment of Northgate Mall with the addition of office, housing and open space to what is now just parking and retail. The long overdue redevelopment makes sense with light rail service coming to the aging mall’s front door in 2021. It also contains many of the ideas expressed by Charles Bond in a 2014 article in The Urbanist  titled 10 Ways Northgate Mall Could Become ‘Downtown Northgate’. I’m not saying he is the inspiration for all of this, but he did a great job identifying many of the issues.

The preliminary report says they envision having about 500,000 to 750,000 square feet of retail, 500,000 to 750,000 of office, several hundred units of housing and a hotel. Their site plan also shows a new square at the heart of the project. But is that enough? Is a city just a mix of places to work, shop and sleep or are there other qualities we as urbanists need to advocate for as this project moves forward? And is it enough housing to make a neighborhood or should we be advocating for more?

The proposed site plan submitted to the city

How Much Housing is Enough?

The early press for this project has said that the developer expect to include several hundred units of housing in this project, but is that enough to change a neighborhood? Is that enough in the midst of a housing crisis? Directly adjacent to a light rain station? I don’t think so. Part of the problem is that the city has chosen a relatively timid option for upzones in the area as part of the MHA process. Most of the site is currently zoned with a 85-foot or 125-foot height limit. Under the MHA preferred alternative they will be raised to 95 feet and 145 feet respectively. As I said above, this area is directly adjacent to a Link station, has no residents to displace and no historic buildings. It is parking and shopping center, the ultimate pain free target for redevelopment. The city should raise the height limit much higher than it is—even to 240 feet as it is directly south. Failing this, the developer should ask to be upzoned. This would mean more housing neat transit and more affordable units, expanding upon the large mixed-income complex planned on publicly owned land next to the station.

A similar redevelopment of surface parking and and aging theater at Lloyd Center mall in Portland plans to add about 1,200 units in two phases and this is coming shortly after a separate developer built about 600 units (and the largest bike garage in North America). Interestingly, one of the architects told me that the idea with the 600 units that have been build at Lloyd Center was to build enough housing simultaneously that it would catalyze a change in perception of the neighborhood over night. Just having that many new residents would lead to a rethink of what that part of the city is about. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Northgate needs now.

MHA preferred alternative upzone map for Northgate. (City of Seattle)

Urbanism is Not just Buildings and Density

Possibly the largest danger in redeveloping this key site is that it doesn’t get woven back into the city’s grid, but rather it becomes an insular island of walkable urbanism that continues to exist within a very suburban context. One has no farther to look than University Village to see this tragedy unfold. What was once a typical mall had densified and become more walkable, but also has chosen to turn its back to the rest of the city by walling itself in with parking garages and streets that are hostile to walking and biking. Within the development it is wonderful for strolling and shopping, but the expectation is that its visitors will all arrive by car and very little effort has been made to reconnect it to the surrounding street grid.

In the case of Northgate they are proposing to redevelop 37.4 acres (though the entire property is 55 acres). The surrounding blocks are roughly 3.7 acres each (600 feet by 270 feet) so the grid could be reestablished and the proposal could be broken into 10 normal sized blocks. As it is it looks as though they are making an effort to divide up the site and possibly reestablish the grid where possible–though several of what look like streets appear to be terminating in parking lots. This is an issue we should watch as the project moved forward. We should also work to insure that what streets are built are public and complete.

There is another precedent for failed urbanism across the lake that shows how Northgate could go awry: Bellevue. From the Seattle side of the lake it appears to be a city, but when I have ridden my bike through I find it to be a suburb with high rises. By this I mean it has allowed density, but chosen to privilege the car over walking, biking and transit. With its super block, wide streets and massive parking garages it has failed to cultivate any street life. This also mean that the level of auto dependence remains high, negating much of the climate change benefits of density. This is where the city can and should step in and use this as an opportunity to tame some of the streets that run through the area. By slowing traffic and reorienting roads for walking, biking and transit the city could avoid the pitfalls of Bellevue and enhance the areas potential as a residential neighborhood where people can safely access the new Link station.

No Risk, No Reward

No matter what happens with the redevelopment of Northgate Mall, it will surely be better than what is there today. The owners should be commended for taking this step. That being said, this is a once in generations opportunity to shape a whole neighborhood in the heart of the city, and the tone set with this project will have repercussions for decades to come. So we should strive to make this the best version of the project it can be and advocate for the most housing and the most walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly streets and sidewalks we can. If we succeed, we can lay the groundwork for Seattle’s next great neighborhood. If we fail, we will have to wait decades for another opportunity to have such a radically positive effect on this part of the city.

From Parking Crater To Urban Asset: Northgate TOD

21 COMMENTS

    • There’s quite a lot of surface parking at the north end of the site that they don’t plan to change in this phase. Hopefully the next phase of development will push the total number of homes on the site to well over a thousand.

    • Yes, we need THOUSANDS of housing units and NO PARKING! People living at Northgate will ride transit, light rail, and bike share bikes. Also will need to finish the pedestrian bridge over I-5 to connect the residents to North Seattle College. Lifetime Fitness is a must have at 5th and 103rd. Also I’d like to ensure that Cinnabon is not displaced, it is one of the few stores which make Northgate special.

      • Mike, I know facetious when I see it! I know you don’t believe in no parking. Even I don’t believe in no parking. Underground parking is subject to economies of scale, both for construction and operation. On a site this size, they will have an easier time designing parking and automobile access so that it doesn’t interfere other activities.

        But deep levels of underground parking don’t pencil out in low rise construction. Let’s give the developers the freedom to build the right mix for the market, while encouraging them to decouple parking and residency.

        I hope Northgate can also be a place where Seattle can restore the conjugate microhousing model as used by Calhoun and ApodMents. The parking issues that had neighborhoods up in arms opposing them would be moot.

        Seattle destroyed a successful affordable housing program that required no public funding. Bring back microhousing at Northgate!

  1. I agree that there could be even more housing, and it would be a shame to see surface parking replaced with large garages on the perimeter of these blocks. However, reconnecting to the street grid here has somewhat limited benefits, considering the grid’s connectivity is already constrained by I-5 to the west and Thornton Creek/dead end streets to the east. Making it safe for pedestrians and bicyclists to pass into and through this area seems more important than dedicating more space to vehicles.

    In terms of immediate advocacy, I’d like to ensure the development on the corner of 5th and 103rd, where it appears that Simon has a tenant already lined up – Lifetime Fitness – reinvigorates that corner. This development has the potential to connect with the path along the daylighted portion of Thornton Creek. In the site plan above, it appears they still envision parking on the corner, with the building pulled back from the edge. That would be unfortunate. 103rd is also a proposed neighborhood greenway – so let’s make sure that corner is lively and pedestrian/bike friendly!

  2. I whole heartedly agree that the redevelopment should be integrate with the surrounding area. The current mall is a big island surrounded by mostly wide roads and then parking. Just try to enter the mall by foot from the south side currently. It is mostly a brick wall and if you know there are some stairs (and somewhere also an elevator) leading up to the food court.
    A minimum I would say is integrating the light rail station in the new design. But also improving the walkability in the neighborhood. Many apartment building have gone up in recent years and new ones are being build. So there is potential to attract more people to walk and bike here and use transit. Why not give people an option to walk through the mall from the light rail to the surrounding apartment blocks?

  3. Ultimately the decision lies with Simons Properties Group, I don’t believe they’re open for public input.

    • Simon group seems to have a very east coast mentality- judging from the extremely limited info they have shared so far. What about the community’s needs and desires?

      • “We can do whatever we want” is not east coast mentality. Maybe the east coast mentality presupposes less nimbyism, but I doubt it. The east coast process versus the Seattle Process simply has some eventual “final word” (review board + perhaps one round of lawsuits) whilst the Seattle Process is interminable.

    • Simon Property Group is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) that owns several hundred shopping malls and strip malls across the USA. An REIT is a kind of hybrid of a corporation and partnership, designed specifically as a holding company for income producing real estate. It is taxed more like a pass-through entity than a corporation.

      REIT’s provide investors with an opportunity to invest in income producing real estate while having greater diversification and liquidity as well as limited liability. They typically have higher dividend yields than corporate stocks but less growth potential and less volatility.

      The job of an REIT is to make money for its shareholders, who are likely to be widows. Yes, they’re mostly rich widows! If you don’t like capitalism, then you don’t like REITs. If you’re not ready to make the revolution happen tomorrow, then suck it up because we live under capitalism.

      We read in the news about the decline of shopping centers and retailers in general. In some other city and without Sound Transit, Northgate might already be a zombie mall. But don’t try to make money by shorting Simon Property Group, because shopping malls in urban areas have a lot of upside potential for redevelopment as new urbanist neighborhoods.

      Don’t expect an REIT not to do its job, which is to make money. Instead, do your job as an urbanist and convince the REIT that it can make more money by embracing urbanist design in the redevelopment of Northgate and all of its shopping centers.

  4. In my opinion a pedestrian friendly low-mid rise town center like option is ideal for this site. Anything over 100 feet would be tragedy.

    My question is where is the MHA promised affordable housing in their proposed plan? Can we hold Simon to account to provide number of housing options below a $1500 rent? Are they going to provide any park, shop, and ride options for commuters.

    • Why a tragedy? It would block the view of I5? It would let too many people in and make the light rail less of a “carriage-through-the-garden” toy and more of a serious subway?

    • After Northgate opens, we won’t have an opportunity to open another North Seattle light rail station until 2024, but the need for housing in North Seattle is desperate. This is our single opportunity to create thousands of units of housing that are really connected to our regional transportation network.

  5. Thank you for a terrific article! Seattle, please don’t let this opportunity go to waste. Upzone Northgate!

    The incomplete development plans for the remaining acreage may reflect the leasehold obligations of the investors, who could not afford to buy out all lease renewal options at once, given the risk that the entire Sound Transit project would be delayed. And they may be waiting for the political climate to change in favor of even greater upzoning, increasing the value of the land still further.

  6. Even if you subtract 60 feet for sidewalks and through roads from each of those blocks on all four sides, you have 97,200 square feet to build on. If the first floor of each block was 80% retail, and you had nine such blocks, you’d get to about 700,000 square feet of retail.

    The city should allow aggressive HALA bonuses for FARs of 12, which would generate 1.16M square feet of building per block. The remaining 1.07M square feet could each house 1000 units including common areas, with a large percentage as family sized units. In nine blocks, you’d get 9000 units of housing, plus one block fully reserved for common space. Given the current development capacity, the city could provide these aggressive HALA inspired upgrades with a significant quid-pro-quo for affordable housing capacity.

    (Also, if the Mall Owner cedes the common space and the rights-of-way to the city, it should negotiate to have that added to the “area” for the FAR calculations, which would add 421,000 square feet of street/sidewalk space, and 144,000 square feet of common space. Adding this 565,000 square feet of space to the area would increase the floor space by 6.78M square feet. That could easily accommodate 1.78M square feet of office space (8900 jobs) and another 5000 homes.

    If you added 14000 units, and a large percentage (40%) were family sized and a large percentage (30%) were affordable, you’d have significantly increased access, and you’d have vastly increased the value of LINK. Imagine “Downtown Northgate” with a population of 30,000 people, and with well over 10,000 jobs.

    (Okay, a couple buildings will have to be taller, b/c there will need to be schools!)

    Also, as a side note, I agree that the grid should be restored. But it’s possible that parts should terminate at the center so that the central plaza connects directly to its surrounding buildings. (think of the central squares in Prague or Krakow), rather than across a street.

    • 30,000 additional people at Northgate is unsustainable. Not enough sidewalks, parking, or Starbucks to make it work.

  7. Should waive any parking minimums, and if possible work with them to integrate as close as possible with the LR Station. There’s nothing quite like moving from Transit to your destination, without having to cross any streets, get out in the rain, etc. NYC, Paris, Amsterdam, all have stations like that, and they’re awesome.

    Remove minimums, because the developer will definitely be putting in parking anyway, for residents & visitors, but there’s no reason for them to have an aggressive parking requirement when there’s LR right there. Raise the ceiling, raise the FAR. It’s a private development that’s not pushing out anything, let them go as aggressive as they can!

  8. OK, all I ask is that they keep Barnes and Noble. I trust the designers and planners to figure out the rest. I just want my nice comfy book store.

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