In the mid-20th century, Northgate Mall was considered to be one of the most ambitious commercial developments in North America, if not the world. The “Fabulous Northgate” may not have actually been the world’s first suburban shopping center or climate-controlled indoor mall, but it was certainly among the earliest constructed, and its design, which provided thousands of parking spaces separate from a pedestrianized shopping area where visitors could wander from store to store, heavily influenced the concept of the classic American shopping mall as we know it today.

An early aerial view of the 60 acre Northgate Shopping Center. The original design included 3,500 parking spaces. After the completion of Interstate 5 in 1965, about 50,000 cars visited Northgate daily during its commercial peak. (Credit: Seattle Public Library Special Collections)
An early aerial view of the 60 acre Northgate Shopping Center. The original design included 3,500 parking spaces. After the completion of Interstate 5 in 1965, about 50,000 cars visited Northgate daily during its commercial peak. (Credit: Seattle Public Library Special Collections)

Today, however, a stroll through the mostly shuttered remains of Northgate Mall reveals an institution and neighborhood sitting on the precipice of major change. Much of the existing mall stands shuttered as construction crews labor away at the Northgate’s reinvention as the site of a new Link light rail station and National Hockey League training facility, both expected to open in 2021, along with the much anticipated Northgate Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge, which will span across Interstate 5 to connect these sites to North Seattle College and the Licton Springs neighborhood.

While plans for King County to build transit-oriented affordable housing on the site of a 5.7-acre former parking lot and bus depot have stalled, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) Executive Director Andrew Lofton announced the intention to partner on transforming 8.5 acres of property into a mixed-income community near the Northgate light rail station this week.

A rendering of the Northgate Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge. (Credit: City of Seattle)

“Equitable transit-oriented development, like the one imagined at Northgate, advances the City’s vision to build an inclusive and connected Seattle for generations to come,” said Emily Alvarado, Director of the Seattle Office of Housing. “In a high-priced, highly competitive market like Seattle, securing strategic properties, like this, ensures our ability to create quality, affordable homes for low and moderate incomes families near transit, schools and jobs.”

Securing the property came at the cost of $65 million paid to previous property owners the Mullally Development Corporation who own and operate several apartment complexes throughout Seattle and beyond. During the announcement, Mayor Durkan praised the Mullally family’s “commitment to our region,” thanking them for selling the land to the City at below market rate. “This [property] is a hub for all of Seattle, and to be able to get [it] for the future to make sure that it’s a place where people from throughout Seattle can live affordably is remarkable,” Mayor Durkan said.

SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton introduced Mayor Jenny Durkan at the formal announcement of the future Northgate Commons equitable development site. (Credit: Seattle Channel)
SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton introduced Mayor Jenny Durkan at the formal announcement of the future Northgate Commons equitable development site. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

Acquisition of the future Northgate Commons site was paid for with funding from last year’s sale of the Mercer Megablock property in South Lake Union, which generated approximately $110 million for affordable housing investment in Seattle.

What could “equitable development” at Northgate Commons look like?

According to SHA’s website, there are no “immediate plans or a timeline for any change” at the 8.5-acre site, on which 211 units of unsubsidized affordable housing are presently located. For existing residents, SHA has committed to keeping rents affordable, and the agency has also declared that “no residents are being asked to move in the near future.”

Over the next year, SHA and City of Seattle will collaborate on a long-term planning process to secure funding and develop a master plan for Northgate Commons. Similar to other SHA mixed-use and mixed-income communities, such as High Point, Rainier Vista, New Holly, and Yesler Terrace, the future Northgate Commons site in addition to affordable housing future development is expected to include community and social services, and market-rate housing and businesses.

Before deciding to sell the land to the City, the Mullally family contemplated developing the property, and back in 2009 a group of Portland State University created a development scenario called The Blocks at Northgate, which envisioned 683 workforce rental housing units and commercial spaces distributed among five mid-rise buildings.

A rendering of the central village green adjacent buildings in Portland State University students' proposed The Blocks at Northgate mid-rise development scenario. (Credit: Portland State University Center for Real Estate)
A rendering of the central village green adjacent buildings in Portland State University students’ proposed The Blocks at Northgate midrise development scenario. (Credit: Portland State University Center for Real Estate)

Created well before the beginning of Seattle’s current affordable housing crisis, The Blocks at Northgate demonstrated a vision of a moderately dense landscape punctuated by courtyards and centered on a large village green. The proposal may have spurred the Mullally family’s interest in changing the zoning from Midrise Residential (MR) to Neighborhood Commercial 3 with an 85-foot height limit (NC3-85), a change that the City agreed to make in 2012 with the caveat that any future development on the site include affordable housing. Zoning on the property now allows for even more intensity.

Hoa Mai Gardens, a dense SHA housing development in Yesler Terrace, which also contains space for nonprofits like  youth writing organization the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. (Credit: SHA)
Hoa Mai Gardens, a dense SHA housing development in Yesler Terrace, which also contains space for nonprofits like youth writing organization the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. (Credit: SHA)

The zoning changes have opened the door to denser housing along with commercial spaces and community amenities to develop on the site. Big questions still exist as to how much housing will be created and to what level that housing will be affordable. The City should be sharing information about ways to learn more about the future of Northgate Commons and participate in community engagement around its planning and design in the coming months.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Think of the people who will be living in this grand venture. Baltimore has never bee able to reconcile the affordable apartment vs. market rate residents. You must start right away in the process of building the constituency that combines a range of incomes and a professional leadership team that knows and advocates for a mixed, not separated population of residents as the project starts and is managed as it is built and operated. This is a rare combination of skills,, but could provide opportunities for current and future residents. The plan must not be imposed on all residents by some outside consultants, unless the definition of consultant can be enhanced to provide social and development skills and belief in the goal.

  2. Northgate Commons is adjacent to Hubbard Homestead Park, one of the worst-designed parks I’ve ever seen. There are four senior housing communities within a block and not a bit of shade, a fountain or flowers to attract seniors. Monet intended to finish the park allegedly went to South Lake Union instead. The City should include the needs of these communities in planning a park that will serve seniors and families, ideally a splash feature surrounded by shady benches and flower beds.

  3. John Fox’s group and the Maple Leaf Community Council who went to court to guarantee affordable housing would be built on this parcel. It’s odd that the Mayor and her Director of Housing did not mention this in their comments. The mix is tilted much more to addressing the housing needs of low- and moderate-income people because of the negotiated agreements that were initiated by the Displacement Coalition and the Maple Leaf Community Council.

  4. Bummed that it is going to take years before anything new is built. When you think of the words ‘housing crisis’ you don’t generally think ‘oh yeah we have plenty of time to sit on this before we figure it out!’ More rapid action is needed…

  5. Northgate Commons cries out for an attractive and convenient walk/bike connections down to the Northgate Link Station. Something integrated with Northgate mall property, not strung along the edge of 1st Ave. NE under the looming rail guideway.

  6. This development — like numerous others around Northgate — is going to entirely rebuild the street network.
    Advocates should do everything we can to insist that the city build complete streets (including protected bike lanes) on each and every block of this new neighborhood. It is incredibly easy and cheap to build protected bike lanes on new streets IF planners include them from the beginning. We need to put this on the city’s (and activist community’s) radar NOW. Likewise, advocates should insist that Interbay redevelopment also include protected bike lanes on every block of that new grid. This is low-hanging fruit, and a huge opportunity that we will miss for a hundred years if we don’t grab it now.

    Just imagine — one neighborhood with a true, integrated network of safe infrastructure for all ages and abilities. We can guarantee that one neighborhood has a higher percentage of pedestrians and cyclists than any other in the city. We should grab it while we can!

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