1959 aerial view of the area north of West Club Blvd – construction of the US 70 bypass/Duke St. interchange is visible in the upper right corner.
The property upon which Northgate Mall sits today had a rural character prior to the construction of the US 70 bypass immediately to its north in 1958-1959. While a small cluster of businesses stood at the intersection of Guess Road and West Club Blvd., the Ellerbee Creek valley that ran east-west north of West Club had served as a natural greenbelt on the north side of Durham, even as earlier (Bragtown) and later development occurred farther to the north.
I’ve found it difficult to trace the amalgamation of parcels by the Rand family prior to 1960 that allowed them to develop the mall. It appears that at least some of the land was owned by Sadie Markham and her heirs, and Demerius Dollar heirs owned other portions, but the quantity of parcels throughout Durham purchased by the Rand family between 1913 and the 1960s causes me to leave that endeavor to another intrepid Durham history enthusiast.
However, it does appear that Coke may be responsible for Northgate.
It seems that W. Kenan Rand first obtained an option on the land in October 1949 in association with the Coca Cola Bottling Company, with the intent of constructing a new Coca-Cola bottling plant on the site. The bottling company had started on Church Street in Durham and moved to Buchanan and West Main in 1930. This was likely the first of a series of battles with neighbors to the south over the future of the land on the north side of West Club Blvd.
The October 4, 1949 Durham Morning Herald reads:
“… [A] double disapproval was dealt a request made by W. Murray Jones, on behalf of WK Rand and the Durham Coca-Cola Bottling Company for a proposed change from an A residential zone to a Business Zone No. 1 of property just north of Club Boulevard. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that the zone change be denied, and the City Council concurred.
Rand outlined a proposal where the firm would erect a new large plant on the site (north of Club Boulevard between Watts Street and Dollar Avenue) if the zone change were granted, and presented plans for the structure.
More than 50 persons appeared at the hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission to oppose the zone change. Most of them were home owners in the area neighboring the site in question. Despite the fact that Rand assured them that the plant would be a modern, handsome structure, properly landscaped and set more than 150 feet from Club Boulevard, the property owners were staunch in their opposition. Among those who spoke against the change were JL Atkins Jr., Charlie Wilson, Raymond Weeks, WM Thompson, WH Simpson, JB Rhine, the Rev. MT Plyler, Oscar Barker, and EC Brooks, both of whom represented residents of the neighborhood.
Rand said that he had been working on plans for the new plant for two years, but only got the option on the property last week. He said, ‘We’ve got to expand. We’ve used every foot of room and even have a building on Church Street which we use for storage, yet we’ve got only half the space we need. When we built our present plant 20 years ago there was a little opposition, but we’ve had no complaints in our 20 years of operation. I don’t believe by the time we get to operating here there will be a single opposition,’ he asserted.
The opponents of the measure contended that to allow one business to enter the area would only provide the opening wedge for others.”
The plant was deferred, and would eventually be built on Hillsborough Road in 1966. Rand, it seems, retained his interest in the property, and eventually saw the strip shopping center as the best development for the land he controlled.
The mall was built by Rand in 1959-1960, initially a strip center with anchored by a Colonial Stores Supermarket, Kerr Drug, and Roses. I’ve always been curious as to whether “Northgate” was in any way a tongue-and-cheek reference to the long-established “Southgate” family name in Durham, or whether it was simply meant to describe the entry to Durham from the US 70 bypass.
Northgate was similar in character to the other ‘shopping centers’ built during the same era in Durham: Lakewood, Forest Hills, Loehman’s Plaza, and Wellons Village. The evolutionary link between downtown retail and the enclosed mall, these strip shopping centers provided larger retail spaces, abundant surface parking, and easy access for larger trucks to pull directly up to loading docks at the rear of the store to offload larger quantities of merchandise. It also presented an easier opportunity to build air conditioning into the stores than the difficult prospect of retrofitting the downtown buildings with the large equipment of the 1950s. Grocery stores, drugstores, and discount retailers (what my parents called “10 cent stores”) were typically the first to take advantage of these opportunities.
Bird’s Eye view of the cleared site for Northgate, looking southwest, 1959
Bird’s Eye view of the cleared site for Northgate, looking northwest, 1959
Looking southwest, 09.04.59
Looking west-northwest, 09.04.59
The completed ‘first strip’ of the mall, 09.12.60
Movie theaters were a frequent addition to these centers – the opportunity to build a movie theater with the above advantages, as well as multiple screens (‘the multiplex’) meant the rapid closure of downtown theaters – or their conversion to cheap discount, XXX theaters, or, for a few in this era, art house theaters. Northgate added a movie theater in 1962.
Buildings under construction, 06.15.62
Buildings under construction, 06.15.62
The 1962 shopping center, looking south towards West Club, 07.10.62
Movie theater addition, 07.10.62
Per the “Cinema Treasures” website:
“In 1962, the Northgate Theatre opened with a special preview of the theatre that was for invited guests and government officials along with a special screening that was for those attending. The official opening of the Northgate Theatre took place on Christmas Day and was open to the public with the featured screening of Walt Disney’s live action feature “Jumbo”. The theatre operated as a 700-seat single screen theatre that played first-run features and family films. It had a super widescreen and was owned and operated by Charlotte based Consolidated Theatres.
The theatre remained a single screen theatre until June 17, 1975 when the original auditorium was spit down the middle making it a twin cinema, and it was renamed Northgate Twin Theatres. Ownership changed hands when the Fuqua Theatres Group acquired the Northgate’s operations. The opening features that premiered on June 17, 1975 when it became a twin were ‘Pippi Longstocking’ and ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’.
Martin Theatres took over in 1976, and then later Carmike Cinemas acquired the theatre in 1982…. The Northgate Twin was showing some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters until its closing in 1985.”
Northgate is particularly notable for successfully negotiating the transition to the next wave of suburban retail. By the late 1960s -early 1970s, the strip center model was already on the wane, and the enclosed, air conditioned, hermetically-sealed against-the-vagaries-of-Outside mall was rising. Northgate had one clear advantage – a lot of land – as well as, evidently, the capital to invest. But beyond that, it took some significant business savvy to see the necessity of investing that capital to remain relevant, particularly as South Square mall was being built out on 15-501. None of the other strip centers mentioned above made this transition, and quickly lost their dominant position in the retail real estate market.
In 1974, Northgate enclosed the strip center, adding anchor stores Sears and Thalhimers. The northwest portion of the site on Guess Road was developed into another strip shopping center, which included a new supermarket – “Big Star” that replaced the Colonial Stores supermarket that had been part of the original strip center.
Bird’s Eye view of the mall, 03.13.74
Although the conventional wisdom by the 1980s was that South Square was, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on one’s viewpoint, a higher-end mall with a wider selection of desirable retailers, Northgate continued to add stores, a food court, and, by the 1990s, another anchor department store.
Per the Northgate website:
“In 1986, another portion of the mall was constructed building an expanded space for Thalhimers along with a new multi level parking deck. 1987 saw yet another area of the Mall built which included the current Food Gallery and lower level Business Center. Hecht’s and Hecht’s parking deck were built in 1994 along with additional 53,000 square feet of enclosed mall retail space. In 2006, Macy’s Department Store purchased Hecht’s….”
Macy’s and Northgate Mall, 07.04.10
The most interesting shift in mall fashion has been the trend towards creating walkable outdoor storefront retailers, in imitation of traditional downtowns. When regional shopping center Southpoint opened in 2002, with its ‘main street’ and faux faded painted advertisements, its interior HVAC distribution designed to look like chimneys, etc., etc., it epitomized the new trend – one that neither South Square nor Northgate evinced. Ironically, South Square, the market leader that Northgate had been battling with for 25 years, shuttered incredibly quickly (despite all of the assurances that it would be fine should Southpoint come to pass) and was replaced with today’s version of the big strip center – Target, Sam’s Club, etc.
Northgate seemingly felt the pressure from Southpoint, and it seemed that the quality of retailers in the center declined. At least in partial response, Northgate developed a new movie theater, and an outdoor plaza/retail area in 2005.
While it seems that, at least from anecdotal evidence, the movie theater has been a success, the plaza has not. And while the recent downturn has certainly played a role, I can’t help but think that the architects who planned this a) simply didn’t understand what they were supposed to be creating, b) couldn’t create what they wanted because of land/zoning/ordinance constraints, or c) couldn’t create what they wanted because of a lack of sufficient capital to do so.
I suspect it’s a combination of all three; when I first heard that Northgate was undertaking such an endeavor, I was actually rather excited – Northgate, unlike South Square or many other malls, actually borders walkable, grid-ed neighborhoods on ~ 3 sides. The potential to finally integrate Northgate into the urban fabric seemed tangible. Because it took me awhile to go over to Northgate to check out what they had done, I visited North Hills in Raleigh first, and became even more enamored with the idea of how Northgate might become a pedestrian-friendly commercial district that didn’t feel so completely separate from the neighborhoods around it.
I was disappointed – an outdoor plaza hemmed in by a parking deck and surface parking? Bleak – with the vacant storefronts to show for it.
Northgate Plaza area, seen from the parking deck that overshadows it, 07.04.10 (G. Kueber)
Kevin over at Bull City Rising wrote a piece three years ago pondering the future of Northgate – and that was before the economy plummeted. I think it’s a shame that the mall ownership invested the capital to try to emulate Southpoint’s outdoor space, but got it so very wrong. I don’t know what the long term future of the mall is, but I ardently hope that it is the third option which Kevin pondered – i.e., conversion to a mixed-use center. Moreso, though, Northgate simply has great geography, which is currently being squandered in my opinion. And the fault for this doesn’t lie solely with the mall or the city.
I’ve often heard that there is some enforced buffer between the outparcel businesses and West Club Blvd. Meanwhile, Trinity Park walls itself off on the other side of the street. Not only do I think that Trinity Park would be better served with businesses lining the north side of Club Boulevard – I believe they would one part of transforming Club Boulevard into – well, a boulevard, rather than a bleak swath of asphalt. Building to the street, and creating a real pedestrian-scale corridor connecting the mall to the neighborhood, is the transformation that the mall needs to once again be a thriving center. But TP needs to acquiesce to the idea that the future of Club Blvd. is a medium density mixed-use corridor, not a DMZ separating a quiet neighborhood from a mall, etc.
‘The Strip’ separating West Club from Northgate, looking east, 07.04.10 (G. Kueber)
‘The Strip’ separating West Club from Northgate, looking west, 07.04.10 (G. Kueber)
The bleakness of West Club ‘Boulevard’, taken from my perch on the Smallest Median Ever. (G. Kueber)
This approach is already failing from a preservation perspective, as the 50 year Recent Unpleasantness north of the Southern sidewalk of West Club has helped create market pressure to tear down the larger historic houses that, until 1960, sat at the edge of town and country.
These block plans aren’t really even that – more of a site use map than anything, but I drew them quickly to give some sense of how this site could redevelop to the benefit of both the mall and the neighborhood.
Retail/mixed use in orange, structured parking in blue. (G. Kueber)
Retail/mixed use in orange, structured parking in blue. (G. Kueber)
Until some real planning occurs – that engages the South, the North, and the Those That Pave the Roads, it seems that we’ll continue to build houses with tall privacy fences on the south side and greatest hits from the Suburban Wasteland Pattern Book on the north, and Club Boulevard will remain what it is today – No Man’s Land.