Durham's Northgate Mall -- where are we now?
We Want Oprah... to bring her bulldozer

Durham's Northgate Mall -- where are we going?

In yesterday's piece on Northgate, we looked at where Northgate is today -- some successes (the movie theater, the strip center), but still troubling failures (the closing of several prominent retailers, and the barrenness of the outdoor plaza still awaiting its first tenants.)

The plaza is the most worrisome part of the entire project. Last August I had mentioned in these pages my surprise that the plaza construction was moving forward despite the barrenness of the east side of the wing, in which only Marble Slab had taken a new space.  I surmised then (hopefully?) that it must be a sign that Northgate Associates had some tenants in the pipeline who were committing to the project.

It's now almost a year later, the new plaza is done, and there's simply more vacant storefronts to fill -- which seems to imply, in the absence of any other announcements from Northgate, that no one's committed to the project.  Which is, needless to say, an odd thing to discover only after you've sunk millions of dollars into a renovation.

I am a tremendous fan of spunky, locally-owned businesses and I'd love to see Northgate -- a rare family-operated mall in the days when massive REITs own an operate most shopping centers -- make it.  But it's more important to the city and the neighboring community that the center be a success.  So, what would I like to see there?  I see three logical ways to move forward from the current malaise:

1. Time to sell out and redevelop as a mall. One challenge for the Rands in leasing up Northgate is that Simon, CBL, General Growth, etc. all have deep relationships with mall retailers and can rely on multi-property deals and leases to draw tenants in. From the major retailers' perspective, it's a lot easier to negotiate one set of master contracts and deal with a single corporate parent rather than local mall ownership. As a result, a national owner might be able to help to shore up Northgate's lousy vacancy rate.  On a recent trip to San Francisco, I took a look at a project, the Shops at Tanforan, in San Bruno, a middle-class community just south of Daly City and South San Francisco.  The 1970s-era mall's anchor tenants (Sears, JCPenney, and Target) had decent sales, but inside the mall, the aging facility had a 40%+ vacancy rate and the facility was not aging well.

General Growth Properties, the developer of Southpoint here in Durham, stepped in and razed the existing mall, building a shiny, steel-and-glass complex in its place.  Two years later, the new mall is almost fully leased, with a mix of tenants strikingly similar to those national retailers (PacSun, MasterCuts, Charlotte Russe, etc.) that are already in Northgate -- appropriate, given relatively similar demographics. (Here's an interesting case study on the project.)  Admittedly, Northgage doesn't have the benefit of a mass-transit station to draw shoppers the way Tanforan does, but I think the rest of the analogy does hold.  This might be the hardest step for the Rands -- who are by all accounts extremely proud of their long history owning and developing Northgate -- to take. But it seems to be the only path for success as a viable indoor shopping mall.

2. Convert to a traditional shopping/power center. North Pointe has been successful in bringing Costco, Home Depot and the like to north-central Durham. With a retail 'strip' already in place and anchored by Guitar Center, Office Depot, and the cafeteria, redeveloping the remainder of the property to draw in more large retail seems at least a possibility. This might be the easiest plan to execute, but I think it would miss a much bigger opportunity to help both the mall property and the neighborhood. To wit:

3. Redevelop as mixed use. Paging Mr. Kane... Mr. Kane, are you reading this? Strange as it might seem at first glance, a North Hills-style redevelopment of Northgate could make the most sense of any future for the property. Consider the possibilities--

  • Northgate has an overabundance of parking spaces in the form of two now-lightly used parking garages, reducing the up-front cost of building out project infrastructure.
  • The mall has very good access to I-85 thanks to the recently-completed widening and  upgrades to the Duke/Gregson interchange.
  • The new theater and plaza space would be a logical standalone retail facility that could become adjacent to apartments or other housing added elsewhere on the site.
  • Macy's would certainly be logical as a standalone retail outlet here, as in so many other parts of the country and even the state. Integrating the monolithic and rather unattractive Sears would be trickier (particularly if there are long-term lease tie-ups, which there might be given Sears' recent renovations to that store) but worth exploring.

Could a North Hills plan work at Northgate? Probably not on the retail side in terms of replicating the type of mix at North Hills. But a residential-focused project with neighborhood retail and some entertainment and dining options could do well.

All of this, however, would depend on the progress and completion of one major project: the East End Connector, which is an important ace-in-the-hole for the property's future economic value.

Today, Northgate sits on a major highway at the northern end of Durham, away from the "retail action" along the I-40 corridor.  By the middle of the next decade, however, from Northgate it'll be a 2-mile drive on I-85 to U.S. 70, then a six or seven mile drive down 70 and the EEC to NC 147 and straight into RTP.  At the same time, Northgate has a great location just 5 minutes' drive or 20 minutes' walk to Brightleaf and the revitalizing downtown Durham.  With a 100% freeway, low-traffic connection to the heart of the region's economy, a new, mixed-use Northgate would be perfectly situated as a residential cluster for young, professional RTP and downtown workers.

No matter what future it has, Northgate has a past that long-time Durhamites are proud of.  It's time for Northgate Associates to realize that the ability of reality to match their dreams may be a bigger challenge than they're capable of meeting.  The time may have come to pass the baton and move along.


Ren Provey

I've been puzzling over Northgate for years. I think option #3 done right, with a residential focus working to integrate with the communities around it, would be nothing short of phenominal.


I definitely think an "inside-out" approach would work best here, like North Hills or Cameron Village. The mall thing has run its course.


EEC, blah blah blah. Is it really that much faster to get off at Duke St. and cruise to the mall at 35mph? This is my daily commute from RTP (I live across from Tripps), and while I'm loathe to see more traffic on the Duke/Gregson speedways, it's 17 miles and takes me 20 minutes door to door. The only traffic is the 4-to-2 lane merge north of Chapel Hill St., or when a train crosses Duke. The EEC will benefit the commuters from Butner, and Northgate only incidentally IMO.

Agreed things are grim; I thought for sure Macy's would shutter the old Belk, but I guess there's a long term lease that was too expensive to quit. Perhaps options 2 or 3 would bring back our beloved Harris Teeter.

Ten bucks says no one who reads this website has actually eaten at the C&H Cafeteria. The meat loaf's not bad, but the fried chicken's too greasy and I was half the age of many of the patrons. Did I mention it closes at 8pm?

Kevin Davis

Sweet! Rollins owes me ten bucks. (My wife and I make it there every couple of months, especially if we're in a rush and don't feel like cooking. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it's a great thing in a cafeteria. And agreed on the age thing -- we're usually the youngest, save for grandkids, by a factor of two decades or more.)

In re the EEC -- yeah, I do think it'll make a big difference. Twenty minutes door to door versus ten to twelve minutes with an all-freeway connection. My wife commutes from Duke & Knox to RTP, and she can already get there faster taking the new I-85 -> US 70 -> Miami Blvd., though it only shaves a couple of minutes off, making it not worth the red light risk.

Anyway, my point was that with the EEC, it makes Northgate *itself* much more attractive for residential redevelopment, since with the I-85 redesign complete, you're talking that 10 minute drive (all highway) to RTP, shorter to Duke and the Med Center. There's not a single other large-acreage assemblage I know of that is in distress and has these properties. Closest would be the old Regency Plaza across from the former South Square Mall, but it lacks the easy commute to RTP.

BTW, Macy's and Belk's weren't conflated there at Northgate. Belk's had taken over the old Thalamier's store, which is now where the Phoenix Theater is; I suspect they'd been there for a couple of decades at least. They closed shortly after Southpoint opened. Hecht's (which is now a Macy's) didn't come to the mall until about 10-15 years ago, when the third department store was added.


Yeah, where can I collect?

(Ditto on Kevin's comments on the caf's customer base.)


My wife and I moved into Northgate Park in September, and yeah, I'd say pretty much anything other than the status quo would be an improvement for the mall. The only business I patronize there with any frequency is Randy's. I think we've gone to the movies there twice, Macy's once. And we hate driving.

Plunk a Target and a Trader Joe's there and we'd never move.

I commute to the south side of RTP...taking Mangum to the 147, my door to door is usually 17-18 minutes. I find it hard to believe the EEC will speed things up much, but I can see the benefit to the people whose neighborhoods I drive through every day.


"I commute to the south side of RTP...taking Mangum to the 147, my door to door is usually 17-18 minutes. I find it hard to believe the EEC will speed things up much, but I can see the benefit to the people whose neighborhoods I drive through every day."

You can be sure that the people whose neighborhoods you drive through are going to keep doing everything they can to slow you, and everyone else who views those roads as merely on/off ramps between I-85 and 147, down. Plus, those roads are already pretty close to capacity during morning and evening rush hours. (I did a count on southbound Roxboro 5 years ago that got over 1600 cars between 7:30 and 8:30 am.) That commute will definitely get longer. And quite frankly, commuting through neighborhoods where kids are walking to school is just a stupid idea.

Mixed use makes too much sense. It would also give a chance to revisit the "widened and upgraded" Duke/Gregson interchange, which may move vehicles efficiently when the traffic light is actually functioning, but is one of the worst pedestrian designs i've ever seen. Brogden Middle School is barely a mile from the edges of Trinity Park, but there's no way in hell you'd want to see 12 year olds riding their bikes or walking between those two locations.

And, hey, Rollins, i thought you lived on Markham in "no-man's land" where your working class neighbors won't complain about your noisy late night parties?


I bought the Cole-Couch House at 911 Club last year (featured as one of PD's endangered properties!). In many ways I miss Markham (like being a renter vs. having to fix the twelve things that break every week here). Got my sights set on the PD restoration award circa 2012.

Can any of you old hands recollect the brouhaha over the Rockola Cafe that was going to be built next to Tripp's a few years back? As I recall the TPNA killed it, but the N&O archives are spotty.


...you, and everyone else who views those roads as merely on/off ramps between I-85 and 147...And quite frankly, commuting through neighborhoods where kids are walking to school is just a stupid idea.

Easy, Barry! I'm with you here...

The only place I drive through that I ever see kids is my own street, which is kind of hard for me to avoid. I've never seen kids walking down Mangum in the morning (maybe this is b/c I'm usually on the road b/f 7:30?)

And though I don't have the city-approved bumper sticker to advertise it, I habitually stick to the speed limit (on surface streets). Actually, I think 35 mph on the Roxboro/Mangum and Duke/Gregson (esp) is too high.


Duke/Gregson have a number of school crossing, both for Watts Elementary, and DSA. I know DSA has later hours (9 - 3, or thereabouts), but i think Watts starts at 8am.

In order to get to Mangum, you've got to traverse a couple of blocks of Roxboro between I-85 and Markham, going right through the park crossing zone at Knox. It's precisely those cars coming fro north of I-85 that are heading for NC 147 that the EEC is designed to remove from our neighborhood surface streets. NCDOT estimates that the EEC will divert up to 25,000 vehicles a day (i'm assuming that means 50,000 trips per day) from surface streets. I think that's worth continuing to advocate for.

My last meeting with transportation folks we talked about dropping the speed limit on Roxboro, at least the two way section of it, to 30 mph. 25 mph was flat out rejected.

And as long as you're driving the speed limit anyway, why not put the sticker on your car? The point of the sticker is not necessarily to drive the speed limit, but to remind other folks to drive the speed limit. Personally, i think if everyone in Durham saw at least one of those stickers on every trip in town, it would make a difference.

Michael Bacon

Hey, do I get $10 too? I like C&H's fried fish on Fridays, and their custard pie is to die for. Had some turkey and dressing there the last time I was there that was wretched, though. Don't even start to think that the "creative classers" don't go there -- I spotted Scott Harmon in there one time.

Back to Northgate, I've thought this for years, but Gary's language makes it easier to express. That mall's biggest problem right now is the outright hostility of the design to the street. I'm sure that made sense in 1960, but looking to the south, it's got one of the wealthiest, most stable urban neighborhoods right on its border, and may as well have concrete baracades and armed checkpoints to access it. It's amazing that Trinity Park is stable to within a block or less of Club Blvd, but then the negative energy from the south side of the mall breaks it down, and you get a rather rundown row of blocks.

The mall's best solution, IMO, would be to, from the point of design, throw its arms open to the major roads around it. Heck, if you want to go whole hog, extend the urban grid up through the mall, tearing down parts of it and segmenting it a bit. Like, oh, for heaven's sake, am I a GIS monkey or not?

Here's a 30 minute mockup for the site:

Extend Buchanan up to the door of Sears, and create a streetscape with Sears as the endcap. Make Macy's the cap to Watts St. Redo Gregson so that it's a bit more civilized. Put office and street retail out to the street in places where there's just either massive unused parking or vanilla lawnscaping now.


All of y'all who want your ten bucks can meet me at the C&H anytime. Payable in Beef Stroganoff or the entree of your choosing; email me and I'll walk across the street.

Love Michael's grid idea.


My husband, daughter & I moved to Northgate Park a little over a year ago & have also used the mall very infrequently. We went to Old Navy before it closed, the movies about 3 times and Macy's once or twice. Other than that, there's really not a whole lot for us to do there. B's remark about putting a Target or Trader Joe's in there is exactly what some friends & I were discussing the other day. In Raleigh there are 3 Targets within 7 miles of each other on the same road - why is there only 1 Target around here (not counting Southpoint's)? And Trader Joe's/Fresh Market/fancy Harris Teeter would be great! I don't dislike Whole Foods but it's very crowded, sometimes overpriced and my car always bottoms out going into the lot from Perry Street. The North Hills idea for Northgate is interesting - mixed retail/office/residential (but don't make it as expensive as North Hills) - it might work in a spot like this.


"In Raleigh there are 3 Targets within 7 miles of each other on the same road - why is there only 1 Target around here (not counting Southpoint's)?"

You say that like it's a bad thing.

I'm more than satisfied with the volume and location of big box retailing in Durham. Don't forget, there's also a Target a few miles down highway 70 at Brier Creek. It's over the county line, so your tax dollars won't be staying in Durham, however.

"And Trader Joe's/Fresh Market/fancy Harris Teeter would be great!"

Harris Teeter bailed out of Northgate about 2 years ago. The cafeteria is in their old space. Durham's demographics are not quite what Trader Joe's looks for when opening new spaces. I suspect, though, that if enough Durhamites shop at the TJs that is supposed to open in Chapel Hill, they might eventually get the message. More likely they'll end up near the old South Square mall, though. Meanwhile, head over to Compare foods for a wide variety of unusual produce and meats, or to the Red and White market on east Club for your grocery needs.


Hi Barry -
I have no desire to turn Durham into Raleigh. That's why we got the hell out of there. I guess I should have clarified a little. With a toddler daughter, we need to make as few shopping stops as possible on weekends. Super Target usually takes care of everything we need - I just wish we didn't have to trek to the South Square area every 7 days. 15/501 can be very confusing, especially if you're new to the area, and congested. And I was aware that HT left the Northgate area but I wasn't quite sure what the circumstances were. I guess what I'm trying to say is that a one-stop shopping area (groceries, clothes, diapers, household items, etc) closer to our end of Durham would be nice. Not essential, but nice.


True dat -- the Red & White is the bomb. Jill might find most of her needs met at Costco, but it's annoying that you can't buy 2L diet coke there (or a hundred other things, e.g., spray and wash, seltzer, superglue, shoe polish). They do have the best prices on cigarettes, however.

It'd be nice if the Wal-Mart on N. Rox became a super WMT w/ grocery, but frankly ever since they stopped selling shotguns that place has gone downhill. I'd sooner go to the all night one in Brier Creek, where you can at least buy ammunition.


It's a much nicer drive from Northgate park area down to the Target by South Square if you take Gregson/Vickers all the way down to University and avoid 15/501. Then you can stop at the other Red and White market on that side of town, and catch a bite to eat at the Q Shack as well.

i can't tell you where the all-night ammo store is down there, however.

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