Friday, February 22, 2008

The Mall at Northgate

It's the biggest mall in Marin and the only enclosed shopping center in the county. Located in Terra Linda, just three miles north of San Rafael, it's got three department stores and around 100 specialty shops. It's forty years old and ugly as hell. Yes, it's the Mall at Northgate. Very brief history: started out as Emporium department store (now Macy's) and an outdoor mall. People tell me this was a nice place to shop in the 1970s, but I guess it was also the only place to shop back then. Major renovation in the late 1980s resulted in the present format. A glass roof was added to enclose the mall, requiring a multitude of columns to support it, which you see everywhere.
After several years of speculation, Macerich finally revealed plans at the end of last year for a full renovation, to begin sometime in 2008. Going against the current fashion for de-malling, they've decided to keep the roof on, but make significant changes to bring the center up to date, including new high-level windows along the malls and the creation of outdoor plaza areas. More details here.
The layout is a T-shape, with a department store anchoring the end of each mall. There's level parking on each side, with several points of entry to the mall in addition to direct entry to the department stores. There's also a double-deck parking garage in the south-west corner.

I took my camera along on my visit this weekend to record the "before" version. On the outside, Northgate looks like many a regional mall from this era, surrounded by a sea of car parking with a lot of not very attractive walls. There are several areas with external-facing stores, but as usual, these are low-traffic locations and attract low-rent tenants.

Inside the center the natural light is quite good but the malls are rather wide and have been filled with an abundance of kiosks, carts, vending machines, palm trees, plantings and other clutter. Part of the renovation plan is to bring forward the store fronts to narrow the malls, providing a more intimate retail environment without the need for messy mall furniture. The renovation also needs to do something about the poorly-designed side malls and long bare walls that exist at the moment. The lack of activity in these areas brings down the vibe of the whole center.

The three department stores cover the low to middle market segments, with Mervyn's anchoring the discount end, closely followed by Sears, with Macy's having slightly higher price points. The Macy's store is possibly in the worst condition, with worn carpeting and beaten-up fixtures. Mervyn's tile and carpet flooring is also clearly ancient, and Sears is not much better. Let's hope a good overhaul of these stores is part of the renovation package. The specialty shop roster is a long way from what you would expect from a major mall in Marin. Admittedly, the center management isn't actively trying to lease the units ahead of the renovation, so there is no point being too harsh on the current composition. But after the reno is complete the roster should be a who's-who of mid-market fashion chain stores. Here's your demographic:

The most popular part of the center on my visit was the food court, which was doing a great business with fans of the fast-food.

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