America’s First Mall Is Undergoing a Major Overhaul — And It Shows Where Retail Is Headed

When it opened its doors in 1950, Seattle’s Northgate Mall was the first mall built in America. It ushered in the reign of shopping centers in suburbia. Nearly 70 years later, though, this once-revolutionary retail space is about to undergo a massive overhaul, which will see large parts of the structure torn down to make way for residential units and office space. An 180,000-square-foot National Hockey League (NHL) practice facility is also moving in next door.

This mixed-use redevelopment is one example of the many projects underway across the country attempting to bring malls into the modern era — one in which e-commerce is accounting for an ever-greater slice of consumers’ wallets and many retailers are realizing they have more stores than they need. Northgate’s owner, Simon Property Group, filed plans last summer to tear down 60% of the mall to make room for 1,200 new housing units, four office towers, a 200-room hotel, an indoor fitness center with rooftop pool and a “Central Park” that would unite the complex around more than 100,000 square feet of green space.

The news was followed by a February announcement that NHL Seattle will become one of the new development’s anchor tenants, building its headquarters, training center and three NHL-regulation ice rinks, which will seat between 400 and 1,000 spectators. The city’s expansion team will join the league for the 2021-22 season; Seattle was last home to a professional hockey team in 1975.

Artist's renditions of the planned NHL ice hockey practice facility at Northgate Mall
NHL Seattle’s Lance Lopes presents artist’s renditions of the planned NHL ice hockey practice facility at Northgate Mall.
CREDIT: Elaine Thompson/Shutterstock

The new construction is timed to coincide with the opening of a light rail station at Northgate in 2021. The shift toward more public transit and walkable outdoor spaces, and away from the car-centric urban design that helped shopping malls proliferate, is happening in many parts of the country. Likewise, landlords are turning to a wide variety of tenants, including fitness centers, coworking spaces and food halls, to fill vacant spaces left by retailers, drawing shoppers back in with offerings that cater to their increasing interest in experiences over physical goods, as well as their changing work life.

Northgate isn’t the only mall that wants to become a hockey hub. The 3 million-square-foot American Dream complex in East Rutherford, N.J. will have an NHL-size rink when it opens in October.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 83 percent of shoppers still visit a mall once a week, but they’re flocking mostly to the top locations and leaving less-trafficked malls behind, making it more essential than ever for owners to evolve with the times.

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