Northland Shopping Center turns 60 and prepares to retire

The rise and fall of suburban indoor malls such as Northland Center.

Part three of three

Atlantic City Lab published the article, “The Shopping Center Turns 60 (And Prepares to Retire): The inventor of the suburbia indoor shopping mall came to rue his creations, but now they are dying off anyway”. This article was written in 2012, and describes the rise and fall of suburban indoor malls such as Northland Center.  Northland Center, located in Southfield Michigan, was the nation’s first regional shopping mall. The article stated:

Vienna-born architect Victor Gruen, architect for Northland Center, first outlined his vision for it in a 1952 article in the magazine Progressive Architecture, and the plan was a shocker. Most Americans were still shopping downtown, and suburban "shopping centers," to the extent they existed, were most definitely not enclosed in indoor mega-destinations. Gruen’s idea transformed American consumption patterns and much of the environment around us. At age 60, however, the enclosed regional shopping mall also appears to be an idea that has run its course. 

In 2015, the Detroit Free Press published an article providing a chronological history of Northland Center. It outlined the rise and fall of Northland Center from 1954-2015. The article stated: Northland Center was the largest shopping center in the world when it opened in 1954, and was developed by the former Detroit-based J.L. Hudson company. The mall was originally an open-air concept until a mid-1970s expansion and enclosure. Northland for a time succeeded the old Detroit Hudson’s as the region’s prime fashion destination, and later refocused on middle-income shoppers. It received its last major renovation in 1991, when a food court was added. The mall has been in visible decline since the early 2000’s, and struggled to attract well-to-do shopper and popular national chains due to competition from other malls. Many of the shops before the closure of the mall were locally owned.

Southfield Living Magazine describes how Northland Center led to the growth, development and economic success of Southfield, Michigan, which is an inner ring suburb of Detroit. The magazine states: Northland Shopping Center led the way for Southfield to become a major commercial, business and residential center in metropolitan Detroit. When the original center was completed, Southfield’s population was only 25,000. Fifteen years later, the population had grown to 69,000, which is about what it is today (72,000). In addition to its population growth, Northland Center helped foster enormous office expansion. Today, Southfield boasts more than 27 million square feet of office space, making it one of Michigan’s leading business centers.

Northland Center in 2015 had major financial and structural problems. The receiver’s report stated Northland Center was losing approximately $250,000 every month, and nearly half of the tenants failed to pay rent on time. Beyond major financial problems, Northland was in disrepair. An estimated $6 million or more was needed to return the Center to a functioning shopping mall.

Northland Center’s sister shopping centers, Livonia Mall, Wonderland Mall and Tel Twelve Mall were also enclosed malls that were demolished (Tel Twelve Mall was partially demolished). These malls have been successfully redeveloped as outdoor shopping areas.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

Part one – Proactive blight elimination and economic redevelopment

Part two – Financial problems

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