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GOLDEN NORTHLAND: Pioneering shopping mall marks a faded 50th

March 22, 2004

BY GRETA GUEST
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Detroit's population was at its peak of 2 million, the suburbs were becoming home for thousands, and women still shopped wearing fitted dresses with gloves, hats and pointy-toed stilettos.

In 1954, Ford Motor Co. introduced the Thunderbird, and General Motors Corp. rolled out the Corvette. Dean Martin's "That's Amore" and Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" streamed from car radios.

And in Southfield, retail history was made.

Northland Center turns 50 today. The mall rose to prominence when it became the nation's first regional shopping center. What now seems a common sight -- an island of boxy buildings surrounded by oceans of parking spaces -- pioneered at 8 Mile and Greenfield.

The Detroit Free Press ran a front page report on March 22, 1954, calling Northland a "new shopping paradise," with a caution about losing one's machine, be it a Chevy, Ford, Studebaker or Plymouth, in the nine parking lots on more than 60 acres. The mall had 65 stores when it opened.

The opening was big news, covered by national publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Time, Look, Life, Ladies Home Journal and Newsweek.

Its survival through the decades isn't as noteworthy to the nation now. Northland still stands. Traditional malls, credited with killing downtown retail, lost favor to outlet malls, discount stores, strip centers, upscale shops, the Internet, and, yes, even downtown shopping districts.

The aging mall, while outdated and lacking in restaurants and upscale shops, remains a viable, successful center with sales per square foot well above the national average. Retail experts say it has a bright future if it could develop parts of its massive parking lot into new stores and become an icon of urban retailing.

Designed by Victor Gruen to marry the Motor Age with commerce, community and art, Northland will see its 50th anniversary pass quietly this spring. But the center's managers want to host summer events to celebrate the golden anniversary while announcing new tenants for vacant anchor spots.

The summer celebration could be reminiscent of the week-long opening of the $30-million mall. Then, Northland featured auditoriums, a bank, post office, infirmary, sculptures, fountains, an office for lost children, free gasoline for shoppers running low and lavish landscaping, according to the 2003 book "Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream" by M. Jeffrey Hardwick (University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95).

At the height of its popularity through the early 1980s, the mall had as many as 18 million visitors each year. Now, about 9 million people shop there a year, said Larry Ruppert, Northland's general manager.

The mall's allure and image have been ravaged by time, competition and suburban migration patterns. Its biggest enemy might just be the warm memories the mall evokes in people who experienced what it was and seem disappointed with what it has become.

Retail pioneer

Gruen came up with the idea for Northland, along with Southland, Westland and Eastland, as a way for J.L. Hudson, the department store, to capture business outside Detroit, which was already in decline in the early 1950s, Hardwick's book says.

Gruen personally scouted the mall's site on 121 acres.

"Gruen devised a plan for Northland that took American shopping center design in a new direction, using outdoor malls, fountains, sculpture, benches and colonnades to create a dense shopping environment, a pleasurable space for pedestrians," Hardwick wrote.

Northland's golden age started in 1954 and lasted more than 20 years. J. L. Hudson Jr., 72, whose family built Northland, remembers the mall at Christmastime when cars lined up for up to three miles to get in.

"They came up with this modern shopping center concept, far and away larger than anything else at the time," Hudson said. "It was unbelievable to build a new store in the suburbs. The market was already there. The market was declining downtown."

"It was a wonderful time," recalled Harold Lawson, 80, who at the time was an executive at M.E. Arden & Co., the commercial real estate firm that did the first tenant leasing at Northland. The firm was owned by Lawson's father-in-law, Manuel E. Arden, who also developed several office buildings in the area.

"Northland was creating a concentration of traffic for everyone in shopping to take advantage of in an area that was very small and defined," Lawson said.

Besides Hudson's, Northland opened with a number of other prestigious local retailers including Hughes & Hatcher, Himelhoch's, Winkelman's, Kresge's, Robinson Furniture, Better Made Potato Chips and Sanders in the 2-million-square-foot, open-air center.

"Northland has such a glorious past," Ruppert said. "It was way beyond successful when it first opened."

The mall was enclosed in 1975. But by the 1980s the mall's image started sagging as customers headed to more upscale malls in other suburbs. The mall also developed a reputation for being unsafe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, perceptions that mall management and city officials say are no longer true.

Hudson, who calls Northland one of his children, says the mall has lost its regional dominance and it's doubtful that could be regained. "Northland is looking like an old relic," he said.

Tony Camilletti, senior vice president of JGA Inc., a retail design firm in Southfield, created window displays for Winkelman's and Hughes & Hatcher at Northland during the 1970s and 1980s.

Camilletti says the mall and community need to check their expectations on what Northland is and could be. There are certain demographic trends and realities too strong to ignore, such as the fact that the mall draws a customer base that is more than 85 percent black.

"The customer base that made them successful in the '60s is never going to go back," he said. "They need to find out who their customers are today instead of saying, 'Drag your grandmother back to Northland.' "

Back from neglect?

William Carr, 66, a deacon at Pure Word, a Baptist church in Detroit, and his friend Zeke Zeigler, 75, of Detroit, hang out at the mall every day. "What better place to get something to eat, have something to do?" Carr asked.

Zeigler says, "I watch everything that walks past. They don't get the same clientele they used to."

Northland draws shoppers from Detroit and area suburbs. The average household income of shoppers within a 10-mile radius of the center was $54,795 in 2000. But the population in that area has declined steadily in 20 years, going from 953,753 in 1980 to 841,031 in 2000.

Eddie Powers, president and executive director for Southfield Chamber of Commerce, said people left Northland for Twelve Oaks in Novi in the 1980s because the shops there were newer and appealed to the upwardly mobile.

"I think the image of the mall now has suffered," Powers said. "I don't think perceptions die very easily. That is one of the problems. I'm not sure it's going down anymore. It's been stabilized. It's not a bad mall. It's getting in the maneuverability to go back up."

During the 1990s, Northland declined some more. It lost major tenants such as Kohl's, Victoria's Secret and The Limited. Also gone are Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney.

It was put up for sale.

"When it was up for sale in the 1990s, I think it suffered from some inevitable neglect," Ruppert said.

It was purchased in 2000 by GP Northland II, a New Jersey-based partnership. The company funded improvements inside such as planters, benches, bathroom upgrades, fresh paint and an improved food court. More than 100,000 square feet of retail space has been remodeled or leased since then, Ruppert said.

The mall's major tenants are Marshall Field's (formerly Hudson's), Target and TJ Maxx. It also has dozens of speciality shops run by local and national retailers. National retailers include Foot Locker, Payless, Radio Shack, Jeepers, Subway, Mrs. Field's Cookies, Kay Jewelers, Wilson's Leather, Sam Goody and Naturalizer.

Local specialty shops include City Slickers, Unique Perfumes, Truth Bookstore, C'est La Vie and Stepping Out Hair & Nail Salon.

The only store that was among the original tenants is Baker's shoes. Hudson's changed its name to Marshall Field's in 2001.

Some say the mall has more to offer than people give it credit for.

"Northland is not a new shiny penny and isn't full of national tenants," said Jonathon Hallberg, executive director of Cornerstone Development Authority in Southfield, which has developed several retail and residential projects near Northland.

"Its strength is in its history and uniqueness. A lot of people say there's nothing there but haven't been there for seven years," Hallberg said. "Obviously, the mall does need to step up and change its marketing approach and take some steps to improve the exterior."

Category voids

Ruppert said the center is in the process of filling category voids such as more women's clothing and restaurants. The center has been criticized for focusing too much on athletic wear, shoes and urban wear.

But changing the tenant mix could take several years.

"Fifty years have now gone by. To me, the most amazing thing is Northland's sales performance continues to be above the national average," said Ruppert, who says the center has average sales of $390 per square foot compared to the national average of $330 per square foot.

The mall cannot fill the J.C. Penney space until the retailer's lease expires next year, Ruppert said. But he said the mall is close to finalizing a deal on the Montgomery Ward site with an unnamed East Coast discount department store chain. He also has an interested national shoe store chain interested in the former Sibley's Shoes location. Sibley's closed all its stores in December.

Ruppert also has leased 22 kiosk retailers around the center and plans to open five more. New stores include Physique Spa, a personal trainer-style workout facility; a women's plus-size clothing store called Rainbow Plus; a men's big and tall store called No Limits and a retro athletic wear store called Hip Hop University.

Of the 135 specialty retail spaces in the mall, three are vacant, he said.

"I see some of The Limited stores coming here. To me, there is no question that Victoria's Secret would do fantastic business here," Ruppert said.

Shopper Kimberly Turner, a 36-year-old security guard from Detroit, says her daughters Letrice, 13, and Michelle, 4, have no trouble finding things they like at Northland. But few stores carry what she wants. She says she's limited to Ashley Stewart and The Avenue for women's apparel.

"It just needs diversity in shops, as opposed to the hip-hop shops I've been seeing," said Turner, who would like to see Victoria's Secret, Kohl's and Burlington Coat Factory at Northland.

Turner says most of her friends shop at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn because it has a wider variety of shops and more amenities such as strollers, a play scape for kids, better restaurants, more ATM machines and a customer service desk.

"The first time I shopped at Northland, I was 19. I was looking for an outfit for a party. I went on the weekend so it was extremely crowded. Back then Northland was the place to be. I had to boss my way through the crowd to get to the shop," Turner says. "On weekends now, it's light. The only time Northland gets a big crowd is on holidays."

The mall does little marketing to reverse its image of having few choices and being unsafe, retail experts say.

Some stores, such as Kids For Less, have signs that might give people the impression the mall suffers from rampant shoplifting: "All bags must be checked."

"I don't know how welcome you feel," said Ed Nakfoor, a Birmingham-based retail consultant, whose clients include Somerset Collection in Troy.

"It took so many years to get here . . . it will take many more if they want to improve their fortunes. Northland is still hanging on."

Captive audience

Retail and design experts say Northland could prepare for another 50 years in retail by going back to its roots as an open-air center. The open air concept has resurfaced in recent years as a Main Street or lifestyle center, such as The Village in Rochester Hills.

That, Camilletti says, could help Northland attract more lifestyle retailers such as Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. "Who knows, maybe they could attract a Nordstrom if they were able to create that type of environment," he says.

"Northland needs to be unique. Find out what is really going to be unique about the experience at Northland," Camilletti said. "I think they should celebrate their ethnicity. They are one of the true urban shopping centers in the nation."

Robert Gibbs, an urban architect based in Birmingham, said Northland has more going for it than some would think. He conducted a study of Northland three years ago and found that another 200,000 square feet of retail space could be added to the center.

The mall has a much larger trade area than most centers. People come from six miles south and two miles north to shop there. It gets a boost because Detroiters have so few retail options, he said.

"They have the market area of four centers," Gibbs said. "Northland has a captive audience of 1 million to 2 million people. An average center just needs 250,000 people to sustain it."

Gibbs said that, while Northland's format is outdated, it will continue to perform well until some competitor builds a better shopping center nearby. He said the center has a critical need of national, themed restaurants such as Chili's and TGI Friday's.

"The other thing the site has going for it is the parking lot is twice as big as it needs to be," Gibbs said. "There is an opportunity to just build in that parking lot a lot of retail."

Ann Lash, 78, who has been shopping at Northland since it opened, was dining on a recent Friday night at the A&W in the food court. The Huntington Woods resident agrees the mall could use some better restaurants.

"It would help a lot," said Lash, who visits Northland twice a month. "It doesn't have to be upscale but just somewhere to have a nice cup of soup."

Otherwise, Lash says, she enjoys shopping at the mall, a five-minute drive from her home. She finds the mall clean and safe with friendly staff in the stores.

Lash has on her living room wall a picture of the Italian Alps and a lake with sailboats. She bought it at a Northland sidewalk sale in the 1950s.

"I hope it never goes away," Lash said of Northland.

Contact GRETA GUEST at 313-223-4192 or gguest@freepress.com. Staff writer Sheryl James contributed to this report.


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