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Northgate Mall does not have to close. Thoughts on the announcement

In February and March shortly before the lockdown, I was at Northgate Mall. The first time, for personal shopping. I hadn’t been to the mall since — 2013? The second time was for work. I thought I was doing a normal story, one of those stories I could do on a redevelopment plan for The Herald-Sun over a few days.

Then, the lockdown happened and what was really going on at the mall became clearer. This turned out to be a more complicated story than I expected. The following are my recollections from my visits to the mall in February and March. And then, my reaction and thoughts when Northwood Development, the current owner of Northgate, announced it was going to close the mall.

Northgate Mall’s food court in February. This is exactly the way I remember it and brought back memories immediately. “Did we stop here on the way back from a school field trip?” I wondered.

In February, I was there with a friend. Neither of us had been to Northgate for years, and it was a welcome outing. She wanted to get some shopping errands done, and I wanted to check out the stores there. We went in the entrance down from the Stadium 10 movie theater. Immediately, I was saddened by the sight of Northgate outside. The storefronts on the exterior were still unbuilt and empty.

I was also surprised. In South Durham, when you think about Northgate, the expectation from the goings-on and the commercial activity there was that the same would be going on at mall. But many of the storefronts inside were also empty when that entrance used to be more bustling. What had happened? What was going on?

There was a coldness when you went in the entrance in that side of the mall, with Ross & Co. Jewelers and some other stores. We went into Ross so my friend can look at the jewelry. Then, we kept walking. We got to the food court, and ah — this was right.

The food court still looked the same as it did from my memories. Maybe even going back to childhood. “Did my classmates and I used to come here on our way back from a school field trip?” I wondered. This was a lot of nostalgia.

My friend is better at picking out restaurants and food, so she picked the vendor and she made the perfect choice. Cheesesteaks! Chicken wings! They were perfect, and I don’t think I could have found a better cheesesteak anywhere else in Durham. I made a mental note: Must bring other friends here for cheesesteaks. Must tell people about the great undiscovered food at Northgate right now.

This turned out to be a great trip.

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Here is what I remember of Northgate:

The carousel, of course. The Christmas decorations.

Then, after I started working at The Herald-Sun and started reporting on Northgate’s redevelopment efforts in the late 2000s, I started associating the mall more with 1950s-1960s Durham. The mall used to be a strip shopping center before it was developed. In the late 2000s was when the movie theater and the outdoor area were added, with the owners hoping to update the mall and give it back some vibrancy.

It did work for a time.

By 2011, there was a great used bookstore there, part of a small chain. There was also a locally owned bookstore specializing in African-American authors. Clothing stores like Jimmy Jazz and national retailers like Macy’s rounded out and anchored the offerings.

As a reporter, I got to know other fun things about Northgate. Here’s a little Durham trivia: Which local company used Northgate’s basement to store their inventory of… hot sauce?

Northgate seemed to have stabilized during that time, and had a foundation for other ideas to come into the mall and build on what was there. In some ways, it was still doing that earlier this year. In March, the Stadium 10 movie theater still had a poster for “A Quiet Place 2,” with Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy.

The question is: What happened to knock it off track?

The mall is at the edge of the neighborhoods going north from Ninth Street and the N.C. School of Science and Math, and south of the area with the Museum of Life and Science. It’s very inside Durham. It doesn’t get the traffic from Interstate 40 that The Streets of Southpoint gets. And it’s very much for kids and teens. There was still a Children’s Place open there in February. And a Spencer’s. Spencer’s!

There were still stores like Aeropostale, Foot Locker, Bath & Body Works, GameStop.

There should be traffic from the neighborhoods that feed into Northgate on a regular basis. Why has this not been happening?

By March this year, the mall had become very caved in.

Northwood Development, owner of the mall, kept doing community engagement events around the neighborhoods. It seemed they were going for a mixed-use development but details were not forthcoming.

When I interviewed workers at the mall, they looked very stressed and tired, and said mall management rarely checked in with how the tenants were doing. When I asked about Northwood possibly wanting to build a mixed-use development, their jaws clenched. They didn’t want to say anything, but it was obvious this was not a development they wanted.

The tenants all noted how much the traffic had declined.

“This mall, always not too many customers,” said Wilma Vengas, who had been working at clothing store Laila’s for some 10 years. During the Obama years, Vengas said, “a lot of people coming in, shopping, play, talking.”

Victoria Williams, manager of the Spencer’s, said the traffic had actually picked up recently, but it was slow.

“In 2009, the traffic was good. These past few years, it’s been bad. There’s no Macy’s. We don’t have an anchor store,” Williams said. “And especially after (the Victoria’s Secret) closed, I think this side of the mall really suffered. They should really revamp. Add better stores. Add stores that will bring people.”

Bianca Jones, a shopper I stopped for comments, was there with her child. I asked her what her concerns were for the mall, and she noted the same thing as Williams did, which was also something I thought was worrying: The Victoria’s Secret was gone.

Victoria’s Secret is one of the retailers this past decade who could thrive anywhere they opened. Maybe the only one. So the fact that they left, what did that mean? Did the mall have such a problem with crime that even the strongest retailer didn’t want to stay?

“There’s nobody in here and there’s no business,” said Bianca Jones. “When Victoria’s Secret left, I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going down!'”

Jones added that she did think people who were shopping at Northgate were from nearby neighborhoods.

Curtis Ross, owner of Ross Jewelers, said one of the problems at the mall was crime, or the perceptions of crime. In recent years, Northgate was the site of numerous shootings, both inside and outside.

“It’s difficult to get people to come (because of that),” he said. “My customers still come to see me, and so I still have traffic.”

But even with the stress and anxiety that tenants were having about safety, traffic and the mall management’s vague plans for mixed-use, throughout the mall, people were friendly, in the way I remember. This was still a very Durham, very down to earth and friendly mall. It was very nice to be back there doing a story, interviewing people. This was the way I remembered Northgate.

I circled around — hello to the mall security officer! — I looked at the old storefronts, remembering where the carousel used to be. GameStop, Kay Jewelers, Spencer’s, restaurants I remember from years ago, new restaurants. Two women I spoke to at the food court, Patricia Egure and Elena Revera, friends who had been coming to eat there once a week for years, said they missed the DressBarn. I interviewed 18-year-old Amber Cotten at Hibbett Sports. This was her first job. Oh, so cute!

I kept circling around. I passed by the security guard again. Yes, I’m still here! We smiled at each other.

There were many questions I wanted to ask Northwood Investors, who bought the mall from Northgate Associates in 2018 for $34.5 million. Seeing that they were conducting many surveys with neighborhood associations on what residents wanted to see at the mall, I was curious about what ideas they were working on. I also wanted to ask about the problems with crime, or the perceptions of problems, at the mall.

After the lockdowns happened, I reached out to them, asking if since the mall was shut down, that might be a good time to come by the management office for an interview and look at their plans. I received a short reply.

“We are still working with a master planner and have not released any plans yet for the redevelopment,” wrote Jonathan Stewart with Northwood. “The last 30 days and likely at least next 30 days have been extremely busy because of COVID-19 but why don’t we plan to try and reconnect in a month, when things settle down a bit?”

Busy during the coronavirus crisis. Busy with what? I wondered.

In the week before the closing announcement, I was still working on the story about Northgate as before. I reached out to five people on the neighborhood listservs who had been vocal in discussing Northgate, asking what they heard about Northwood’s plans, what their thoughts are, what they themselves want for the mall. Although they discussed Northgate on the listservs, no one seemed to want to offer comments to a reporter. I had not gotten a reply from anyone.

Instead of the mall management and the neighborhoods, it was the tenants, the shoppers, the workers at the mall who have been maintaining the mall’s identity, its vibe, the fond memories that people have about the mall — and this important part of Durham history. When the coronavirus shutdowns happened, most of them were locked out. Just a handful of tenants with doors on the exterior were kept open. The vendors in the cafeteria were not open. I would have been fine with getting takeout – Cheesesteaks for picking up curbside? This could have been offered as an option. It was not.

Now, the tenants at the mall won’t even get a chance to get back customers and make up for the loss in revenue.

This is awful.

After the news broke about the mall closing permanently, these are the questions I asked Northwood:

  • Why close the mall now when you’ve been doing these discussions for months?
  • What has your plan been for the mall?
  • The tenants at the mall won’t be able to come back and make up for the loss in revenue during the shutdown? Will they be able to open for a time at least? Are their leases up effective immediately?

Jonathan Stewart with Northwood e-mailed me back this response:

The severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed the way we live and socialize, has resulted in extreme financial difficulties experienced by a majority of our tenants and the property. Effective immediately, we have made the decision to permanently cease operations at the Interior of the Northgate Mall. Tenants at the Shops at Northgate, on the exterior of the mall, will reopen when it is safe and appropriate at the guidance of state and local officials.

We understand this is difficult news and want to assure our tenants and the community that this decision was not made lightly. We are committed to working with our tenants to provide relief for the duration of their leases and are connecting them with local small business support services.

Right after the closing announcement, I got a response from one of the people in the neighborhoods I reached out to.

Brandon Williams with the Walltown Neighborhood Association wrote to say he had sent an e-mail to the neighborhood listserv, but did not indicate any action from what the neighborhood association wanted to do about Northwood’s announcement. There was a surprising acceptance and lack of action about the announcement, and not much drive to protect the mall, people’s memories of it, or community efforts to support the tenants and workers there.

“Northwood’s community engagement efforts are still moving forward and they are setting up meetings with at least a couple more organizations I know of. No word, however, on what the closing means for their redevelopment efforts,” Williams wrote.

The actions of Northwood and the inaction of the neighborhoods makes someone like me who still likes Northgate and want to see it protected and restored feel like my memories and my wishes for the mall are going into a horrible vacuum.

Like many other “trends” that have been happening in our culture for years now, this is another instance of people being unable or actually refusing to step up and work for what they know is happening, and instead going along with, in this case, the formal announcement.

But everything I saw right before the mall closed said this closing didn’t have to happen at all. It’s going to take more than the mall owner, and it’s going to take more than the surrounding neighborhoods, to save Northgate.

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