As a historic mall sits empty, developers and residents debate its future.
Children grip ice cream cones piled high with chocolate, vanilla, and sprinkles. A sparkly pink display shines in a Claires’ window. Christmas carols play all through December as giddy children whisper their holiday wishes into Santa Claus’ ear.
This time of year always makes English teacher Mira Prater feel nostalgic for childhood weekends spent at Northgate mall.
“We went every weekend,” Prater said. “We would always get pizza and shop for CDs at FYE. I remember saving my allowance to buy Timberland boots. They were really popular.”
To Prater, the mall served as an important pillar in the Durham community. Her mom was a teacher and would always feel a sense of community when she saw her students there.
“It was a really important community space,” Prater said. “It felt homey.”
Providing 53,000 square feet of retail space, Northgate was a significant place for the whole Durham community.
Every weekend, her parents would sit among the bustling crowds and chattering families, listening in to the conversations around them. When her dad first immigrated from Algeria, he couldn’t speak any English. He learned the language surrounded by a sea of people and fast food in Northgate’s crowded food court.
“The mall becomes a part of you,” Prater said.
Before Southpoint was built in 2002, Northgate was Durham’s primary mall. Many residents of South Durham chose to commute to Northgate, as South Square existed only as a stripmall. Once open, Southpoint’s popularity far surpassed Northgate, causing the older mall to lose business.
“Northgate was really the only mall in Durham for a long time,” 2008 Riverside graduate and lifelong Durham resident Justin Laidlaw said. “But as Southpoint got built, more folks made their way out there because it had the movie theater and more modern retail.”
The rise of Amazon and other online retail expedited Northgate’s decline.
“There are a lot of families, particularly Black families, who have lived in the neighborhood a long time and are concerned about how their livelihood will be affected with this new development,” said Laidlaw, who now works as a multimedia producer and covers Durham’s city council meetings in his weekly newsletter.
While the movie theater remained open, the mall’s owners were forced to sell the property when it neared bankruptcy in 2018.
“It wasn’t able to sustain itself, so the family sold it,” Laidlaw said.
Instead of foreclosing, Northwood Investors, an international private equity firm, decided to buy and redevelop the mall.
However, the developers do not own the entire plot. Some sections of the property, including the Sears and Macy’s, are separately owned. The tenants must collaborate to figure out the best use of the property.
“The Macys that used to be there is owned by Duke, and they have already got a medical facility there,” said Mary Helen Moore, a local reporter for the News and Observer who covers Durham and has written about the mall’s future.
As Northgate has been a pillar in the Durham community for decades, many residents have their own ideas of the best use for the space.
One such group, the Walltown Community Association, has been in communication with the developers, campaigning for a community-centered space. The Walltown neighborhood borders Northgate mall on the West side.
“This group formed to come up with their vision of what should be there,” said Moore. “They want affordable housing. They want jobs that are accessible for people who live in the area. They want park connectivity, walkable, bikeable and a nice community centered space.”
Residents are concerned about how the new development will affect their cost of living through property tax increases. They also worry about decreased traffic safety.
In addition, Walltown residents are concerned about the equity of the redevelopment.
Northgate property developers have not yet reached an agreement with the surrounding residents.
“The residents came up with this vision and the people who owned the property acknowledged it,” said Moore. “A couple months ago they came back with their idea and it was totally different than what they talked about previously.”
The developers plan to build an office park with a few restaurants and shops, as well as medical labs.
“It sounds like it’s going to be workplaces with maybe a few places to go eat and a few places to shop,” said Moore.
The original proposal included approximately 300 residential units, but these have since been removed from the plan.
The cost of construction is one potential reason for this change.
“There are certain costs that are built into building residential versus building commercial, particularly right now during the pandemic,” said Laidlaw. “A lot of materials needed to build became a lot more expensive so the resources needed to build changed the calculus for what developers would be willing to do on a particular site.”
The developers must seek approval from Durham city council for zoning ordinances.
“I imagine they will have a really hard time proceeding with the vision because they have to get city council approval and that will be kind of tough with how much opposition there is,” said Moore.
If the developers are uncooperative, residents can petition council members directly to vote against zoning requests.
“That is where the neighborhoods have some amount of leverage in this deal with the developers,” Laidlaw said. “I would like to see our city council and the developers as well to really consider who is going to be affected by this and take care of the folks who are most vulnerable in our community.”
While there are many ideas on how the space should be used, zoning requirements further complicate the issue.
The planning commission is a branch of local government that advises the city council and the board of county commissioners on zoning decisions.
“That includes when somebody requests a rezoning, an update to our comprehensive plan or to the unified development ordinance,” according to Austin Amandolia, the chair of the planning commission.
The Northgate property is currently zoned in the commercial center district. This designation allows for retail applications, but residential uses are generally not encouraged.
“As it is currently zoned [the developers] are limited to what is allowed within the commercial center district,” Amandolia said. “They can request a rezoning for essentially anything they want.”
According to Amandolia, they must adhere to the future land use map, which provides direction for what land uses are allowed in the future. However, these are subject to change.
“It is currently planned as a future commercial site under our current comprehensive plan,” Amandolia said. “That could change. We are working on a draft for a new comprehensive plan right now.”
The new comprehensive plan categorizes the site as a transit opportunity area. This designation allows for a mixed use space with a mix of commercial and residential services.
Despite its expertise, the commission serves exclusively as an advisory board.
“Our vote doesn’t necessarily count. If we vote no on something, it doesn’t stop it from happening,” Amandolia said. “We tell the council or county commission we think you should vote no on this and they can do what they decide.”
Amandolia said the developers have already submitted a rezoning application, so a vote on the property will eventually come to council.
In rare instances, the city council or the planning commision could initiate a rezoning request as well.
“Northgate mall is a matter we come across all the time,” council member and former Riverside parent Leonardo Williams said.
Northgate mall benefited the community by providing a concentrated area for retail, creating a lot of sales tax.
“I wish the city and the family who owned it had communicated and worked out something. Maybe the city could have purchased it,” Williams said.
Northwood Investors purchased the property at a very low value.
“It’s up to them. The best thing we can do is garner relationships,” Williams said. “If they consider something else then they will have to come before the city council and we will have to make a decision based on if we feel this is the best fit for this part of the city. And that’s where the city council has leverage.”
The city council’s role is not as significant as people often make it out to be.
“We can try to broker relationships between the community members that live around them and the owners of the property. But they don’t have to do that,” Williams said. “Anyone who says the city council can make them do something outside of what it’s zoned for, that’s untrue. That’s just simply false.”
The Northgate property is already zoned as commercial. The developers do not need to come before council if they want to keep this designation.
“It has not come across my desk yet. It has not come to the city council. They have not applied for anything,” Williams said.
“City council sees it at the end of the process, certainly not the beginning,” council member and Riverside parent, Javiera Caballero said.
THE HISTORY OF WALLTOWN
Understanding Walltown’s past is critical to understanding its current needs.
Walltown is a historically Black neighborhood where a lot of blue collar Duke employees lived. The neighborhood has a rich history of determination and self-reliance.
“There is a rich history of fighting for what you want and need, making sure that your residents and families and people who live in your community have what they need to thrive,” Brandon Williams said. “It is imperative that the city does not allow that legacy to be wiped out by development and gentrification.”
Brandon Williams (no relation to Leonardo Williams) has been on the Northgate mall committee since it developed in 2018. He used to direct Urban Hope, a youth organization in the Walltown neighborhood. This drove his passion for Walltown.
“Being a long time resident and working with young people and their families and community I knew how gentrification and some of the financial pressures on property taxes and rent affected people’s ability to live here,” he said.
In December of 2018, Walltown residents shared their concerns with Durham city council and met to discuss their goals for the mall.
“The affordability of renting or buying a home in the neighborhood is out of reach for many of our young folks,” Brandon Williams said. “We saw the mall redevelopment as the nail in the coffin on Walltown being able to preserve its identity and history and people being able to maintain their livelihoods and the wealth that they have built up.”
With people meeting in the food court and seniors walking the mall, Northgate functioned as a public square. Brandon Williams hopes that the space can continue to benefit the community.
“We really hope that the mall can be an extension of the community,” he said. “I’ve lived in Walltown as a resident for 9 years but I’ve been connected to the neighborhood through work and other friendships and relationships since about 2009.”
Walltown is named after George Wall, a Black man who was born into slavery in Randolph County. After emancipation, he found a job at Trinity college. When the college moved to Durham, Wall moved with it. He, and other working class African Americans, settled in the Walltown area.
“Due to segregation, Walltown was a thriving and self-sustained community,” Brandon Williams said.
His passion is driven by gentrification. As neighborhood costs are increasing, Brandon Williams believes affordable housing is critical.
“We know that people are being pushed out of the neighborhood,” he said.
Historically, the Walltown neighborhood was underinvested. Low property taxes combined with new development led to a drastic increase in property taxes. Retirees living in Walltown are unable to adjust to the increased costs.
They hope affordable housing on the Northgate property will serve to replace some of the housing they are losing in the process.
A purely commercial vision for Northgate will bring higher paying jobs to the area. This may increase the cost of living in the neighboring communities even more.
“[Redeveloping the mall] could really wash out a lot of diversity in that part of Durham,” Laidlaw said.
GENTRIFICATION AND THE FUTURE
The Northgate property is increasingly important as Durham develops and expands.
“[The mall] is an interesting microcosm of what is happening in Durham in general,” Laidlaw said. “In the last decade, a lot has been developed in this area and it is really changing the physical landscape of Durham and the way people think about life here.”
Due to gentrification, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to remain in Durham. Northgate could serve as a place for people to live and work affordably.
“As [young people] are moving into [their] careers, if you want to stick around Durham, this could be a place where you could work or this could be a place where,” Moore said. “If the Walltown Community Association got their way, it could be a place where you could live, and hopefully affordably.”
Northgate mall used to be a staple in the Durham community but it’s time to determine its place in the city’s future.
“I certainly remember taking my kids there pretty often and playing on the carousel,” Javiera Caballero said. “The food court there was always pretty active, so I can say it was a pretty important community gathering space.”
Laidlaw recalls spending a lot of time at Northgate as a kid.
“There is some sentimental value to a lot of older folks who have been in Durham and remember Northgate as a thriving commercial district.”
Some of Riverside’s Walltown residents remember the mall fondly.
“I would go a lot because it was easy to get there,” Junior Aaron Self said. “It was easy access,”
“Since it’s not a community space anymore that makes me upset,” Junior Derrick Leake agreed. “I live right there and it was a good place to meet up.”
“I always walked to Northgate,” Junior Willie Hayes said. “I would go there and watch movies. I don’t think they should shut it down.”
People have different ideas of how space should be used. As the cost of living in Durham skyrockets, many residents name gentrification as a major issue.
“I think they should put houses that people can afford because Durham is getting more expensive,” Hayes said.
Adults in the community have similar ideas.
“100 percent of the space should be used for affordable housing,” Prater agreed. “It should all be turned into townhouses or apartments.”
Others believe the space should be used for community gathering.
“I want it to be a community engagement commercial center where you can go and shop and it generates those sales taxes,” Leonardo Williams said. “But you can also live there. I think it should be a space where you can live where you shop, work, and play.”
“Overall I think having a better mix of uses so that there’s like a grocery store lot on sight, and maybe some housing, would be really helpful for the community,” Amandolia said.
Some students believe that the best solution is the simplest one. Many think that a mall can still benefit the community.
“It should stay a mall or big outlet,” Self said. “It can offer job opportunities for people who live there.”
Despite the different ideas, Durham residents agree that the Northgate property has the potential for significant impact.
“The stuff that is being built today is presumably going to affect generations to come. This is the Durham that young folks will inherit,” Laidlaw said.