OPEN DURHAM: NORTHGATE MALL

Dec. 08, 2012 @ 08:51 AM

 

1058 West Club Boulevard

Cross street: North Gregson Street

Built: 1960/ modified in 1962, 1974, 1986, 1987, 1994

Construction type: Steel frame

Neighborhood: Trinity Park

Type: Commercial

Use: Shopping center

The property upon which Northgate Mall sits today had a rural character prior to the construction of the US 70 bypass immediately to its north in 1958-1959.

While a small cluster of businesses stood at the intersection of Guess Road and

West Club Boulevard, the Ellerbee Creek valley that ran east-west north of West Club

had served as a natural greenbelt on the north side of Durham, even as earlier

(Bragtown) and later development occurred farther to the north.

I've found it difficult to trace the amalgamation of parcels by the Rand family prior to 1960 that allowed them to develop the mall. It appears that at least some of the land was owned by Sadie Markham and her heirs, and Demerius Dollar heirs owned other portions, but the quantity of parcels throughout Durham purchased by the Rand family between 1913 and the 1960s causes me to leave that endeavor to another intrepid Durham history enthusiast.

However, it does appear that Coke may be responsible for Northgate.

It seems W. Kenan Rand first obtained an option on the land in October 1949 in association with the Coca Cola Bottling Company, with the intent of constructing a new Coca-Cola bottling plant on the site. The bottling company had started on Church Street and moved to Buchanan and West Main in 1930.

This was likely the first of a series of battles with neighbors to the south over the future of the land on the north side of West Club Boulevard.

The October 4, 1949, Durham Morning Herald reads:

"... [A] double disapproval was dealt a request made by W. Murray Jones, on behalf of WK Rand and the Durham Coca-Cola Bottling Company for a proposed change from an A residential zone to a Business Zone No. 1 of property just north of Club Boulevard. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that the zone change be denied, and the City Council concurred.

Rand outlined a proposal where the firm would erect a new large plant on the site (north of Club Boulevard between Watts Street and Dollar Avenue) if the zone change were granted, and presented plans for the structure.”

The plant was deferred, and would eventually be built on Hillsborough Road in1966. Rand, it seems, retained his interest in the property, and eventually saw the strip shopping center as the best development.

The mall was built by Rand in 1959-1960, initially a strip center anchored by a Colonial Stores Supermarket, Kerr Drug and Roses. I've always been curious as to whether "Northgate" was in any way a tongue-and-cheek reference to the long-established "Southgate" family name in Durham, or whether it was simply meant to describe the entry to Durham from the US 70 bypass.

Northgate was similar in character to the other “shopping centers” built during the same era in Durham: Lakewood, Forest Hills, Loehman's Plaza and Wellons Village. The evolutionary link between downtown retail and the enclosed mall, these strip shopping centers provided larger retail spaces, abundant surface parking and easy access for larger trucks to pull directly up to loading docks at the rear of the store to offload larger quantities of merchandise. It also presented an easier opportunity to build air conditioning into the stores than the difficult prospect of retrofitting the downtown buildings with the large equipment of the 1950s. Grocery stores, drugstores, and discount retailers (what my parents called "10-cent stores") were typically the first to take advantage of these opportunities.

Movie theaters were a frequent addition to these centers -- the opportunity to build a movie theater with the above advantages, as well as multiple screens ('the multiplex') meant the rapid closure of downtown theaters -- or their conversion to cheap discount, XXX theaters, or, for a few in this era, art house theaters. Northgate added a movie theater in 1962.

Northgate is particularly notable for successfully negotiating the transition to the next wave of suburban retail. By the late 1960s - early 1970s, the strip center model was already on the wane, and the enclosed, air conditioned, hermetically-sealed against-the-vagaries-of-outside mall was rising. Northgate had one clear advantage -- a lot of land -- as well as, evidently, the capital to invest. But beyond that, it took some significant business savvy to see the necessity of investing that capital to remain relevant, particularly as South Square mall was being built out on 15-501. None of the other strip centers mentioned above made this transition, and quickly lost their dominant position in the retail real estate market.

In 1974, Northgate enclosed the strip center, adding anchor stores Sears and Thalhimers. The northwest portion of the site on Guess Road was developed into another strip shopping center, which included a new supermarket - "Big Star" that replaced the Colonial Stores supermarket that had been part of the original strip center.

Although the conventional wisdom by the 1980s was that South Square was, to a  greater or lesser degree, depending on one's viewpoint, a higher-end mall with a wider selection of desirable retailers, Northgate continued to add stores, a food court and, by the 1990s, another anchor department store.

Per the Northgate website:

"In 1986, another portion of the mall was constructed building an expanded space for Thalhimers along with a new multi level parking deck. 1987 saw yet another area of the Mall built which included the current Food Gallery and lower level Business Center. Hecht's and Hecht's parking deck were built in 1994 along with additional 53,000 square feet of enclosed mall retail space. In 2006, Macy's Department Store purchased Hecht's...."