The next chapter in Northway Mall history began on Wednesday night when developers presented conceptual designs of what the mall and surrounding areas could become. As someone who has wanted to see this property redeveloped for a long time, the drawings are a glimmer of hope for a property which has seemed rather hopeless since August 15, 1986, the day Ross Park Mall opened its doors.
Northway was a regional revolution when it opened on August 1, 1962, taking a strip mall and building a second level, offices, and department stores onto an existing structure. When all was said and done, the mall featured a department store (Horne’s), two five-and-dimes (Woolworth, Murphy’s), several smaller specialty retailers (including clothing stores), restaurants, Thrift Drug, food markets, professional offices, and a grocer. In short, it was the best mixed-use complex in the tri-state region.
At the time, a “mall” was one of these diverse shopping complexes. This perception started to change in the 1980s as malls became increasingly focused on clothing, fashion, and home goods. Most also have a sit-down restaurant and a food court. Ross Park Mall had services when it opened, including a dental center and a pharmacy, but has become like most other modern malls in the fact the majority of stores sell clothing or shoes. In fact, one very modern mall in Columbus calls itself Polaris Fashion Place. (Despite the name, it is, by any definition, a mall). South Hills Village, Monroeville Mall, and The Mall at Robinson have all followed suit and focus mostly on clothing.
Some malls have even taken this to the extreme. Many argue Ross Park has, attracting high-end clothing retailers. However, this is nothing exclusive to Ross Park; Beechwood Place in Cleveland and South Park in Charlotte are every bit as posh. The malls almost seem to want to be miniaturized versions of Minneapolis’s Mall of America (which has almost every major store imaginable plus huge parking deck a bevy of restaurants) or suburban Philadelphia’s King of Prussia. (By the time you’re done walking through the huge sprawl which is King of Prussia, you’ll feel as though you somehow forded the Schuylkill River in the process).
Occasionally, a trendy new venue will come along as an inspiration for others to follow. Consider Easton Town Center in Columbus, which opened in 1999. Easton offers traditional mall stores but has long been considered one of the trendiest malls in the country in part due to its unique design, which resembles an old-fashioned town (complete with a “station” building in the middle) and has hotels within walking distance. Easton also features tons of restaurants and made outdoor malls hip once again. Lots of “mini-Eastons” have popped up in recent times. Good Pittsburgh-area examples are South Side Works and Streets of Cranberry. Although both are only a fraction of the size of Easton and are lacking some features of the real thing, the overall feel of the complexes is similar. Baxter Town Center in Fort Mill, SC also has a bit of a “mini-Easton” feel, especially with its wide selection of restaurants. (It does, however, focus more on the “mom and pop” type stores such as independent boutiques and salons). Baxter also is located adjacent to a residential community, making it more appealing to service-type businesses including barber shops and insurance offices.
It’s hard to tell what exactly the developers had in mind when the upper level of Northway was demolished in 2007. Some argued management wanted the upper level to become an Easton-esque shopping experience. Others saw it as a white flag of sorts, as though mall management had figured out it would be nearly impossible to fill Northway to capacity given the changing climate of retail. Downsizing the building cut down on empty space and building size, giving the property a lower assessed value (which, in turn, led to lower taxes). It also created an uproar among Northway purists, who insisted the upper level was part of a historic shopping complex. (On the positive side, birds could once again fly around the mall’s upper level, albeit the non-exotic kind in a free-roaming environment rather than a famous birdcage).
An Easton or Baxter clone never materialized. Shoe Carnival became the only new store with staying power and continues to operate today in a partially-enclosed strip resembling a ghostly shell of the once-glorious Northway Mall. Mamma Lucia continues to serve delicious pizza pies on the south end of the corridor while Marshall’s takes in a steady business a few yards north. The empty space in between the two ends of the outdoor portion of the upper level seems as populated as Antarctica on most days.
Perhaps an Easton-esque idea for Northway was never a good idea in the first place. After all, Northway was built to house a 1962-size suburban department store (back when downtown stores were flagships and other stores were simply branch campuses), two five-and-dimes which would be about half the size of a modern Wal-Mart, a grocery store dwarfed by any supermarket built in the past 25 years, and a bunch of smaller stores which would need to be clunked together to make one modern store. (This even happened at Ross Park; keep in mind Abercrombie & Fitch was three separate stores when built and many other retailers, such as Gap, took adjacent spaces to adjust to changing demands).
Despite what some hope for, there is no use in thinking Northway will ever become a top-tier mall in the modern world. It simply does not have the ability to do so given Ross Park’s presence and the fact it was not built for such a purpose. The renovations of 1987 and 1995 did little to make it anything but a home for discounters and big box retailers, the latter of which cannot expand to standard size stores. (Dick’s had wanted to relocate for this very reason several years ago; the Dick’s in Cranberry has rebuilt offsite simply to become larger and more modern).
I have been writing about plans to knock Northway down entirely and start over for a few years now, especially as Ross lost an edge to Cranberry and Robinson in terms of things to do. Pines Plaza Lanes and Kniess’s Miniature Golf give residents a few great recreational options, but nightlife is almost nonexistent in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Purists have been against my plans, but between the revelations of the developers a few nights ago and several recent visits to a surprisingly unique complex in the south, I suddenly have hope for a revival and expansion of Northway (all while keeping the current structure), albeit not as a mall.
It didn’t take me long to find the EpiCentre once I moved to Charlotte. This is a huge mixed-use complex in Uptown which contains stores, entertainment and nightlife (including movie theaters, bars, clubs, and even an upscale bowling alley), restaurants, and office space. A parking garage is integrated into the main building itself. While the office space has been slow to go, the stores and especially entertainment venues have been well-received and are quite popular, especially with the younger crowd. Many of the venues came highly recommended and I have yet to be disappointed by anything I have visited in the EpiCentre. My friends from Pittsburgh who have visited me have agreed something like this would be excellent in the North Hills.
While I can’t be sure what type of tenants the new developers have in mind, Northway would be a prime location for a mixed use development such as another EpiCentre. It’s in an area where nothing can directly compete against the type of businesses it could attract. Ross Park will stick with high-fashion, North Hills Village with big boxes, and McCandless Crossing with a mix of miscellany-type stores. Toss in McIntyre Square, which has become a mediocre strip mall over the past decade after starting out strong in the 1990s, and you’ve got a home for everything not planned for Northway Nouvelle.
Existing entertainment businesses can carry on as usual. If a high-end bowling alley in the vein of EpiCentre’s Strike City opened at Northway Nouvelle, Pines Plaza Lanes will continue to do well due to its established clientele and take in those whose idea of bowling is in a laid-back, traditional alley with friendly owners. History also dictates peaceful coexistence, as McKnight Lanes and Pines Plaza Lanes operated simultaneously for over three decades. Smaller bars, including Perrytowne Draft House (Perrytowne Tavern to us oldtimers), should also be immune to trendy dueling piano bars (Howl at the Moon being an EpiCentre example) or bars featuring DJs and dancing (i.e. Blackfinn). No club similar to those at EpiCentre (e.g. Suite, Whisky River) has ever made it in Ross Township, perhaps due to the lack of a centralized nightlife center.
Wal-Mart will evidently not be an option for Northway Nouvelle. That’s not to say it could pop up elsewhere, as the old McCrackin Ford and adjacent properties have been mentioned. With Rave Cinemas (formerly Showcase) a good candidate to close once the long-overdue McCandless Crossing theater is built, that property could also become a Wally World in due time. Of course, Northway Nouvelle could also feature its own cinemas, especially if a clone of Mez is built.
Mez is worth its own paragraph. This unique hotspot has its own movie theaters, which can be rented to private parties, as well as an upscale restaurant and a swanky dessert bar, all rolled into one swell two-story package with an illuminated escalator between the floors. The music selection played here is top-notch, too.
The escalator reference, of course, begs the question–what to do with the existing Northway structure? Plans are currently in place to keep the building but renovate it extensively. Mez would fit nicely into the space which was once Woolworth if it is put back into one package. (The classic Woolworth escalators, of course, could be renovated to resemble those of Mez’s Charlotte location). To accommodate theaters, the former A&P/Herman’s/Borders could also become part of the deal. Marshall’s could move to McCandless Crossing with no problem at all. It’s likely all of Northway’s current anchors (Dick’s and PetSmart being the others) would move to developments such as McCandless Crossing, Pine Creek Plaza (where Rite Aid has sat vacant for a while now), or some other development.
This leaves the smaller stores and Mamma Lucia. Mamma Lucia should stay right where it is. EpiCentre has chain restaurants, but Pittsburgh is known for its trademark eateries. Mamma Lucia has defined pizza in the North Hills for generations and would be a perfect fit in the new mixed-use complex. We’ll also leave Fox and Hound intact, as it would fit in nicely with the nightlife theme of part of the complex. Everything else is up in the air at this point, but it seems more stores would have to find other homes, perhaps at smaller strip malls along McKnight, simply due to Northway Nouvelle’s potential image. (Think about what happened at Ross Park when it became Posh Park Mall and the stores without upscale merchandise started to trickle out). However, Northway Shoe and Repair would be a great choice to stay, as would be Bliss Hair Salon.
Let’s convert the vacated Horne’s space into restaurants (and strip it of its ugly paint job to reveal the beautiful ceramic brick underneath). We can add a few lunch-type places, such as delis, and then some dinner venues and bars, some of which would be open late into the night and feature live entertainment or DJs and plenty of dancing. We’ll throw a straight-up club into the mix as well elsewhere in the old mall. Of course, there would also be a few shops, mostly general retailers other than dollar stores, and spaces for meetings and conventions. There could also be a fitness club thrown into the mix. Let’s not forget to bring back the corridor leading to the glass elevator on the second floor, as that landmark needs to be both preserved and utilized as part of Northway Nouvelle.
The original structure is now nearly filled. However, the neglected mezzanine level needs to be marketed toward offices. Having the Career Training Academy there is already a huge plus, but there is a lot of unutilized space there. The hallways of this level would be ideal for displaying the historical photos currently hanging on the atrium level.
Next up is the new portion of the plaza. The potential here is limitless. Rumors have been going around about a large parking deck (necessary due to the parking space lost when building Northway Nouvelle), a restaurant overlooking McKnight Road (awesome!), office space, and space for retail, restaurants, and entertainment. Basically, whatever doesn’t fit into the old mall structure would go here if my ideas are followed. However, I am firmly against a grocery store unless it’s a Trader Joes, which would thrive in the North Hills. We don’t need another Giant Eagle property, especially along McKnight Road (where the company already operates three, soon to be four, stores of various types plus several within striking distance in Wexford, West View, Shaler, Hampton, Ohio Township, and other parts of Ross).
Office space is a minor concern only because there is plenty of it around already. Northway itself has had difficulty filling the offices on the mezzanine level. Corporate Center in McCandless is directly up the road. Medical offices may not be all that easy to locate due to the proximity of Passavant Hospital and its professional building as well as Northland Medical a few miles south and Allegheny General Hospital, just a short drive down McKnight and I-279 (or East Street for those who despise expressways). Additionally, the mixed-use EpiCentre has had tremendous difficulty finding tenants for its offices; the success of the retail and entertainment has masked this for the average Charlotte citizen, although the folks who follow business know this could be a serious Achille’s heel for the complex due to money issues. Restaurants would be a better option due to community demand and relative ease to fill in those spaces.
Northway Elementary will likely be bulldozed as part of the renovation. A rumor has been going around about building a hotel there. Some will point to the Holiday Inn near North Hills Village as a successful suburban hotel without direct interstate access. Hotels have also been proposed for McCandless Crossing at various points in planning. It’s not as though this is a bad location for a hotel. Having one along Browns Lane would be quieter than an elementary school and would help to separate the noisier commercial property from the residential community, much as it did when Northway was a busier mall in its heyday.
Mixing residential areas and hotels in suburban communities is more common that what some people believe. The Ross Township Holiday Inn is within a few feet of homes and St. Sebastian Parish. There is a Hampton Inn in Rock Hill, SC which is directly in front of an entire apartment plan and doesn’t seem to really bother the people who live there. Critics of a hotel will argue that it is a bit too far out, but there is actually a lack of good hotels in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh south of Cranberry. The only hotel currently accessible from the Butler Valley (Hampton/Gibsonia) exit on the PA Turnpike is an old, worn-down Quality Inn. There is no solid hotel at the Wexford exit on I-79 either. I-279 is even more disappointing, with no hotel along Camp Horne Road and three choices at McKnight Road–a decent-looking Hampton Inn, a brand new Comfort Inn, and the InTown Suites of Notoriety, all of which are located along the same stretch of land as an adult merchandise store and a tattoo parlor. Even the Holiday Inn is nestled in an older, less desirable section of McKnight.
A hotel on Browns Lane would be great for those who wanted to spend an evening at Northway Nouvelle, then wake up to visit the tri-state area’s destination mall (Ross Park). If there were conventions in any space at Northway Nouvelle, this would be ideal for those attending and could also be beneficial for people simply coming home to the North Hills looking for a place to stay.
There would, of course, be two concerns from Northway Nouvelle if the developer attracts the sort of businesses I hope they can. One would be traffic, which was brought up at Wednesday’s public meeting. The other, if nightlife becomes prominent, would be security.
Anyone concerned about traffic probably forgot about what Northway was like from 1962-1986. Black Friday 1985, the last such occasion for Northway before Ross Park stole its thunder (and its stores), was manageable. Yes, there will be more traffic in the end, but traffic has steadily increased for other reasons over the past 25 years. Consider Pine, Franklin Park, and Marshall circa 1987. All have grown tremendously and have added more traffic to McKnight for every housing plan developed there. Browns Lane residents concerned about drivers cutting through have probably ignored the traffic of the past 50 years; almost everyone has gone to Northway Mall through the Browns Lane shortcut (Northway Mall Drive) or Corbett Court at some point and many make a habit from it. Additionally, a hotel along Browns will probably generate less traffic than Northway Elementary did when buses and carpools came by twice a day from September through May. There may need to be some eventual widening of Babcock Boulevard near the northern entrance to the mall, but this would probably be about it.
Security would be an issue if clubs and bars took off. However, a good effort by either the Northway Nouvelle security force or a joint effort between Northway and the Ross Police would probably do the trick. While there will never be another Rocky Catalfamo (those who have been around for a while undoubtably met this extraordinary man at Northway, where he worked until the 1990s and put smiles on everyone’s faces while keeping the mall safe), there is no doubt in my mind a new development and the surrounding areas can be kept as secure as possible provided the right people are in place and good practices are implemented. Each bar, of course, would also have to have their share of internal security.
As mentioned, my personal concern would be filling office space if too much is constructed. This has hurt the masterminds behind the EpiCentre and would be equally dangerous to those at Northway Nouvelle. While it would not be a bad thing to include it (especially since it already exists), careful management and good leasing rates would need to be put into place to ensure maximum occupancy.
Despite the potential concerns, Northway Nouvelle could be exactly what the doctor ordered in Ross Township. It would keep younger people in Ross and provide a better alternative to the congested Robinson and Cranberry complexes or the dangerous South Side. Businesses would delight in convention space in a building both smaller and more accessible than the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and closer to town than the Sheraton Four Points or Mariott in Cranberry. Residents would be happy with a greater selection of restaurants. The happiest group, however, may be the residents of Ross Township, as the new tenants would bring in plenty of revenue to keep taxes lower for individuals and families while breathing new life into a township with a history too rich to ignore, a history which could only expand with an exciting new chapter known as Northway Nouvelle.
It is my hope the developers bring these sort of tenants to the property. I am genuinely excited about the project and look forward to watching it take shape over the next several years.