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Letter: Shoppes at Northway News Fills Resident with Nostalgia But Not Lost Hope

Scott Baret reflects on the history of the Shoppes at Northway and the procession of stores that have set up shop there since its opening in the 1960s. He then offers a plan to let go and revitalize the strip mall.

Dear Editor: 

News broke last week of a foreclosure on the Northway Mall property. It's been a decidedly dead property for quite some time (in fact, some would argue it died in 1986 when Ross Park Mall opened). However, I point to 1985 as the beginning of the end. This was the year G.C. Murphy left; its space was filled by a second run movie theater (never a good sign for a mall). At the same time, Ross Park Mall leases were the hottest commodity in the North Hills. Tenants flocked from Northway and North Hills Village to be a part of the newest retail development, anchored by four solid department stores.

Horne's was supposed to stay at Northway; Kaufmann's, JC Penney, Sears, and Gimbel's were the four anchors who had signed on as the original Ross Park department stores. However, Gimbel's went bankrupt in 1986 shortly before the mall opened. With a store partially constructed, Horne's jumped at the chance to buy the property. This was a very smart move on their part, as they would have quickly outgrown the Northway space due to changing trends in suburban department stores. (Kaufmann's had actually wanted to expand their property by 1992 despite having the largest store at Ross Park).

Northway struggled mightily in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While North Hills Village had reinvented itself as a discount center by 1987, Northway had no set identity. The Horne's furniture gallery held on through 1988. Dahlkemper's replaced the upper level of Horne's while Value City took over the lower level once Horne's vacated the premises for good. Woolworth pulled out in early 1991. By mid-1993, Dahlkemper's and Herman's (which replaced A&P) were gone. Even old standbys like Pappan's restaurant and Thrift Drug were disappearing from the once-proud Northway property. The 1987 renovation looked frumpy compared to the other malls along McKnight Road. I was ready to write Northway's obituary that summer, but suddenly, a new hope arrived.

Dick's Sporting Goods brought new life to the Dahlkemper's space. Borders took over for Herman's and expanded the store out to the site of the incline in the floor. This was followed by some other successes (such as Marshall's) and a few infamous misses (namely Reading China & More). Suddenly, Northway looked viable, but there were signs it was a sloppily-built house of cards.

For one, Northway wasn't really attracting mall-type stores. Trendy bookstores and big-box sporting goods retailers are nice, but when friends go to malls to congregate and shop (in that order), they usually go for the stores selling the hip clothing. Marshall's and Value City have their customers, but they typically aren't the big spenders who want to keep up with the Joneses (in this case, perhaps keeping up with the Kardashians would be a better example). Ross Park pulled in Abercrombie & Fitch in 1997 just as it was becoming popular. They also had Gap, then at the height of its popularity, and already had an American Eagle and Aeropostale location. Think about where the biggest clothes horses of them all (teenagers) shop and you'll see the flaws in Northway's plans. Not even a bookstore and a second run theater could save it from becoming "that other mall where you go when you want to buy a book or gear up for baseball season."

Note the use of the word "or" there–Northway was a place people went for one reason, not a place they went for big shopping. (Of course, one of those reasons was Discovery Zone, which sadly closed after seven great years of fun).

Ross Park, of course, got even more upscale in the 2000s. Northway, on the other hand, lost any momentum it had built in the late 1990s. The food court collapsed early in the decade. The movie theater went dark in 2006; the entire theater side of the upper level was demolished a year later (presumably to help the property save on taxes, as most of the upper level was vacant). Many smaller stores left and, aside from PetSmart, those the mall gained weren't really anything special (such as a dollar store and a big box shoe retailer). Value City and Borders left due to struggles with their parent corporations. A huge Party City came and went. Old Navy, the sole "hip" store from the 1990s, left for Ross Park in 2007. Dick's has wanted to follow suit for years.

One of the reasons Dick's wants to leave is the size of their current space. If you've ever visited the Robinson or Pittsburgh Mills locations, you know how large a Dick's store should be in a modern retail setting. The Cranberry store, opened in 1996, is rebuilding nearby due to size constraints. Yes, Dick's could easily take the Value City space below them, but the corporation is smart enough to realize Northway is a dead end. Their current best bet is to take over the oldRoomful Express and Goodwill stores in Ross Towne Center (that's Zayre's and Phar-Mor for all you old-timers).

Store space is a huge problem at Northway. PetSmart takes up what was once a multitude of smaller stores. Most of the original retail spaces are unrecognizable today, and for good reason. Northway opened in 1962 when suburban malls had different types of stores. There were delis, meat markets, bakeries, and services you'd find at strip malls today alongside five and dimes, grocers, drug stores, clothing and shoe stores, and a department store anchor. All of these spaces were far smaller than anything a store could reasonably use in 2012. (Even Ross Park has this problem–consider the current Ann Taylor expansion project, which wipes out a former neighboring store to meet the changing demands of retail in the 2010s).

Keep in mind–retrofits are everywhere in Pittsburgh. In the North Hills alone, there's a shopping plaza featuring a grocery store fit into an old department store, an auto service complex housed in an old grocery store, and a home furnishings store in a former bowling alley. Still, retrofits can only go so far. Aspen Dental bulldozed the old Long John Silvers and built anew, as did Arby's when they bought a long-abandoned Burger King.

Due to geographic constraints, Northway can't really expand much. Ross Park got creative with outparcel spaces (including a Macy's Furniture Gallery, originally owned by Lazarus and transferred to the former Kaufmann's as part of the Federated-May merger). Keep Northway's origins in mind as well–it was constructed as an expansion of a strip mall built in the 1953 (this was the original lower level; a photograph of this is featured in John Schalcosky's excellent history of the township). Still, even Ross Park has problems as a result. Try finding a parking space in December and you'll see a huge negative side effect of added outparcel spaces.

Of course, expansion isn't the real problem for Dick's. They want to go where the hip shoppers are going. Northway hasn't been hip since August 15, 1986. To put that in perspective, if you were a budding teeny bopper in 1986 (13 years old, a common age for teens to start going on massive shopping trips with friends), you'd be 39 this year. In other words, anyone under 40 has never viewed Northway as a hip mall. Those who are under 30 probably don't even remember Northway for what it was as a child unless they have a truly good photographic memory.

There is a group with a sentimental attachment to Northway. Basically, this would be anyone born before 1973 who grew up in the area (and maybe a few younger folks with some good memories). You can hear some of their cries to save the property online, but deep inside, most of them probably know the sad truth. We're better off without Northway Mall in 2012.

Northway is in terrible shape. Take a walk through the mall and you'll leave wanting a prescription for Prozac. Any mention of the amount of money they owe on the mortgage is enough to make even the least responsible spender cringe. The website has been neglected and still lists story times at Border's under current events (Borders and Party City also are listed as anchors). The mall itself feels dated and is filled with photos of the mall's heyday. There is no focus on the future, just a celebration of an era that came to a crashing halt in the 1980s.

Therefore, I introduce the Baret Plan of Northway Redevelopment.

First, keep the mall open until August 1, 2012. This would mark the mall's 50th anniversary and would be an appropriate time to bring a half-century era in Ross Township to an official end.

Next, find a new home for each store. I already suggested a destination for Dick's. PetSmart would have been a good fit in the old Office Depot store, but H.H. Gregg is going to take it over instead. Therefore, I'm going to recommend it as a possible tenant for McCandless Crossing or, if the space is suitable enough, the old Rite Aid at Pine Creek Plaza. Marshall's is another choice to go to either spot, although Shoe Carnival seems like a better choice for McCandless Crossing. LA Fitness looks rather lonely on McKnight Road and could use a nice retail compliment or two, so why not open up one of the old big box favorites next door?

Bliss Hair Studio, Rock America, Bruce's Music, Wireless Zone, Ritz Camera, Northway Dollar, and Northway Shoe & Repair would all be able to find homes along McKnight, where there are certainly enough vacancies. One or two could also make their way to McCandless Crossing. Mamma Lucia is a seemingly great fit in the new center alongside DiBella's Subs and iHop. The same rule applies to the few tenants occupying the mezzanine level, especially since office space is supposedly planned for McCandless Crossing.

There are a few I didn't mention in this list. America's Best and Aldi recently built out parcels and will retain them in my plan. Fox and Hound will remain on-site in its current location, which will be the only part of the old building retained in that area (which could also be a nice reminder of the past).

Next, the tough part–demolish everything else on the property. In its place, there will be seven new restaurants, which I am referring to as the Northway Seven. They are as follows:

Brio Tuscan Grille. If you're looking for something Italian but different from what you can get at Olive Garden or Bravo, this is your best option. Of course, you're going to have to drive to Cleveland if you want to find the closest location. This is a good upscale restaurant and would be something unique to the North Hills area, giving everyone yet another reason to choose Ross over Cranberry, Robinson, or the South Hills.

Culver's. This is a tricky one to describe, but if you think of it as the missing step between Wendy's and Eat'n Park, you're in good shape. It's sit-down restaurant quality food ordered in a fast food manner, yet the food is delivered fresh to your table. The specialties are Butterburgers and custard, both of which are better than what you'd find at some sit-down places in the North Hills. There's just one drawback to Culver's, and that's the fact the nearest location is about 200 miles away in Dublin, OH, right outside of Columbus. Bring it to Pittsburgh!

Famous Dave's. You may recall the Famous Dave's in McCandless, which closed a few years ago. However, this was due to a problem with the franchiser, not the restaurant itself. Pittsburghers love good BBQ, so there's no doubt in my mind this would succeed if given another chance (and a better franchiser). The closest locations are in Erie and North Olmsted (a suburb of Cleveland). Don't get me wrong, I love a good road trip, but when I have a craving for BBQ, I want to fulfill it immediately!

Abuelo's. This is an upscale Mexican restaurant and a favorite of mine from Columbus, OH. The food and atmosphere are both top-notch and are miles ahead of any of the Mexican restaurants in Ross. Sadly, the nearest location is in Warrensville Heights, OH, a suburb of Cleveland. (Columbus is the second-closest location). Given the lack of a standout Mexican restaurant along McKnight Road (unless you want to count Mad Mex as such), this is a necessity!

Tim Horton's. Another Columbus favorite, this one is also badly represented in the Pittsburgh area. The closest location is in Calcutta, OH, north of East Liverpool. If this sounds like a hike, consider the fact the closest location in the state of Pennsylvania is in Meadville, which requires a long drive up I-79 and is about twice as far away as the Calcutta location! Needless to say, in a McKnight corridor with no close competitor (Starbucks and Panera are about as close as you get), this would do extremely well.

Smith & Wollensky. When you think of "steak" and "McKnight Road", you immediately think of Outback. Unfortunately, if you appreciate a good steak, you know Outback is what it is–a chain steakhouse where you occasionally get a decent cut of meat. Smith & Wollensky is more along the lines of a Ruth's Chris and would bring premium steak entrees to Ross for the first time. This may actually be a better fit at Ross Park than on the Northway property, but there's a lack of room up there unless you boot some other outparcel (Stickley & Audi, anyone?) off the Ross Park campus. There are only two drawbacks with this restaurant. The glaring one is the nearest location, which is Columbus, OH. The second is the fact they currently do not have chateaubriand on their menu.

Graeter's Ice Cream. Long ago, the question about ice cream was where to get it. There was Bru-Ster's, Sweet Licks, Dairy Queen, Ginny's, and Baskin-Robbins. Every Sweet Licks is now in the history books, Ginny's folded years ago, and the closest Baskin-Robbins is in Harmarville. Where, oh where, are the long-lost ice cream parlors we remember from the movies? Enter Graeter's, which has a huge presence in Columbus. Once you have some of their ice cream, you'll probably swear off Bru-Ster's for a long time, if not forever, no matter how good you thought their ice cream was before you fell in love with Graeter's. The atmosphere is also great at any of their freestanding locations. If you really want to sample some of their ice cream, it can be purchased at the Shadyside Market District store, but the real experience comes when you visit an actual Graeter's.

Some have argued the area needs more entertainment venues. However, Ross does have its share of these, with a new movie theater coming to McCandless Crossing and a few great venues already in place. We may not have a Dave & Buster's (a possible albeit far-fetched idea for that property at the intersection at Perry and Rochester?), but those who complain of boredom or a lack of date ideas have forgotten about Pines Plaza Lanes, Kniess Miniature Golf, and the beautiful simplicity of North Park, which has everything from ice skating to batting cages to trails for long romantic walks. Best of all, these venues are either free or low cost and, in the case of both the bowling alley and golf course, locally owned.

As much as I hate to say it, Northway's time is up. I have good memories of the mall, as do most in the North Hills, but you need to remember what's going on here. We're losing people to Cranberry and Robinson every time they want to get something to eat other than what the small selection of restaurants on McKnight Road has to offer. (This is true–my pals and I wound up going to Cheesecake Factory for dessert twice in a two week span due to lack of other options).

This is the right move for the township and the people in it, and it's time for everyone to bite the bullet and do something we hate to do as Pittsburghers–let go of the past and move forward!

- By Scott Baret

McKnightmare February 27, 2012 at 02:24 PM
Wipe it out, and put in a Super Walmart, 24 hours. You can put a Walmart in anywhere, and people will go to it. Besides, there is no Walmart in the N.H. area. If I need a Walmart fixing, I tend to go to Gibsonia, or Fox Chapel.
NHalum February 27, 2012 at 04:44 PM
We are constantly going out of the North Hills to go to restaurants that we should have here. Red Robin and Max & Erma's immediately come to mind.
ing kalcthaler February 29, 2012 at 01:42 AM
Good plan! I love the idea of a Tim Horton's or a Culver's! And I would love a Super Walmart! Anything to avoid the way over priced Giant Eagles!
McKnightmare March 06, 2012 at 03:28 PM
See, I'm bothered by the 'more restaurants' idea, or 'restaurant row'. They're all novelties. Let's take a look a little north to where J. Clarks is. Remember that restaurant located next to it? It's been empty for at least 5 years. You want a Tim Horton's ... put one right there, or insert any restaurant. I go to the F&H once in a blue moon. It's simply another sports bar. The food's ok. The atmosphere is ok. If we want to keep it, send it off to the old McCrackin dealership. In fact, most of those places can be pushed to the old Roomful Plaza. There are plenty of empty spots on Mcknight to pepper these places.
Northhillsnative April 23, 2012 at 07:32 PM
All I know is a remakeover of Northway is long overdue. I'm one of those 40 yr olds that saw it as a hip place - this article brought back some memories! And I LOVE Graeters ice cream. Being an OSU grad I can say it is far above any ice cream served around here.
woody June 20, 2012 at 12:52 PM
McKnightmare is right. The restaurant fare on McKnight is mainly bland, big-box, chain American (or Americanized, i.e., bad Tex-Mex). The vacant spot in front of Target at Pine Creek near where J. Clarks is (can't even remember what it was anymore, some chain restaurant) looks like it about to implode or catch on fire any day now; either outcome wouldn't surprise me at all as I am sure it is full of mice and rats. Tons of vacant space in Northway, tons of vacant space in Pine Creek Plaza, tons of vacant space near Ross Park Mall on McKnight (the 2 side-by-side properties mentioned most recently in an article here on North Hills Patch). But instead what do we do? Chop down more of the beautiful woods and build more fitness centers and Lowe's stores, IHOP, etc. Go figure. We're being overrun by homogeneous, bland, big-box stores and Applebees-style restaurants. For example, the selection of authentic Thai food out in the North Hills up to and including Wexford and Cranberry is non-existant, replaced with the only option "asian fusion" restaurants that sell interior decorating bells and whistles and "ambience" at the expense of awesome food at decent prices (there are some of those in Oakland and Bloomfield and other areas closer to Pittsburgh). The only bookstores here are Half-Price (thank goodness) and the next one is B&N up in Cranberry -- deplorable. Non big-box sporting goods stores, hardwares, diners, etc... very few remaining!
woody June 20, 2012 at 12:57 PM
You're absolutely right, McKnightmare, please see my post below. "Progress" is chopping out the beautiful old woods on McKnight and where the elementary kids @ McKnight Elementary used to have their nature trail in order to build more big box stores, restaurants, and exercise facilities. Yet we lack decent ethnic restaurants (Patron is a notable exception), bookstores, and Mom & Pop places in general, and we have tons of vacancies as you mentioned. The empty restaurant you mentioned @ Pine Creek (if it's still standing) has behind it a vacant drug store (Eckard or Rite Aid, can't remember) next to Target. Instead, we bulldoze and cut down more of the forested land.
Scott Baret June 21, 2012 at 08:54 PM
The more I think of it, I think Ross needs to bite the bullet and let Wal-Mart develop somewhere in the township. Perhaps the space the company already owns (old Sam's Club and McCrackin Ford) wouldn't be so bad after all. I just got back from a trip to the south a few weeks ago. One of the towns I visited was Rock Hill, SC. They had a Super Wal-Mart as part of a three anchor mall. Surprisingly, the area it was on (Dave Lyle Boulevard) wasn't super-congested and the traffic flow in and out of the mall wasn't too heavy. Of course, Dave Lyle is far better laid out than McKnight, but it's proof a Wal-Mart can exist without a ton of congestion.
Scott Baret June 21, 2012 at 08:56 PM
Great comments, folks! Since a few of you have brought it up, that abandoned restaurant next to J. Clark's had been Red River BBQ.
Scott Baret June 21, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Non big box stores are indeed very rare, and it's because of a concept I like to call "retail Darwinism" in which the fittest stores survive. This is why a Lowe's, for example, can wipe out a small hardware store. Yes, the small hardware store has its definite advantages (take this from a guy who loves Vater's and similar stores) and while the large store may not have the expert owner, a la carte screws/nails/bolts, or spare parts bins of the small stores, they win because their overall selection is bigger, the prices are sometimes lower, and the marketing can be done on a scale no small store can afford or manage. Name recognition is another factor. Marketing is key here, as is presentation. An existing store may have built a great reputation over a number of years and won't be too concerned about it. A new store will need killer marketing to make an impact. For an example of success, take a look at Coffee Buddha. They have a unique presentation, are located along a busy corridor where this can be seen, and their store is so well-done that it just begs you to come inside. I could give you a hundred examples of failures, however. Truth is, these big name "bland Applebee's type" places will wind up succeeding since the name recognition is there. On a final note, I too miss the woods behind McKnight Elementary. This was a great way for the students to engage in meaningful exploration of nature!!!
Scott Baret June 21, 2012 at 09:04 PM
The Giant Eagle in Shaler has Graeter's in their frozen foods section! It's a bit pricy but worth it!!!

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