Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Northlake Mall: Charlotte, NC

Charlotte has it all retail-wise: one of the most upscale malls in the South, an enormous dead mall, funky older malls in various disguises and also one of the newest malls in the country: Northlake Mall.  Opened in 2005, Northlake is famously one of the very last malls built as malls have been falling out of favor due to the enormous costs of operation in conjunction with the decline of department stores.  Northlake also displays the best of mid-00's architecture featuring contemporary, attractive design throughout somewhat offsetting the total absence of fountains, planters and sunken seating areas.  It is a popular mall, but it is a bit unusual in its store offerings and controversial due to its direct influence in the death of near-legendary Eastland Mall.  While a conventional mall in every sense, the mall has attracted crowds looking for a quality mall without the inconvenience of driving across town and fighting red lights to get to South Park.

Northlake would be a perfectly situated mall if not for Charlotte's notorious gap in its relatively new belt route, I-485.  Currently, the mall is tucked at the southwest corner of where I-485 and I-77 converge, but with little traffic on I-485 due to its lack of nearby connection with I-85, it is not helping much currently.  It is still a mall in the "middle of nowhere" waiting for sprawl to catch up to it.  While some strip development has joined the mall, the area still has a ways to go.  It clearly was built on the model of so many malls in cities like Atlanta where it was built out in a semi-rural area with the expectation that subdivisions, apartments, office parks and strip malls would flock to join it.  While not outstanding by any stretch, it is pleasant to see a new mall for a change in lieu of the dated centers found most everywhere else.

This view is taken just outside of Belk on the lower level.  This is about the only thing I do not like about the mall is how the bottom floor is flush with nothing of any draw along the way.  I guess this allowed them to build "air conditioned sidewalks" on a narrower footprint.  The first photo is the inside of the front entrance, which is also the food court.

Walking along the lower level toward center court with more of the mall in focus.

I cannot deny that even with the absence of water features or sunken areas that the center court is very eye-catching.

Northlake faces some unique challenges not given to malls from the 90's back.  First, the mall did not open with a full deck of anchor stores.  While Belk, Hecht's (now Macy's) and Dillard's gladly joined the mall, Sears and JCPenney curiously wanted no part in the center.  Galyan's Sporting Goods (now Dick's) also joined the mall as an anchor proving how malls are more willing not to focus on department stores.  Nevertheless, the mall features a standard mid-market lineup of stores including a complete set of Limited stores, an elaborate food court and two levels of shopping.  It would have likely hurt South Park, but South Park had already made strides to better their shopping experience putting it in a different league.

Another view of center court.  Imagine if an artificial waterfall falling into a small "river" surrounded by lush ferns flowing slightly lower than the floor were built into this court.  That is the only thing keeping it from being amazing.

Dillard's mall entrance is a bit less than amazing.  Too bad Ivey's is not here instead.

Here is a map of the mall.  It doesn't look as intriguing on paper.

In a larger city, Northlake Mall would definitely be forming its own edge city, but in reality it is really not that far from Uptown Charlotte.  This is why the mall contributed to the demise of Eastland Mall, which itself was very close to Uptown.  This is also not the only mall it hurt as it, along with Concord Mills, has caused Carolina Mall in nearby Concord to struggle as well.  Carolina Mall will likely die if Sears and JCPenney decide to join Northlake at some point in the future, because they will definitely leave Carolina Mall in that case.  It seems overall that Charlotte can really only handle three major malls, so Northlake joins South Park and Carolina Place as the major malls in the city in the north, central and south, respectively.  They might handle more, but there is not exactly a huge mall-less rural area outside: the outer cities around it have malls of their own.

A view from the upper level shows one-sided high windows in lieu of overhead skylights.  Above is a latticework partial arch, which seemed to rule everything retail from this era.

Dick's Sporting Goods mall entrance.  I've noticed that the Dick's that started out as Galyan's were far larger than the stores they built on their own.

Returning to center court on the upper level.  The brick columns definitely pay tribute to the late 60's malls even though they were intended to pay ode to new urbanism.

A topic of conversation lately in regard to Northlake Mall is what the effect will be on the mall due to Eastland's closing.  The belief is that the ghetto element that is perceived to have destroyed Eastland is going to drift up to Northlake with nowhere else to go.  This is a bit curious to me since Northlake is still a good ways out of the city and obviously the "ghetto" can get to South Park far easier and quicker than they could Northlake.  Of course, I do not know that much about the neighborhood around Northlake, so I really cannot say for sure.  South Park, however, has done a great job hiding the fact that they are far closer to that "bad element", and that they have problems of their own.  South Park may not have survived had it not been for the upscaling project that it undertook in the past decade.  What it did do, however, was keep Northlake down to an average upper middle mall when it might have otherwise become the dominant mall in the region.  Perhaps management at South Park knew this, and that was why they quickly lured in Nordstrom and later Neiman Marcus.  That's fair enough since South Park is far more interesting mall with a lot of history.

The upper level of center court is a sight to behold.  This carries into the food court and front entrance as well.  The underside of those skylights is wood trimmed.

Walking into the food court area.  At the end is the front entrance and a Borders bookstore on the left.  My first photo also shows this area.

Macy's, formerly Hecht's.  Unfortunately, this bland mall entrance is nothing compared to those of old.  Do they realize this makes department stores look less important and outmoded?  Macy's using black letters did not help either.

Another thing that truly benefited Northlake was the failure of the lifestyle center projects that were planned in the city.  Lifestyle centers should never be taken for granted: they caused the death or decline of multiple malls in Birmingham and are pulling down malls in other cities across the country.  Three dominant malls is probably sufficient for a city the size of Charlotte, and if a fourth were built it would need to be east of the city somewhere near where US 74 and I-485 intersect.   My guess is that if Charlotte starts growing again that Northlake will become a regional powerhouse, but right now it is already a decent A-list mall.  Regardless, it seems to have a bit of mid-market overkill in terms of department stores.  It is definitely just an average mall, and nothing is really substantial about it except that it's new, nice and clean with a contemporary look and decent stores for the average person that cannot budget for Armani, Burberry and Neiman Marcus.

Belk's mall entrance looks somewhat more substantial.  It should in its home turf, and it is a nice store inside, too. 

Here I am looking back from the Belk mall entrance.  This court seems to have more traditional skylights, and this shot gives a nice view of the upper level.

One of the entrances here looks quite tasteful, but I do have to wonder about the lower part deliberately hanging at the weird angle.  It reminds me of some of the Ripley's Believe It or Not tourist traps.  You expect to walk in and find an Eiffel Tower made of toothpicks.

I guess for me what was nice about Northlake was to see a new mall again.  When was the last time you saw a regional mall that still had its shiny luster, mildew had yet to overtake the exterior and the surrounding area had a smooth traffic flow with manageable strip mall clutter?  I can also say design-wise that there were definitely things I liked.  I though the ceiling treatments and skylight elements were fantastic.  I also thought the use of materials maintained a nice blend of moody without being depressing: a design I think overall will age gracefully.  I hope the mall does well, because so far it is one of the last of its kind.   I also hope that this is truly is not one of the last malls ever to be built.  Can we please do better than overblown inverted strips for shopping malls?

Macy's, formerly Hecht's, on the outside.  Hecht's was here so briefly that if you blinked you would miss it.

Belk has the most original and best looking design for a store at the mall.  I guess being privately held by the namesake family near the company headquarters helps them to care more about how their stores look.

Dillard's, however, put up their latest clone.  No fun allowed here.

Departing, I captured the mall sign.  This is something I fail to do when I cover these places quite often.


  1. I've heard the part about Northlake becoming the next Eastland somewhere else, too...maybe a comment on the Charlotte Observer's website?

    I don't know how I feel about that. I think a better spot would have been up near Gilead or Sam Furr Roads (two exits north), but there's not really much mall-sized land left up there. As it is, the mall is probably a pretty good draw for the Highland Creek folks and a decent one for Huntersville and even Cornelius. However, the mall is awfully close to Sunset (one exit south), which is where the not-so-nice parts start to begin. It will be rather interesting to see how this one plays out over the next several years.

    Of course, I'm sure people could say the same thing about Steele Creek, where I live...

    There are plans in the works for a mall -- excuse me, lifestyle center -- near Mint Hill, at the intersection of 485 and Lawyers Road -- on the southeast side of town a couple of exits up from 74. How astute of you, JT! However, these plans have been on hold for several (4+) years now. The thought was that once it opened, Belk and Dillard's would bolt from Eastland. Well, I guess we know how that turned out.

    Again, though, I really don't think there's a good spot right now on that side of town for a mall. The big spenders are south of 485 between 16 and 74, and unless they were to put a Saks or Neiman's at Lawyers Road, I don't know why they wouldn't just drive on over to SouthPark. And not that it's exactly a juggernaut, but Monroe Mall would most likely suffer.

    I just don't have worm fuzzies about either place. Eeeh, who am I to say, though...

    P.S. I wish I had known you were doing a road trip up here! Would have loved to bought you a beer or three!

  2. I can't get into this place. I love that it's a new mall, and the upper level of the interior is really nice, but the department stores are kinda blah, and the lower level feels claustrophobic.

    Sears and JCPenney weren't expanding into malls in 2005, which partially explains their absence.

  3. The entire area between uptown Charlotte and the mall is lower-income.

    I like Northlake, but I'll see how the mall turns out.

  4. A mall was planned for the NE corner of 74 & 51 in Matthews (just off 485) but the village didn't want the traffic or headaches. Sycamore Commons got built instead. Basically an outdoor mall with clusters of big boxes far enough apart that you can't walk between them.

  5. This is a beautiful new mall that looks to have a bright future for several reasons that I have noticed.

    First, it has a movie theater as an anchor which will consistently draw people to the area and when they are waiting for movies they are likely to browse stores and eat at the restaurants before and after.

    Second, it is located near the lake and usually malls near lakes hold onto their value longer because the home retain value. The lake isn't going anywhere!

    Third, this mall has appropriate retail nearby that is laidout in a safe, easily reusable and adaptable manner. Right around this mall are a number of popular stores: Target, REI, Chickfila, Starbucks, Olive Garden, On the Border, Chili's, PF Changs, MAC cosmetics, Mimi's Cafe, Lowe's, Best Buy, Off Broadway, etc.

    Fourth, it and all the surrounding retail has been built from quality materials that tend to age well. There is a lot of brick around here. Also, they decided to include sidewalks and well-laid out road linking everything together with nice landscaping interspersed throughout.

    I think this mall will get at least two more decades before it starts to decline but because of the nearby lake, it may continue to reinvent itself. I notice it has another spot that looks like an anchor pad for the future as well.

  6. I don't like this mall, at all. It's just nothing special, at all. I live in Asheville and it doesn't offer anything we don't have, except for Macy's, Pottery Barn, L'OCCITANE, and Anthropologie. Who knows how long the latter 3 will survive, anyway? This mall seems fairly healthy, but I don't think the more upscale stores are doing very well at all. SouthPark is the much better mall, but unfortunately the only weekend I could go was the weekend the mall's roof collapsed, thank god I was able to get my Anniversary Sale, Cheesecake, and Neiman's fix, which was basically all I cared about, but my sister wanted to come here. I was bored out of my mind since the there were hardly any stores I liked here and the ones I did didn't have a very good selection compared to their SouthPark location. I thought the mall was pretty ugly, and it almost offends me about how you said SouthPark was too "basic" to be as upscale as it is because you mentioned Phipps and Lenox as well, and IMO, SouthPark looks way better than both of those malls. Lenox is old and dated and is very mismatched, and Phipps just looks too boring and older with it's elegance, more contemporary upscale looks much better, or at least updated elegant would be better.

    I did notice some of the people that probably would have went to Eastland a lot when it was still open, and I have hardly ever seen any people like that at SouthPark, and I go about 6 times a year for the past 6 years or longer. I cannot be convinced that it is no safer than SouthPark, either. Either way, I always feel more safe at SouthPark. There's no doubt that this mall will stay open for a while, but I honestly can't see the more upscale stores like J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, etc. staying on too long.

  7. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and obviously it depends on tastes. For me, both architecture and store offerings I find important. Northlake is still at this point an average mid-market mall while South Park is clearly upscale. I personally prefer Asheville Mall for its wild layout and vintage design elements over Northlake, but I thought Northlake had some nice touches.

  8. H&M is opening their first Charlotte location here tomorrow.

  9. You know there are actually two fountains at Northlake. There's one by the movie theater mall entrance and there's an interactive fountain in front of the mall entrance by the food court. But surely, there needs to be something on the inside as there is plenty of space to accommodate one along with those pesky kiosks vendors (if they wanted too!)

  10. Too bad there have been a few shootings there in the last few years. I try to avoid it now and it's less than 10 miles from my house.