Northland Center Mall

As people left cities like Detroit for the suburbs starting in the 1950’s, retailers abandoned their traditional downtown locations to follow them. When it opened in 1954, Northland Shopping Center was the first of its kind - an open-air regional shopping center that combined the walkability of downtown shopping with the convenience of the automobile. It was designed by Victor Gruen, a young Austrian architect whose careful study of shopping habits and strict design guidelines would, in his words “bring order, stability, and meaning to chaotic suburbia.” People could park, and then easily work through a to do list – shop for shoes, visit the doctor, send a letter, and buy some groceries while enjoying entertainment in airy plazas.

At the center of Northland was J.L. Hudson’s department store. Hudson’s had long been a fixture of downtown Detroit, its massive store covering an entire city block. Gruen managed to take a chance on a new concept, building a branch location in the fast-growing suburbs of the city. Though reluctant at first, Hudson’s came around to the idea, appointing Gruen to design one of the first shopping centers in North America.

Recognizing that the automobile would fundamentally alter the way that people shopped, Gruen picked a 141-acre site north of Detroit in what is today known as Southfield. Surrounding the mall would be nine parking lots, capable of holding 6,000 to 12,000 cars at any given time.

At the center would be a 4-story Hudson’s store, ringed by open walkways and blocks of storefronts containing 70 businesses. The stores would be supplied through a network of tunnels under the mall, allowing truck traffic to come and go without interfering with pedestrians.

Construction on the Northland Center began in May of 1952, with the mall opening in March of 1954. Upon opening it received rave reviews, with customers praising the wide variety of stores and public artwork, including sculptures by renowned artist Marshall Fredericks. A Detroit News article relates that some customers “were so perplexed by the enormity of Northland that they often lost their cars in the parking lot. In small carts, police officers regularly shuttled people around the lot in search of their vehicles.”

The area around the mall saw a huge increase in new construction, as other businesses, offices, and residential developments located nearby. The population of Southfield boomed in the years after the mall opened, growing from 25,000 residents to nearly 70,000 in fifteen years.

Northland’s success, however, came at a price. Instead of bringing order to chaotic suburbia, as Victor Gruen had predicted, the shopping mall encouraged sprawling developments that began to consume the suburbs around Detroit. New, larger enclosed malls were built in distant suburbs, following the flight of middle-class residents from the city. Even Grunen would become disillusioned with his creations later in life, decrying them as ugly, “land-wasting seas of parking,” telling an audience in a speech “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

Northland abandoned the open-air concept, enclosing the walkways in 1974 and building additional anchor stores. A food court was added in 1991. The last major addition to Northland was the construction of a Target store in 1994.

The mall craze peaked in the 1990’s and began a steady decline. Malls tended to be costly operations, requiring significant upkeep and regular renovations to compete with newer ones being built nearby. Older malls, like Northland, found it difficult to compete. By the 1990’s, most of the big-name retailers had deserted the mall, replaced with independent mom-and-pop shops. Anchor stores including Kohl’s, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penny left as many shoppers began to bypass Northland altogether, driving an extra 10 to 20 minutes to reach higher-end shopping malls in the suburbs.

The Northland Center was put up for sale in 1999, selling in 2000. At the time the mall was about 86% leased but had negative reputation for crime and a lack of selection. At its peak in the early 1980’s as many as 18 million visitors shopped at Northland, a number that had decreased by half by 2004. Macy’s took over the former Hudson’s store after buying the Marshall Frederick’s chain but stumbled badly, losing customers and further decreasing mall traffic. The mall owners took out high-interest mortgages which became impossible to refinance during the great recession a few years later. In 2014, the mall defaulted on its loans.

In early 2015, Macy’s announced it would be closing its department store in the Northland Mall, one of 14 store closures around the country. The move was not unexpected, as traffic at the store had been trending downward for years, but the loss of Macy’s seemed to confirm what people had been saying for years: Northland Center could no longer compete in a region saturated will malls.

In the months after Macy’s announced it would be closing its Northland store, the employees undertook an organized retreat, consolidating merchandise as it sold through and wasn’t replaced. Entire departments were emptied and roped off, leaving a shrinking island of retail around the perfume counters and cash registers near the front of the store. Most of the remaining stores inside the mall began holding clearance sales or closed and began moving out. Target was the last of the anchor stores to leave, closing just after Macy’s. The Northland Center shut down in March of 2015. The remaining contents of the mall were auctioned off later that year.

In the summer of 2016, the City of Southfield bought the Northland property for $2.4 million dollars. Though the city initially planned on demolishing the mall, it was instead sold to a developer in 2021, who has since began redeveloping the site into a mixed-used commercial and residential center.