Inclusive Mall Redevelopment Done Right
How can cities build collective ownership over the way they grow, and transform mall sites from odes to the automobile to green, active, and equitable spaces?
Can cities like Durham, NC conduct robust community engagement, empower residents, and develop a dense, transit-oriented, sustainable, and inclusive future?
Can they work with private developers to build that future?
The answer to both these questions is yes.
But before we go further, please take a moment to check out https://www.walltown.net/. Here you can scroll through the enormous amount of organizing work that the Walltown Community Association has done for the Northgate Mall site and how you can support their efforts.
Residents in Durham, NC are fighting for equitable mall redevelopment on the aging 55-acre Northgate Mall site (learn about the history of Northgate Mall here). The site and its redevelopment holds strategic importance at the neighborhood, city, and even regional level. The site is larger than the downtown Durham loop and is a gateway both from a major interstate and between central and north Durham.
Despite its citywide strategic importance, the city government has done little to ensure the site develops equitably and sustainably. The corporate landowner, Northwood Raven, has demonstrated no meaningful interest in working with residents to maximize the use of the site.
In 2021, the landowner submitted plans to the city for a mixed use project, but it was exclusionary in nature because it envisioned walls along portions of its edges bordering the historically black Walltown neighborhood, faced inward, lacked external connections, and included virtually none of the community’s proposed solutions. Read Walltown’s response to the proposal and call-to-action here.
In 2022, the landowner revised their desired vision for the site. The landowner’s new desire includes even more vehicle space, no housing (and no affordable housing), poor urban design, inadequate public space, and poor connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods.
The landowner’s new desire would now require a rezoning and subject it to a discretionary decision-making process, requiring a recommendation from the Planning Commission and final decision by City Council.
Many Durham residents now wonder: What can be done to ensure the site develops equitably? What is the city’s responsibility? What is our role?
The neighborhood is now calling on leaders to act in a collaborative spirit.
To better understand what is or isn’t possible, a useful reference for this discussion is a mall redevelopment project underway with a similar legal context: Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia.
That project used a collaborative approach, with the City government at the head of the table, to achieve the following:
4.2 million square feet of new development
Dense, urban, pedestrian- and transit-oriented urban design
1 million square foot medical campus
Fire station with co-located affordable housing
Over 4 acres of public open space
Centrally-located transit hub
Internal and external street, sidewalk, and bike facility connectivity
Here is how the City of Alexandria involved itself in that project.
It empowered its residents through a robust 6-month small area planning process. City planners held communitywide public meetings and over a dozen meetings with a core group of people serving on an Advisory Group. The Advisory Group included representatives from various city boards and commissions, residents, and business representatives.
The process resulted in a small area plan. The plan laid out expectations for the site. It focused on
(a) Street networks:
(b) Street design:
(d) Pedestrian and bicycle facilities
(e) Public parks and open space:
(f) Land Use
(g) Community facilities
(h) Building heights, gateways, and placemaking:
(i) Affordable Housing. The plan states:
With the Landmark neighborhood transformed into an active mixed-use activity and employment center, a balance of housing options, including those serving residents and workers with incomes ranging from 30% to 80% of AMI, will be necessary. Through redevelopment, a number of tools can be employed to enhance rental and homeownership opportunities affordable within that income band. In addition to establishing a target percentage of new committed affordable and workforce affordable units across the Landmark neighborhood as part of the CDD approval(s), this Plan recommends exploring opportunities to co-locate affordable units with future community facilities, where feasible, partnering with public-private-non-profit entities to incorporate affordable housing projects into larger mixed-use developments, where feasible, utilizing regulatory incentives for bonus density and height, and providing voluntary contributions to the Housing Trust Fund.
The City applied the power of conditional zoning. The plan states:
This Plan establishes the framework and recommendations to guide future redevelopment of the Landmark neighborhood over the next 20 to 25 years. The recommendations will be implemented through future rezoning to a CDD or comparable zone, as well as the development review process. As with other sites in the Plan area, this neighborhood will be expected to comply with the Eisenhower West/Landmark Van Dorn Developer Contribution Policy in effect at the time of development approval(s). Because of its special role as a potential catalyst for broad redevelopment, the City would consider tax increment financing or its functional equivalent for Landmark Mall infrastructure, but only if economics warrant such city financial participation.
The conditional zoning includes:
(a) Concept Plan:
(b) Open Space
(c) Housing and Fire Station
(f) All benefits
(g) Community review opportunities
The City put some skin in the game with redevelopment agreements.
The Landmark Mall case study shows us that the city government can take the lead to plan and redevelop an aging mall site to create a dense, walkable, equitable, mixed-use neighborhood that empowers residents throughout the process. The laissez-faire approach in Durham demonstrates that - without adequate oversight - the landowner will seek to redevelop the site in an auto-oriented, exclusionary manner.
Learn more about planning for mall redevelopment in North Carolina in this 2021 American Planning Association conference session.
The work of the Walltown Community Association organizers is inspiring. As volunteers, they have organized hundreds of people throughout Walltown and Durham to develop a vision. They built a list of logical, realistic, and inspiring solutions for the Northgate Mall site. And they maintained effective professional communication and engagement with residents. Well aware of what they’re up against and the hurdles they face, organizers have not been deterred.
The Northgate Mall redevelopment is a citywide equity issue and holds enormous social and economic value. As such, all of Durham not only owes the Walltown community their gratitude, but their solidarity and commitment to supporting their efforts with sweat equity and financial resources, as well as social and political capital.
Durham is at a crossroads with how it engages with and empowers residents on growth and development, especially residents of color and residents of low wealth, where the fate of Walltown and the fate of Durham are practically synonymous.
The Northgate Mall redevelopment will be a harbinger event that shapes what Durham is and who we become. Will we be a sustainable, transit-oriented city for all working class people and places or an exclusionary suburb for cars and profit?