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Shunned by shoppers and squeezed by online retail, iconic Detroit malls to get new lives

Eastland Center and Northland Center malls opened in the 1950s to the fanfare of Metro Detroiters looking for a suburban shopping experience. Decades and the internet later, both sites face different futures.

Eastland on Vernier Road in Harper Woods will close in January, and an industrial facility will be built in its place. The former Northland site on Greenfield Road in Southfield will become a mixed-use development with a food and goods marketplace, apartments, dining and entertainment.

Rosalind Henderson, 49, of Detroit swung by Eastland late last week to grab a pair of shoes to wear to a wedding later that evening. Many of the storefronts were empty and shoppers were sparse as memories lingered.

“It’s sad to see it go,” she said. “There aren’t many stores in here now, but you can come in here and find what you need.”

Not for long, because the retail times they are a changin’. Mall shopping has been in decline for decades as customers increasingly turn to online shopping — a trend turbo-charged by the COVID-19 pandemic when many felt compelled to do their shopping on the web because of health concerns, store closures and reduced hours.

Like Eastland and Northland, such storied Metro Detroit properties as The Mall at Partridge Creek and Dearborn’s Fairlane Town Center are shadows of their once-gleaming selves, abandoned by anchor stores and shunned by shoppers. Moody’s predicted this summer that 20% of the 1,000 malls in the United States will likely close or go through a major repurposing, a reckoning analysts say has affected malls, mom-and-pop shops and big-box retailing powerhouses.

“Indoor shopping malls, associated with mid- to late-20th century Americana, have seemingly been on a rollercoaster ride since their arrival in the 1950s,” Moody’s wrote in its regional mall report released this summer. “The willingness of the consumer to purchase products via an online platform with broader offerings and the iterative effect of providing faster distribution have threatened many traditional retailers.”

The disruption comes as shopping preferences change, more people shop online and developers move to convert aging, once-thriving malls into properties that can renew local tax bases, create jobs and revitalize properties once synonymous with post-war prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the community and the respective cities,” said Steve Morris, a lecturer of finance for the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and principal of Axis Advisors LLC, a commercial real estate service firm in Farmington Hills. “It’s going to bring in additional tax revenue for both communities.”

In the beginning …

The survival of the American mall long has relied on the health of its so-called anchor department stores, which have been on the decline as retailers shrink their footprints. Both Eastland and Northland were built by the department store giant at the time — J.L Hudson Co. Both provided a suburban option as customers sought an alternative to shopping in downtown Detroit.

Northland Center opened in 1954 as an open-air shopping center. It had a four-level Hudson’s and various structures. Similarly, J.L Hudson Co. opened Eastland Center in 1957 as an open-air mall. By 1975, both malls were enclosed.

Northland closed in 2015 after years of declining traffic, dwindling tenants, the departure of Macy’s and Target, and mall owners who defaulted on the property. Six years later, many areas of the shuttered property show signs of disrepair, lots overgrown by brush and concrete steps crumbling.

While Eastland has remained open, it’s scheduled to close its doors in January to make way for a new development after being long plagued by declining tenancy, fewer shoppers and safety concerns.

Kees Janeway, a retail mall expert and managing partner for Detroit-based Iconic Real Estate, said that Northland and Eastland centers — as well as the still-operating Fairlane Town Center — struggled to retain customers as people moved further from Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs and as higher-end malls opened up, including Somerset Collection in Troy and Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills.

“They’ve all been impacted by the ring effect,” he said. “They were built close to the city and population started to spread further and further and further. As a result, some of the newer stuff was able to capitalize on that redistribution of people. The populations around those were losing a lot of their wealth to the further north, east and further west suburbs.”

Vision in Southfield

When Northland Center closed, the City of Southfield purchased the mall for $2.4 million and acquired numerous parcels of land and easements to pave the way for a new development on the 100-acre site.

Mayor Ken Siver said the city was approached by numerous developers with ideas including logistics, factory, an auto dealership and a medical marijuana facility. But the city determined those weren’t the right fit for the property.

“What we heard from the community was that they wanted housing, they wanted a mixed-use development with recreation and neighborhood retail, and so we came up with a plan,” he said.

The city didn’t have a lot of takers that officials deemed right for the plan until the mayor met with Bloomfield Hills-based Contour Companies about another housing project. The topic of the Northland site came up.

“They did more exploration and then they came back and said, ‘We’ll take the whole thing,’” he said. The city and Contour struck a deal, with the $11.1 million purchase closing this past summer.

Contour Companies, as Northland City Center LLC, has planned a $402 million project that will involve partial demolition of the former mall as well as the construction of a city market and mixed-use buildings.

The first phase of the project is expected to be complete in 2026 and include 1,500 apartments and 600,000 square feet of retail, said David Dedvukaj, founder and partner of Contour Companies. The company was drawn to the area for its traffic flow, proximity to the Lodge Freeway and the residential and office density.

“We can absorb the density we’re looking for here…” he said, “with a mixed development where people can go downstairs from their apartments and grab a coffee or go grab a beer after work. Essentially live, work and play in the same environment is going to be a big draw for us.”

Under the latest development plan, the original Hudson’s building will be rehabilitated and serve as a food and goods market. The mall’s underground tunnels will be converted into parking for the commercial areas.

The project is in the demolition phase this month with crews gutting the interior. The former old police station and auto center have already been torn down. The former JCPenney will be demolished in early November, Dedvukaj said, adding he also expects to break ground on the first new buildings on-site in November.

In July, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Michigan Strategic Fund board granted $26 million in brownfield tax credits to clean up the site.

For Southfield resident Zell Randle, 54, Northland was the ideal place to go shopping for folks growing up on the west side of Detroit. She remembers walking around the mall with her family while overdue with her twin daughters in the summer of 1987, hoping the movement would cause her to go into labor.

“It didn’t work,” she laughed. “They came when they were ready.”

Randle, who lives near the former mall site, said she’s looking forward to more shopping options in the area: “I think the shopping is a good use. We don’t have anything here. I go to Twelve Oaks or Novi or farther out in Troy just to go shopping. Most people are doing Amazon now, too. But still, you do want to get out sometimes and walk around the mall. Even if it’s nothing more than exercise.”

One recent day while standing in the shadow of the former JCPenney, Siver spoke of the amenities on-site during Northland’s heyday from the 1950s through early ’70s, including a grocery store and numerous restaurants.

“This was a mecca back in those days,” the mayor said. “It’s coming back.”

Next chapter — Industrial

Eastland Center will be replaced by an industrial site expected to bring 250 construction jobs and 560 permanent jobs on nearly 100 acres, city officials and a developer announced this summer.

The project has been in the works since 2019 under the administration of former Harper Woods Mayor Ken Poynter.

“He really started working with them because that’s when we realized what Eastland was once again,” said Harper Woods Mayor Valerie Kindle, noting the mall had an issue with bill payments.

Officials had floated ideas for the site over the years, including a municipal center with small retail shops. That never materialized. NorthPoint Development plans to purchase the site from New York-based Kohan Retail Investment Group, which purchased the mall in 2018.

“They have held up to their word,” Kindle said. “That’s almost 100 acres of land to be redeveloped. That’s what they’re about the business of doing right now. We’re so very grateful that they saw a need that they’d be able to address. It’s a win-win for the city of Harper Woods and the developers. It will bring stabilization to our tax base.”

Kindle said she expects the city to also save money on its drainage fees with the addition of retention ponds on the site. These projects come at a time when there is a demand for industrial land in the Metro Detroit area.

NorthPoint Development has another notable project underway at the site of the former Cadillac Stamping plant, where it was announced last month that Lear Corp. will be a tenant making car seats to supply to the GM’s Factory Zero in Detroit-Hamtramck.

“That wins the prize for the highest and best use for these sites because of the demand and the lack of finding available space of that size in this market,” Morris of UM said. “That’s a home run and a lot less risk. They’re only doing one item with a big demand.”

Henderson, who was shopping for shoes last Friday, said she wished that something could have been done to revive Eastland instead of converting it to industrial use: “Even though it may bring more jobs, it won’t be the same.”

Amina Jahan, a saleswoman for Perfumesera, said business was going well despite COVID-19. After the announcement of the mall’s upcoming closure, other businesses started to leave in search of retail space elsewhere.

“It’s sad,” she said, adding the store hasn’t found a new location yet. “I wish this place would remain open. I’m going to miss this place.”

Harper Woods resident Kathleen Carlson, 73, remembers when Eastland was an open-air mall. There was a grocery store, professional building and a farm nearby. In the basement, there was a post office and shoe shine store.

Carlson said she worked at the candy counter of Kresge at the mall in the 1960s when Brach’s Pick-A-Mix was 39 cents a pound. That’s where she met her husband, who was also a Kresge employee.

Carlson has watched the deterioration of the mall over the years. She said she’s looking forward to the site being put to another use: “Let’s get the area looking nice, get some people some jobs and some tax money for the city.”


Posted By: The Detroit News on September 12, 2021.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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