By Jeff Quackenbush, The North Bay Business Journal
The owner of the Northgate Mall in north San Rafael has unveiled plans for where it wants to take the regional shopping center in the next three decades, and that includes hundreds of apartments and a return to the open-air shopping experience there over three decades ago.
While the details may change with community and city input, the property’s future has been guided by lessons from the challenges for malls in recent years and the constraints of the pandemic in the past 12 months.
Merlone Geier announced Thursday that it has submitted to the city a master plan application for the first phase of the transformation of the 710,000-square-foot center, anticipated to get underway in 2025, after 18-24 months of city hearings and community meetings. The first work would involve demolishing the former Sears store, which has been temporarily used partly as an RH outlet store, and its related spaces to make way for 898 apartments.
Portions of the mall roof would be removed to return to the outdoor shopping experience before the center was closed in during the mid-1980s.
“That’s what the retailers want these days, is exterior access,” said Stephen Logan, vice president for development in Merlone Geier’s San Diego office. “During the pandemic, we found out very quickly that tenants with exterior-facing entrances survived and thrived better in this environment.”
Enclosed malls have been shuttered for extended periods during the coronavirus pandemic that began in March 2020. Marin centers were allowed to reopen inside again at reduced capacity just recently.
Housing is key to spurring a resurgence of retail activity, because living spaces are used daily, and having markets and fast-casual dining next door will generate more trips to the retail areas, Logan said.
A Costco Wholesale store has been proposed to replace the shuttered Sears location. That plan has faced active resistance from the community, including a petition drive with hundreds of signatures in opposition.
Also envisioned for the first phase would be the transformation of the Century movie complex, including for IMAX features. Local, regional and national restaurants will then be added.
Northgate will offer all-new shopping offerings from boutique to national brands with a transition to an all-outdoor shopping, dining, entertainment and lifestyle destination, with walking paths and gathering spaces connecting all areas.
The second phase has a much longer time frame — tentatively circa 2040 — and includes up to 460 more apartments plus revamped retail spaces and more open areas.
“That’s if Kohl’s and Macy’s go away,” Logan said. “But they long-term leaseholds and no intention of their going away. We didn’t want to go through a plan and then have to redo it.”
Logan declined to say how much the mall transformation would cost. But mixed-use and open-air reworkings of malls have been undertaken elsewhere in the Merlone Geier portfolio, which includes 112 assets on the West Coast, mainly focused on centers anchored by grocery, drug and home-improvement store tenants.
At San Antonio Center in Mountain View, there is residential above grocery-anchored retail space plus offices, movie theaters and outdoor areas such as a dog park. In North Hollywood, the NOHO West center has residential next to office and retail spaces.
“Northgate will not have an office component, but people migrating from working from home or a remote location will be able to go to pool decks, fitness areas and outdoor spaces,” Logan said. “It’s the way we things evolving in the future.”
Merlone Geier plans to hold virtual community forums about the redevelopment master plan on March 30 and April 20. Register to attend at FutureNorthgateMall.com.