“This is not just the opening of a shopping center,” Gruen—never one for modesty—declared on opening day, “but an important milestone for city planners, architects, economists, merchandisers, and the American public at large.”
The model held immediate appeal—soon Hudson’s Northland was out-grossing the flagship store in downtown Detroit. “They had imagined that people were still going to go downtown,” Hardwick says, “which was a blind spot.”
Gruen went on to build dozens of malls over the next two decades. Beginning in 1956 with Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, he pioneered design elements like the two-level, all-enclosed, climate-controlled structure with central garden courts and skylights that became features of every mall in America. But by the late 1970s he had soured on the concept—the sprawl of tacky strips, parking lots, and gas stations that soon surrounded most malls went against his original vision. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he famously declared.
For Southfield, long a sleepy farming community, Northland kickstarted rapid growth. Around the mall sprang subdivisions and high-rise apartments, and between 1960 and 1970 the population more than doubled. Still, as the suburbs sprawled ever outward, newer and shinier malls lured the wealthiest customers away. Northland’s owners worked to keep up with the latest trends in retail, expanding the mall and fully enclosing it in the 1970s. But by Northland’s 50th anniversary in 2004—despite multiple face-lifts—the number of shoppers had dropped to 9 million a year from a peak of 18 million. Tenants vanished, replaced by lower-end retailers, who disappeared in turn. The property itself changed hands repeatedly, until in 2014 when the latest owner defaulted on the mortgage. In 2015, the city of Southfield scooped Northland up for $2.4 million, less than a tenth of what it had cost to build back in 1954.
The city’s dream is that Amazon will choose the site for its second headquarters, and Southfield offered the space as part of Detroit’s bid this past fall. Mayor Kenson Siver points to Northland’s location at the geographic heart of metro Detroit, its proximity to highways and the airport, and the fact that all the infrastructure—electricity, sewers, road access—is already in place. And Gruen’s tunnels, Siver contends, would be perfect for housing data servers.
The poetry of today’s largest online retailer replacing what was once the cutting edge in brick-and-mortar may be appealing, but luring Amazon is a long shot, and the mayor acknowledges as much (“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he says cheerfully). So as bulldozers chip away at Northland three miles from City Hall, Siver lays out a future that includes new, walkable through-streets, adaptive reuse of the original Hudson’s store, medical office space for the adjacent Providence–Providence Park Hospital, a central park with a water feature and a band shell, and retail and restaurants anchoring mixed-use buildings.