By Derek Wilson
San Rafael, like other cities along the Highway 101 corridor in Marin County, for years has tried to find a balance between business and housing. Officials are hoping to see that balance in the future of the Northgate Mall.
Mall owner Merlone Geier Partners recently presented a master plan application to the City that would literally turn the mall experience inside-out and include several new restaurants, retail stores and roughly 1,356 housing units.
“We have heard from residents that they want a vibrant town center environment and much-needed housing as part of Northgate’s future,” said Stephen Logan, Vice President of Development, Merlone Geier Partners. “Our vision to bring people back to Northgate is to combine destination shopping, eating and entertainment with new, quality residences. We are taking community input and new trends in retail to transform Northgate into something special for San Rafael.”
The mall, which first became a premier shopping destination for Marin County when it opened in the 1960s, has had to adjust through 50 years of economic changes. Sears, one of the original anchor stores, attracted shoppers for decades until it closed recently. Macy’s and Kohls have stepped up as the primary retail stores at Northgate, along with several smaller stores, and the Century Theatre cinema.
While the former Sears site and a few other retail spaces have been empty in recent years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown, officials have tried to find new tenants and new uses for the Northgate Mall. A proposed Costco Warehouse and gas facility was shot down amid complaints from San Rafael residents.
City officials heard the demand for increased housing in the area and Merlone Geier, in turn, responded with a proposed mixed-use residential-retail plan for Northgate.
The development of the new Northgate Mall is a long-range plan, with key goals set for 2025 and 2040.
The first phase of the multi-phase plan would begin in fall 2023 with demolishing a portion of Northgate’s interior mall, turning the mall into an outdoor shopping experience, with an end-to-end remodel of the movie theater. Local, regional and national restaurants will then be added, and the first residential housing units will be constructed. Northgate expects to bring in new retailers, 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, tentatively set to begin in 2028, would involve a longer-term plan, which will expand housing options, relevant retail options, reconfigured open spaces, and more.
It is unclear which retailers and restaurants will be mall tenants when the work is completed. In the short term, at least, some stores have committed to staying put.
“We’re not going anywhere any time soon,” said Lids store general manager Demar McHenry. “I can’t say what the corporate office will do in the future, but as far as I know, we have no plans to leave. We might take up one of the larger empty spaces in the mall.”
The existing Century Theatre will be completely remodeled to a luxury multi-screen movie theatre with an IMAX theatre, restaurant and bar. Another common request from the community was that meaningful housing be a part of Northgate’s next chapter, which is also reflected in the application.
“The housing component offers that 24-hour a day presence and activity that energizes a place that has lost its mojo, if you will,” noted David Geiser, Managing Director, Merlone Geier Partners. “Housing really becomes the critical piece in Northgate’s evolution in that amenities will be close by. You’re walking, not driving, out of your residence to shop or catch a movie or grab a cup of coffee or dinner with friends.”
Merlone Geier Partners is set to host two virtual community forums to share the plan with residents and answer questions. “The vision for Northgate is a place where locals and families can come and spend time with each other,” said Logan. “We look forward to working with the community to make that vision come to life.”
The virtual community forums are scheduled for March 30 and April 20. For details about this project and event registration, visit FutureNorthgateMall.com.