Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

One of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Beaver County

It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.

This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

interior of vacant, former grocery store in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-grocery (A&P, probably?)

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

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On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles[1], Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.

The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

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vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era[2], the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.

In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today[3]) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.

The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.

But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.

vacant former Radio Shack store in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

ex-Radio Shack

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.

Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

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Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.

In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be[4]. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-Chinese restaurant


[1] Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
[2] Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/

Dead Mall: Allegheny Center

Former office building in Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh, PA

Former office building, former Dollar Bank

It was a Saturday afternoon and this American was at the mall. Nothing strange about that, right? Where it gets weird is that he was the only one at the mall. And I mean literally the only living creature on this giant plot of city-center property*.

I wasn’t even there to buy anything! But that’s lucky, because believe me, there was nothing for sale–no novelty t-shirts, no shoes, no Spencer Gifts, no Licorice Pizza, and (sigh) no Orange Julius.

Empty common area of Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Main common area

Allegheny Center, one of Pittsburgh’s three ginormous, well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous urban redevelopment projects of the 1960s, is today the most intact of that triumvirate. The Civic Arena was torn down several years ago and its massive site is currently in development for yet another makeover. East Liberty’s business district is more gradually having its wrongs…undone (I’m not sure “righted” is fair–certainly the displaced residents wouldn’t think so).

This isn’t your average dead mall. For one, it’s not way out in the suburbs–just one river crossing and a few blocks separate Allegheny Center from downtown Pittsburgh. For another, even though as a shopping mall it’s definitely long gone, some amount of the property is very much in use. Many of the former retail spaces are now occupied by an unlikely collection of anonymous back offices for banks, utilities, tech companies, etc. There’s even a working soup-and-sandwich restaurant to serve the captive clientele (but it’s not open over the weekend).

Things are going to change fast for Allegheny Center real soon. Announced last year, the complex is about to have a whole bunch of money dumped into it to convert the mall space to a incubator and campus for high tech companies with the new name Nova Place. Radiant Hall has moved into the ground floor of the office building and Quantum Theatre will stage its next production (Ibsen’s The Master Builder) upstairs in April. We thought The Orbit ought to get in there and take a look before everything changes once again.

Large hexagon-shaped planters filled with both dirt and styrofoam packing peanuts, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty hex planters

Allegheny Center isn’t just a (former) shopping mall. It’s a small complex of buildings that includes an eight-story office building and a similarly-sized set of apartments (which may still be in use). There’s also a terrific freestanding bank branch that has the center’s very of-its-time midcentury modern curved boxes.

Much has been made about what The North Side lost when the Allegheny Center project came in–most notably its beautiful, central market house and sensible street grid. That was all before this blogger’s time, but the pictures are heartbreaking.

Entrance to parking garage and curved, projecting windows, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Parking garage entrance and characteristic curved exterior features

That said, the fifty years that have passed since Allegheny Center was built in 1966 have largely been kind to what could have been a horrific featureless and windowless box like many of its enclosed mall peers. The overall design is an inventive mixture of interior and exterior space. Shoppers could get to destinations both within the enclosed mall area and also from a number of outside-facing storefronts. Allegheny Center’s original plan devoted much of its space to an open garden/park are on what is now just a bizarre gray plane. The center had mixed use as a central focus, accommodating retail, dining, office, and residential space. Parking is entirely hidden within underground garages. Maybe most surprising, given what we’ve seen of mall design since, nearly 100% of the exterior space contains big windows with views of downtown Pittsburgh (to the south) and up to the hills of Fineview (north).

Aerial photo showing Allegheny Center's original open space parklet and red polymer surface

Aerial photo of Allegheny Center’s original open space parklet with red polymer surface [photo: concretedecor.net]

It’s also in amazingly great condition. I was struck by how absolutely clean and immaculately cared-for the entire property seems to be. Inside the mall, the arched atrium windows still let in a great slanted light, the original tile may show its age in color selection, but not in cracks or wear. Windows–there are many–are clean and bright.

Outside we didn’t see any of the tell-tale signs of other dead malls–no rust or leaks, no cracked window panes or graffiti, no trash, cigarette butts, or weeds. The exterior retail spaces have all been boarded-over with plywood to protect them. We obviously don’t know what things look like underneath, but if they resemble the rest of property, restaurants and retail stores could move back in tomorrow. [Note to Lou Pappan’s heirs: please consider this!]

While it’s certainly dated, the architectural design has the remarkable quality of being both curved and boxy, regular and asymmetric, retro and modern. By today’s standards, it’s cool…or, at least, it could be. By any yardstick, it’s got a lot more potential than Century III. Let’s all cross our fingers for Nova Place.

Empty exterior common/garden area, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Exterior common area with boarded-up former storefronts, former parklet


* This is only a slight exaggeration–during our half-hour visit we did see one dog-walker (outside) and one security officer (inside).

Sources:

Dead Mall: Century III

Century III shopping mall common area with empty kiosk and candy machines

Century III Mall: from dust to dust

The “dead mall” phenomenon is certainly not anything unique to Pittsburgh.  It’s been documented in sites like deadmalls.com and articles like a recent New York Times piece on “the economics and nostalgia of dead malls.”  For those of us old enough to remember when the local shopping mall was the predator, not the prey, it’s almost inconceivable that these retail-draining, downtown-killing behemoths could ever be ousted, but whether it be the Internet or competition cannibalizing their own, it’s for real, and it’s happening everywhere.

The Century III Mall, located in the borough of West Mifflin, in the southeast suburbs of Pittsburgh, is not technically dead.  It is, in fact, still open for business, with anchor tenants and a relatively clean and cared-for interior.  It maintains three anchor tenants (with Sears having recently pulled-out), a two-restaurant food court, and just enough open businesses to think they may draw a crowd on weekends and the run-up to Christmas.

That said, it’s probably only a matter of time.  The mall is supposedly only 40% occupied, down from 80% ten years ago, and walking through on a recent Friday afternoon there were next to no customers in any of the remaining stores.  The clerk at the jewelry kiosk was clearly asleep.

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III does have a uniquely Pittsburgh backstory, though, connected to the steel industry right at the end of its reign on the region’s economy.  The Wikipedia article on the mall summarizes well:

The name Century III was conceived at the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, making light of the time at hand – the advent of America’s third century. When the mall opened in 1979, it was the third largest enclosed shopping center in the world. The site is a recycled former U.S. Steel industrial area, a huge slag pile once known as Brown’s Dump. Slag, a waste product of steel making, had for years been transported by rail cars from the mills of Pittsburgh to this once remote valley.

Aerial photo of former slag heap "Brown's Dump"

“Brown’s Dump” (no snickering), pre-mall

This transformation of the ultimate brownfield–a steel industry slag heap–into a bright and shiny shopping mecca must have made business section headlines all over the place.  But its (seemingly inevitable) demise at this point is now a sad ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust, slag-to-slag parable of retail in the twenty-first century.  It’s unlikely this particular heap will last the sixty-some years it would take for it to reach Century IV.

Blog author reflected in empty mall mirrors

Century Selfiii: the author, fractured and alone at the mall