If there’s a flaw in modern shopping mall development, it’s that most malls developed or extensively renovated in the last decade and a half lack drama. Natick Collection totally bucks that trend.
The Natick Collection (which was, until very recently, known as the Natick Mall) has been big news here in New England since it opened on September 7. With the center’s dramatic new expansion, the Natick Collection is suddenly New England’s largest mall, with somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million square feet of floor space. But as you’ll see from these pictures, it’s also easily the most dramatic; with vaulted, undulating ceiling lines, a faux-white birch forest, and some truly daring external architecture, Natick Collection strives to be a place you want to go, not just a place you can shop. It could (and probably should) be a model for how to maintain the relevance of super-regional malls.
There’s kind of a long and complicated history of this mall, so it’s necessary to step back a bit. The metrowest region of Massachusetts (or is it better defined as a region of “Boston”?) is a populous and affluent suburban area about 20 miles west of downtown Boston, along the Massachusetts turnpike. Like most New England suburban areas, it’s relatively diverse, from the post-war suburbia of Framingham to extremely affluent enclaves like Weston, but Boston’s western suburbs have long been amongst some of the wealthiest in New England, and they continue to grow in population.
In the 1960s, when this area was first beginning to attract a substantial population base due to suburbanization, the area frequently known as the “Golden Triangle” began to emerge as a shopping district. Defined roughly as the triangle created by Route 9, Route 30, and Speen Street along the Natick/Framingham town line, the Golden Triangle became one of the largest and most active shopping districts in New England, and has been home to (at one time or another) no less than five enclosed shopping malls and many other smaller outdoor shopping centers.
The Natick Mall itself opened in 1966, and some reports have placed it as the first enclosed shopping mall in Massachusetts (I thought this distinction belonged to the Westgate Mall in Brockton?). At the time, it was a small one-level mall with Filene’s and Sears as anchor stores, and around 30 or so stores in the interior. In size and influence, it was somewhat dwarfed by its neighbor, the outdoor (but mall-style) Shoppers World, and in later years by the many other small enclosed malls to spring up in the neighborhood, including the Cloverleaf Mall, the Framingham Mall, and the mysterious, nameless Route 30 Mall.
By the early 1990s, the facility was beginning to look seriously dated and it was also woefully undersized; the Mall at Chestnut Hill and Atrium Mall a few miles to the east in Newton were pulling most of the business from the Natick/Framingham area due to the lack of a single major mall as a focal point. In 1992, Homart Development acquired both the Natick Mall and the neighboring, outdoor Shoppers World, and developed a master plan for the entire parcel. Shoppers World would be “de-malled” and turned into a big box center, and the Natick Mall would be dramatically reconfigured. Truth be told, the “original” Natick Mall ceased to exist at this time. Except for the Filene’s store, which was dramatically remodeled and expanded, the entire mall was demolished (click for video!) and replaced by a larger two level structure, which included a new Sears store (built further down the lot than the older store, to accomodate for a larger mall space) as well as two other anchors: A Lord & Taylor and the final Jordan Marsh store ever constructed. The new (ca. 1994) Natick Mall opened with over 100 stores and approximately 1.2 million square feet of floor space.
The 1994 Natick Mall became the dominant retail center in the metrowest area as a result, and caused the downfall of the area’s remaining small malls, including the Cloverleaf Mall, Framingham Mall, and Route 30 Mall. In 1996–two years after Natick opened–Solomon Pond Mall, a second major mall, opened about 20 minutes away in Marlborough, and since the two centers have co-existed peacefully as the major enclosed malls in the area. But realizing that there was a trend towards larger, super-regional malls (and that Natick Mall’s store roster was pretty straight down the middle and indistinguished), the mall’s owner–now General Growth Properties–announced in 2002 their plans to acquire the adjacent, vacant Wonder Bread factory and add a significant expansion of the Natick Mall to accommodate more upscale tenants. After many negotiations and false starts that woudl last many years, all of which are detailed on the Framingham/Natick Retail Website, it was announced that the expansion would add two anchor stores: Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as 65 other stores and up to 4 new restaurants. Perhaps even more interestingly, the development would incorporate a 12-story condominium tower attached directly to the new wing of the mall.
Construction took place through most of 2006. During this time, the Federated/May merger caused more shake-ups at the mall, as Macy’s vacated their space (which, again, was the former Jordan Marsh) to move into the former Filene’s, the only building that remained from the original 1966 mall–albeit in dramatically reconfigured form. The vacant Macy’s store was quickly snatched up by JCPenney, who has a limited presence in the Boston market. The older portion of the mall was also renovated to complement the expansion when it was ready to open. During this time, GGP announced their plans to rename the mall simply as “Natick,” a plan that brought on strong opposition from the community, and was dumped in favor of the (almost as) obnoxious “Natick Collection,” which sticks to today.
On September 7, 2007, the newly expanded Natick Collection opened to much fanfare. The expanded mall includes six anchor stores: Macy’s, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor, Sears, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus, as well as over 200 specialty retailers. The Natick Collection is now the largest mall in New England, and reportedly the fourth largest on the East Coast and 12th largest in the United States. As of October 2007, construction is underway on a small lifestyle village along the route 9 facade, and when complete will include restaurants such as Maggiano’s Little Italy and Cheesecake Factory. The remainder of the exterior features dramatic, lush landscaping (as shown in these photos) and some truly unusual architecture, especially at the Neiman Marcus building. Inside, the new wing of the mall sports dramatically undulating ceiling lines, a lush “birch forest,” and a spacious center court with a sweeping fountain. The old wing has also been renovated to incorporate hardwood floors on the second level, and the colors have been softened throughout.
What can we say? We’re impressed. For a long time, malls have been treated as disposable entities, not as interesting places to gather. The consideration that went into a center’s architecture was usually limited to discussions on how to maximize sales. General Growth’s approach with Natick Collection places the center as a kind of modern cousin to some of the stunning, classic Victor Gruen malls, and that’s very high praise.
Original 1994 mall: