Ross Park Mall brought quite a bit to the North Hills when it opened in 1986. Plenty of new jobs were created north of the city of Pittsburgh. Fashion-conscious North Hillers had many new store options. Kaufmann’s, Horne’s, and many smaller stores had opportunities to modernize and expand their regional outlets. Few suffered from the new mall except for an entity known as Northway Mall.
Northway had been a landmark and top-tier shopping center from the day it opened, August 1, 1962, until the morning of August 15, 1986. Suddenly, it found itself thrust into the position of “that other mall” or “the old mall”. Everyone wanted to go to the shiny new mall with the hip stores of the day (Merry-Go-Round, anyone?) instead of the place their parents shopped as teenagers. Northway, meanwhile, was trying to find creative new ways to keep interesting beyond the addition of a very inexpensive second-run movie theater.
In 1987, extensive renovations began on the mall’s south end. With Horne’s gone from the upper level, having moved its clothing operations to Ross Park (the furniture store would hold on for another year on the lower level), the upper level was redone. The atrium was added as a result of the reconfiguration of Horne’s, adding space for a few new stores in the process. To access this from the upper level, a huge hole was cut through the floor. (This is why the picture of the couples dancing at the mall is tough to place for those who don’t remember the previous mall; the people are dancing in the area that is now the escalator pit). The goofy mini-escalators were installed to connect the atrium and lower level. Upstairs, the area nearest the elevator underwent a complete makeover. With Louis D’s bar and a jewelry store gone, the old corridor to the elevator was sealed off. In place of the old storefronts was a new addition: a food court.
Malls never used to be built with food courts. In the old days, malls typically had restaurants hidden in department stores and places to eat scattered randomly around the mall (such as Mamma Lucia and Isaly’s on the lower level at Northway). In fact, malls were more of a smorgasbord of stores in the day, with butchers, bakers, and perhaps even a few candlestick makers nestled among the hardware stores, barber shops, and stores we take for granted in malls today. With that era in mall history clearly over by the mid-1980s, Northway sought to modernize by installing a food court, complete with a wheelchair ramp to access the old glass elevator.
The food court certainly was well-advertised. Around the same time as the renovations, Northway Mall installed a large sign along McKnight Road, complete with a programmable light board. This was used to advertise specials but also flashed the name of each food court tenant in an effort to bring customers inside. Anyone stopped on northbound McKnight Road at the intersection of McIntyre Road had the chance to watch this stunning display of advertising. (The electronic sign was removed in 1994 and replaced by the sign which currently sits at the Babcock Boulevard entrance; the larger sign on McKnight came a few years later).
The big question: was the food court a success or another post-1986 Northway blunder? Let’s take a look at a partial list of the tenants which occupied it to find out.
Mamma Lucia. I think we can all agree this is a North Hills landmark. No matter where it goes in the mall–the lower level, the food court, or its current location near the entrance–it’s going to do well because of the top-notch pizza served there. This was clearly the anchor of the food court and also the most recognizable tenant for locals.
China Fan. This was the other stalwart tenant in the food court. It was a pretty ordinary take-out Chinese restaurant and took in its share of customers.
Rax. The only big name to come to the food court, Rax was arguably the second anchor during its brief stay. When Rax pulled out of the Pittsburgh market, this location shut down. It was fairly popular during its time, however, mostly due to the lack of other Rax locations along the northern stretch of McKnight Road.
Covered Wagon. I’m not sure exactly what Covered Wagon served, but I’m going to guess Tex/Mex cuisine based on its name. The name always intrigued me although I never got around to stopping there for lunch before its departure in the mid-1990s.
Chicken and Fries. Yes, that was the name of a short-lived tenant. I can only imagine what they served at this place.
Greek Deli. This was another one that stuck around for a while. This eatery was to Greek-esque food what Au Bon Pain is to French-esque food, albeit not a chain.
There were a handful of restaurants outside the food court as well. Prominent examples are Pappan’s, which hung on until 1991 in a space which later became Radio Shack, and Donna’s Kitchen, an American deli on the lower level. Sweet Treats, an ice cream parlor, was on the atrium.
Take a look at the roster from the food court. Mamma Lucia was the only established Northway restaurant which took the plunge and moved to the new location. The others were unknowns (with the exception of Rax). None of them exactly took off (Chicken and Fries was only there for a few months), and this can be blamed on many factors aside from their mom-and-popness.
On paper, Northway was the perfect place to set up a mom-and-pop restaurant in 1987. It was already a haven for non-chain shops, as the majority of stores were independently owned when the mall originally opened. Trendy consumers headed to Ross Park to check out the chains. Why not go along with the theme of small business with the food court?
The trouble wasn’t with the idea. It wasn’t with the marketing, either, as most of these restaurants put a very presentable storefront out. It wasn’t even with the food court, which was quite modern and presentable. The trouble was with the mall itself.
Let’s go back to Black Friday 1993. Northway was missing an anchor on the upper level (where Dahlkemper’s had been until earlier in the year), an upper-lower level anchor (where Woolworth had left two years previously), a lower level anchor store (the former Herman’s, slated to become a Borders at the time), and several smaller stores (the entire area at the base of the mini escalators on the Ritz side was vacant, for example, as were many of the smaller stores). Everyone wanted out of what appeared to be a dead mall, whose anchors were a second-run movie theater and Value City. Even if you have a great fast food joint, it’s not going to do well in a mall lacking stores.
Northway rebuilt itself into an indoor big box mall within a few years. This hurt the food court, however, as Northway shoppers began to come for a trip to one store instead of a shopping trip around the mall. This meant no stopping for lunch. Food court traffic, never much to begin with during the mall’s first dark period in the early 1990s, remained minimal and tapered off as businesses left. The addition of a new elevator also hurt the food court, as those riding the old elevator needed to go through the food court for access.
By 2006, when the food court’s demise was known due to the upcoming renovations, Mamma Lucia was the only remaining restaurant. Even the once mighty pizza giant was beginning to suffer a bit. Thankfully, the new location has led to a revival of an old North Hills favorite. I stopped there a few times for pizza in the months before my move and found business to be booming and far better than during the food court years.
Kid Company replaced the food court for a brief run as a potential replacement for another old Northway favorite, Discovery Zone. (Ball pits, however, were not part of the new children’s entertainment complex). This also sealed off access to the original elevator on the second floor. Today, the entire space is vacant and inaccessible. Most recently, part of it was used for the annual Santa Claus display.
In short, the food court was a great idea with great marketing and top-notch presentation. However, even the best ideas will fail if the support system is weak. Northway was no exception. It would be interesting to see what would have happened with these restaurants if they took up space in Ross Park instead, especially the local ones. Small chains and mom-and-pop restaurants haven’t exactly done well; we have seen plenty of Buttermaid Bakeries, Farmtown Markets, and Sinbad’s Kebab Grills fail there (all of these have just been in the past few years). Perhaps one of Northway’s castoffs, however, would have experienced more success if they had seized the opportunity, as some of the restaurants had a ton of potential to be successful.
NEXT TIME: Valley Drive. A peaceful little street where nothing bad ever happens. That is, until one fateful day...