Two big projects nearing completion in Northgate, Thornton Place and 507 Northgate, could help the neighborhood become the urban center that planners have envisioned since the early 1990s.

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Two big projects nearing completion in Northgate could mark the beginning of a long-awaited transformation for this North Seattle neighborhood, one planners first envisioned 15 years ago.

When they wrote the region’s first plans for managing growth, they designated Northgate an “urban center” — a place where high-density development would be encouraged. They foresaw a compact, walkable, transit-oriented place to which both new jobs and new residents would gravitate.

That’s still the plan, but not the reality. For the most part, Northgate remains what it always has been: an auto-oriented place to shop.

Lorig Associates’ Thornton Place and Wallace Properties’ 507 Northgate, both rising on the periphery of the recently expanded Northgate Mall, represent something different.

Together, they will offer more than 100,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. Thornton Place will feature a 14-screen cinema and the North End’s first IMAX theater.

And, perhaps most significantly, the two projects will contain nearly 700 apartments and condos — the biggest infusion of new housing Northgate has seen in decades.

Planners said residents were key to Northgate’s revitalization when they made it an urban center in 1993. They established a target of 3,000 new housing units by 2014.

Before Thornton Place and 507 Northgate broke ground, fewer than 200 had been built.

“It’s taken some time, but it’s finally happening,” says Lorig principal Bruce Lorig. “This is going to be like a secondary downtown. It’s got everything here.”

Northgate is more than the mall. It’s also home to such institutions as North Seattle Community College, Northwest Hospital & Medical Center and Group Health.

But for years development proposals stalled while builders, environmentalists and neighborhood activists battled in court and City Hall.

The logjam broke in 2004, when a city-brokered compromise allowed the project that is now Thornton Place to move forward around a restored Thornton Creek, which for decades had been diverted into a pipe under the property.

One-time antagonists now say nice things about each other.

Barbara Maxwell, a board member of the Maple Leaf Community Council and a 20-year veteran of Northgate’s land-use struggles, says 507 Northgate and Thornton Place should be positive additions to the community.

But more change looms, and that could mean another round of conflict.

At least four more large properties are considered ripe for redevelopment. Voter approval in November of new taxes to extend light rail to Northgate and beyond by 2020 could draw even more developer interest.

City officials are considering changing zoning on 98 acres, mostly north of the mall, to allow for taller buildings and greater density. Some developers say such changes are needed before a real urban center can emerge.

But some neighbors fear the potential consequences, particularly worse traffic. “I’m worried,” Maxwell says. “I’m confused about what’s driving this.”

Help from city

Lorig and Kevin Wallace, vice president and general counsel for Wallace Properties, agree that neither of their projects would have happened without a big boost from City Hall. The Thornton Creek compromise was only part of it.

Altogether, the city has invested $35 million in Northgate. Seattle Public Utilities is building the “daylighted” Thornton Creek channel. There’s a new library and community center, and new landscaping and lighting along parts of Fifth Avenue Northeast.

Paul Fischburg of the city’s Office of Policy and Management, says there’s money in next year’s budget for more street improvements and to start transforming a Metro park-and-ride lot into a 4-acre park.

Wallace is appreciative. “They built the infrastructure that allows us to do what we’re doing,” he says.

507 Northgate, at the prominent corner of Fifth Avenue Northeast and Northeast Northgate Way, will have 163 apartments atop 55,000 square feet of retail. Maxwell particularly likes the wide sidewalks the developer has built.

Wallace says the first residents should arrive in March. Monthly rents will range from $990 to $2,300.

Thornton Place is rising on what once was Northgate Mall’s vast, underutilized south parking lot. Stairs, walkways and footbridges — all intended to be open to the public — line the new, landscaped creek channel, designed to improve water quality and reduce peak flows downstream.

On its north bank, near the movie theaters and retail, builders plan to finish 121 condos and 266 apartments by spring. On the south bank, Lorig, in partnership with Era Living, is building 143 units for seniors.

The condos start at $300,000. Apartment rents should range from $950 to $1,800. Some units in both the Lorig and Wallace projects are set aside for people earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Both Thornton Place and 507 Northgate have suffered from the sour economy.

Wallace says his company decided to break ground in part because Circuit City had signed as an anchor tenant.

The electronics seller backed out after filing for bankruptcy protection last month, giving back 30,000 square feet. Wallace says Office Max, with 15,000 square feet, is the only signed retail tenant so far.

Retail leasing also has been slow at Thornton Place, Lorig says, and just one of the condos has sold since marketing began this summer.

But the developer, whose previous projects include Uwajimaya Village and Wallingford Center, says he’s prepared to ride out the downturn.

The creek and the cinema, projected to attract 1 million moviegoers annually, should be powerful draws, he says.

They’ll be back

Plus there’s little other new housing in the area, he adds: “Eventually, people will come back.”

Other large property owners sense Northgate’s potential. Mullally Properties, owner of the 8-acre, 1950s-vintage Northgate Apartments, is looking for a partner to lease the property for 75 years or more and redevelop it.

Likely uses include a hotel, offices and apartments, says Mullally’s Colleen Mills.

Jim Potter, founder of Kauri Investments, hopes to build a six-story residential/retail building nearby, on what’s now a parking lot near his Court at Northgate apartment complex.

Both proposals would require zoning changes. Property owners say the existing zoning doesn’t provide enough incentive to redevelop.

Wallace, who is considering redeveloping older strip malls his company owns just east of 507 Northgate, agrees.

If the city backs away from a broad, areawide rezone and makes property owners seek changes individually, he says, it will be too risky and too expensive for smaller developers to pursue.

A final rezone recommendation should come early next year, says Fischburg.

Maxwell, of the Maple Leaf Community Council, suggests the city wait until 507 Northgate and Thornton Place are finished, then see what impact they have on the neighborhood, especially its transportation network, before making changes elsewhere.

Regardless of what the city does, little additional development is likely there for at least the next few years. This time the economy, not politics, is at fault.

Mills, Potter and Wallace all say they don’t intend to build anything new anytime soon. Nor does Metro, which could build buildings as tall as 125 feet above its Northgate Transit Center.

“We’ve had interest from a variety of people in building something there,” says Metro’s Gary Prince. “But it’s a least a couple of years away.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or