I was a child of the '80s who grew up near Northwest Mall. In fact my mom worked there. I spent countless hours wandering its department stores and dime stores, pawing through the selection at Waldenbooks, scoring free samples at Smoothie King, and scrounging money for Chick-fil-A. When that got boring, I liked to spy on the teenagers hanging out around the fountain at the center of the food court, sidestepping the mall-walkers in their tracksuits.
Through it all I never imagined that in 30 years or so, I’d be driving around the mall’s abandoned, bombed-out buildings, riding shotgun with a trio of reps from a company called Texas Central, as they explained to me that the site would soon, in the next five or six years, transform into a terminal for 240 miles of track—track that would transport passengers, maybe even one day me, from Houston to Dallas at a speed of 200 miles per hour. In fact, if someone had told me this, I would have sworn they were lying.
And yet here we are, at the 45-acre tract where US 290 and Loop 610 meet alongside Hempstead Road. A steady drizzle from a gray afternoon sky only adds to the Dickensian sense of decay as we roll past the place that was—from its opening in 1968, through the 1990s—the place to be.
We initially had planned to walk around the defunct mall, but given the inclement weather, we’ve decided to stay in the car. And I’m not the only one feeling a little reflective as we make our way past discarded bricks, rutted gravel, and asphalt. “This was constructed when everything happened at the mall,” says Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.
The place started its decline during the 2000s when, one by one, the anchor stores left. Finally the mall itself—aside from Antique Center, which is still open—closed, in March 2017. “This is so weird,” I say as we take in the faded sign over the entrance and the boarded-up doors. “This place is truly dead. Sure, the antique store is right there where Penney’s used to be, but I still can’t even call it slightly alive. So, what is Texas Central going to do about it?”
Hearing her cue, Reed turns the music off and sails in. For more than a decade the company has been working on this privately funded $20 billion project to construct the first Shinkansen bullet train line in the U.S., making steady progress despite intense rural opposition. “This station is going to be multifaceted, with retail, restaurants, offices, everything. This is going to become a gathering place for people, whether they ride the train or not,” she says. “This will be this century’s version of the mall.”
Also: The track coming into the terminal will be elevated four to five stories to avoid road interference and flooding issues, Reed explains, using a manicured pointer finger to sketch out how the tracks will zip into the terminal right next to Hempstead. Although the design plans are far from concrete right now, it will almost certainly be a gleaming glass-and-steel structure with sleek modern lines. She paints such a clear picture that, for a moment, the windshield wipers whipping back and forth sound like a train whistle.
Of course, the entire site will have to be cleared, she says as we continue our slow loop. For a minute I’m sad, but then I remember that nobody recalls what was here before Northwest Mall, either. That’s just how Houston is about these things.
The project has gained traction in recent years partially because Texas Central has promised to be respectful and unobtrusive as it potentially revolutionizes transportation in the Lone Star State. Pondering this, I have to ask: “Are y’all going to salvage any pieces of the mall? You know, anything to sort of pay homage to all of this?”
Reed pauses for a moment, considering, as the car motors by what used to be Macy’s. Momentarily we’re all distracted by the sight of a group of naked white forms lurking just inside the entrance. “What on earth?” I sputter. “I think they’re mannequins!” the driver says.
“About your question, that’s a good idea,” Reed says. “I hadn’t thought about it, but maybe we will find a way to do something.”
They’ve got time. While Texas Central plans to break ground on the line before the end of the year, the company’s still waiting on federal approval for the project, which is expected to come through sometime this summer, after which there will be a better timeline for the station. “The spot is perfect, though,” Reed says. “It’s like it was waiting for us.”