It seems like I can hardly go more than two months without drumming up a blog article coming from a mall. Even as enclosed malls have plunged from the popularity peak in the 1970s and early 1980s (a point in time when American downtowns were lifeless almost across the map), they still remain a formidable retail presence across most metropolitan areas. Malls continue to offer a consolidated laboratory for observing consumers’ idiosyncrasies. But they are in serious trouble. Hardly a week goes by when a mall somewhere isn’t losing a key anchor tenant. And, at the height of the Great Recession, an average of four malls closed every week. Nonetheless, plenty others remain that don’t show even a hint of fading. The Greenwood Park Mall outside Indianapolis, the one closest to where I grew up, is probably stronger than ever, with more upper-middle retailers than it had in the 1990s. I even blogged about it a while ago. Conversely, two other malls on Indianapolis’ east and west sides of town remain on life support.
Then there are the dozens of malls that fall somewhere between these two extremes: not really likely to collapse any time soon, but certainly not flourishing. These malls have ostensibly lost their market share to other retail typologies: big boxes, lifestyle centers, power-strip clusters (not really sure what else to call them), and even sometimes to traditional town centers lucrative enough to attract major national brands. Such malls might still expire, however, and the biggest threat is the terminally sleeping giant of online retail. Before it’s fair to investigate what will happen to them, it’s best to first gauge what they look like now.
The first is the Oxford Valley Mall, in the lower portion of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a suburban area northeast of Philadelphia. The mall has sat at this location since 1973, at a time when Lower Bucks County was booming with new suburbanites (and, simultaneously, huge portions of north Philadephia city limits were hemorrhaging white middle class families). It understandably seemed like a wise decision for the Kravco Company at the time: locate just off a major highway (US Route 1) in a rapidly growing area, where the land was still cheap enough to assemble a huge parcel for all the parking necessary in a corner of the metro with limited public transit access. The model had worked in dozens of similar locations. Why should it fail for Oxford Valley?
And the truth is, it didn’t. It hasn’t—40 years later, the mall is up and running. Oxford Valley Mall, on an early Saturday evening during the Christmas season, still looks like a lively place. But closer scrutiny will reveal serious weaknesses that would not have been reflective of such confidently situated suburban real estate even a decade ago. The community of Langhorne remains resolutely middle class, perhaps even upper-middle. Though the area is likely far more ethnically diverse than it was in 1975, poverty rates remain quite low. So what’s the problem with this particular mall?
At any rate, it’s a big one, at over 1.3 million square feet and two floors.From a superficial scan of the interior, it doesn’t look particularly outdated; it has obviously undergone an extensive interior renovation at least once since its 1973 construction. While one would expect a mall food court to be busy at a conventional dinnertime, the fact that Oxford Valley has a number of people milling around the eateries indicates that people are at least lingering enough at the mall to justify staying around for a meal. It’s fairly busy.Apparently, visiting the mall remains a popular pastime on Saturday evenings during the holidays. But the first sign of weakness remains visible in the above photo: a vacant restaurant space between the Master Wok and Chicken Now. And that’s not the only one.Two more at another section of the food court. The co-existence of three vacant restaurants is far more indicative of a trend. Is the rest of the mall riddled with vacancies? Generally speaking, no: the two-story central spine of the mall still looks pretty solid, with shuttered storefronts few and far between.And Oxford Valley Mall still commands some discriminating tenants:Swarovski, Coach, Williams-Sonoma, and Banana Republic may not be Gucci or Prada, but they are solidly upper-middle performers, and they won’t just hop into any mall’s leasable space. The fact that Oxford Valley is about to welcome a Sephora indicates that choosy brands are still absorbing mall space; the four pictured above aren’t necessarily the last of a dying breed.
But what about the other tenants? It has its fair share of ubiquitous inline stores, like Claire’s, Kay Jewelers, Foot Locker, Sunglass Hut, the titanic Forever 21, and so forth. But it also has places like this:According to its Tumblr-supported website, Never Too Spoiled apparently has one other branch, at the Hamilton Mall in New Jersey. I’m hardly trying to fault an fledgling entrepreneur for making a go of things—which the proprietor of this store clearly is doing—but it’s a bit surprising to see a local tenant in a mall that clearly aspires to fairly high-end national and international brands. And this little storefront is hardly alone:I can’t find a website on Twinkle. It appears to be the only one of its kind. I commend a business like this for trying its luck in a large mall, but such entrepreneurs typically don’t have as deep of pockets as the national brands; the presence of Sparkle in this mall suggests that the leasing rates aren’t so high. Here are a few more:XO is a formal apparel store with two locations in the Philadelphia metro—nowhere else.Suit Mart also lacks a website—at least one that is referring to the store with this name at Oxford Valley. And the cluster of stores in the photos below (on both floors) is a real mystery:None of them—East Meets West, Shinee, or George’s Cards and Collectibles–even get mentioned in the directory for the mall. Only the last of the three has a website (which I linked), but it, too, is a regional business with no more than a few locations.
Obviously Oxford Valley Mall has a lot of these mom-and-pop stores. It is with no small amount of irony that I recognize that many of these locally-owned boutiques are the exact sort of tenants that our historic small-town main streets would kill for—as a sign that they are thriving—yet when they proliferate in a suburban, auto-oriented mall, they almost always indicate that the management company is lowering its leasing costs just to attract new tenants. With too many mom-and-pops, a mall nearly always gets branded as declining. Yet this mall in Bucks County can claim both the highly coveted national brands as well as regional small businesses.
Do the demographics of the area indicate anything about the direction the mall might be headed? Not really. Oxford Valley Mall sits just south of U.S. Route 1, at this point a limited access highway linking northeast Philadelphia to Trenton. South of Route 1 sits the sprawling expanse of Levittown, among the first post-war middle class suburban developments in America and worth of a blog post of its own (or two, or three). Levittown, now approaching 60 years old, is no longer a bastion of enforced racial homogeneity. Though still mostly white, the titles of these modest, aging homes are rapidly shifting to Lower Bucks County’s immigrant newcomers, resulting in a far more ethnically diverse population patronizing the mall—but still one with low poverty rates. On the northern side of Route 1 stretch many of Bucks County’s smaller boroughs and nascent exurbs, nearly all of which are mostly white and generally affluent—wealthy enough to keep Bucks County consistently among the top 100 highest-income counties in the country.
So what’s inducing this discernible weakness in the retail landscape at Oxford Valley? I haven’t entirely been fair in my presentation of the evidence, because I’ve left out the biggest factor: one of the four department stores is vacant.This wing of the building apparently with the large “Court Shops” sign used to host Boscov’s, among the last of the surviving family-run department stores, with approximately 40 locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic states. Boscov’s fell into dire financial straits in 2008, forcing it to file Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection and close a number of underperforming stores. It has re-emerged successfully from bankruptcy, even to the point of re-opening some of its previously shuttered locations…but not at Oxford Valley Mall. Thus, this wing of the mall has been without an anchor tenant for over four years.
And it shows. It has the highest concentration of low-end or mom-and-pop tenants, none of which would lease space at this mall if it were thriving.The Jova School of Dance may very well be expensive, but it’s not the type of tenant mall management vigorously pursues, unless its desperate. Why? For-profit instructional schools keep unconventional hours and don’t really attract passive visitors, as evidenced by the fact that it’s already closed in the early evening on a Saturday. Dollar Hut is a budget retailer, but not even a nationally known one (like Dollar Tree or Dollar General). As far as I can tell, this is the only branch. Elsewhere in this struggling wing of the mall, one encounters a local photography gallery:
An indoor golf course:USA Blues, a regional budget apparel company:And—coming soon—an H&R Block tax preparer, which is mostly likely a seasonal tenant that will close shortly after April 15.The only two national chains in this wing are Five Below and Radio Shack, two common budget retailers. These are the type of tenants one expects to see in seriously struggling or dying malls. Not one that has a Williams Sonoma one thousand feet away.
Given that this former Boscov’s has been vacant for so long, it is probable that leasing rates are lower than elsewhere in the mall. After all, without a big-ticket destination like a department store, this wing is essentially a long dead end. But why has it been so hard for the property managers to find a replacement? Sure, the economy has been bad, but we’re talking about Simon Property Group, the Indianapolis-based mall manager extraordinaire—the largest Real Estate Investment Trust in the country. The folks running Oxford Valley are hardly amateurs, yet this wing of the mall has languished. The “dead wing”, in turn, has clearly impeded the foot traffic in the rest of the mall, resulting in a commercial property that, in aggregate, struggles to attract a preponderance of big-name national tenants.I suspect that, in large extent, Simon Property Group is struggling with a fundamental design problem. Over the last decade, mall management has turned “daylighting” of dying wings into a common practice. That is, the owners or managers significantly modify a long-vacant department store, which has struggled largely because, after so many mergers and acquisitions, department store companies are simply fewer in number. Usually the daylighting process involves transforming the shuttered store into a small, outdoor-oriented “lifestyle center” section, complete with elaborate landscape and fountains. Simon successfully daylighted the old L.S. Ayres building at Greenwood Park Mall; as mentioned earlier, it continues its successful track record, with occupancy persistently above 95% and virtually nothing but big-name national brands. But Oxford Valley is a two-story mall in its entirety. Converting that already large department store (in which the size probably makes it less attractive in this sour economy) into an inevitably one-story lifestyle center would be analogous to a square peg in a round hole. It would be hard to support a compatible design that links some one-story outdoor shops to a two-story mall, and presumably it isn’t worth the investment risk in an already uncertain climate for commercial real estate. As a result, even though the interior is nice enough, Oxford Valley seems comparatively old-fashioned in the fact that it lacks any real visually stimulating storefronts when viewed from the outside parking lot. It’s hardly a trailblazer among malls.
So this wing of Oxford Valley flounders, and the rest of the mall remains in flux, simultaneously catering to two ends of the economic spectrum. Aside from its architectural hurdles, one could infer other socioeconomic explanations for this strange predicament. Perhaps the problem is that Bucks County, Pennsylvania—particularly the northwestern half—is dotted with a number of fully successful historic main streets, which have successfully lured the most affluent demographic away from the malls. Communities like New Town, Doylestown, and New Hope are shopping destinations in themselves, offering a mix of local boutiques and widely known national brands, all in what most would perceive to be a much more “authentic” and aesthetically stimulating setting. Why should Talbott’s locate in a mall when it can occupy a 200-year-old Federal building in a vibrant, rich suburban town? Enclosed malls don’t just have to compete with the phalanx of big boxes along the busy highways, now they have those other aforementioned retail typologies, like factory outlets and town centers (both historic and faux historic) as fierce competition. It also can’t help that the Neshaminy Mall (also enclosed) competes with Oxford Valley from just six miles away in Bensalem, PA.
One other, more cynical conclusion I could draw from the polarized retail at Oxford Valley is that it is reflective of an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Here, in an otherwise low-poverty area, a Banana Republic, Sephora, Dollar Hut, and H&R Block sit under the same roof. The middle-class stronghold of Levittown, sprawling across several square miles to the south, is not dying but certainly appears faded, as the nouveau bourgeois aspires to larger lots and fancier two-story homes in the exurbs. The new generation of Levittown belongs increasingly to blue-collar families or recent immigrants who lack the purchasing power to sprawl into the tony verdure of Upper Bucks County. I’m not bold enough to draw glib conclusions about escalating social stratification from simply walking around a conventional shopping mall (and I’d like to think I’m not that gormless either), but I’m just brave enough to put that postulate on the table. Maybe the middle class really is shrinking in what was once a supremely middle-class stretch of metro Philadelphia. Or maybe the demographics feeding into this mall are just so diverse and so atypical that national retailers don’t know what to think of it…so all too often they just don’t risk it. Oxford Valley isn’t likely to get boarded up any time soon, but its future sure seems murky—regardless of what the optimistic folks at Sephora think.