I’ve predicted the implosion of malls—along with my reasoning as to why they’ll implode—many times on this blog. Though my predictions have yet to come to widespread fruition (and I really don’t want them to), it remains obvious that malls claim a much smaller swatch in the tapestry of American consumer culture than in the past. Not only are other retail typologies offering serious competition (including those peculiar things called “downtowns”), the internet continues to chip away at shopping as a recreational pastime that involved getting out of the house. Restaurants and cafés, however, are generally flourishing…and it’s all the better than you can shop for clothes and housewares while sitting at your computer in a café.
We’ve already reached a point where more malls are closing in a given year than opening, though that largely has to do with the fact that malls aren’t opening. Period. And the majority of surviving malls can only claim a middling 75-85% occupancy. Like this one in suburban Philly:
As great as this sculptural sign is, it’s probably the hippest thing Plymouth Meeting Mall has to offer from its location near the prominent and convenient intersection of I-476. And it’s only hip because the mid-century modern era that it evokes seems to be enjoying an extended resurgence. But 1966, when The Rouse Company built this mall, was already past the prime for such stylistic gestures…but hey—it’s the suburbs, so who’s going to care about keeping up with the Joneses? And when were malls ever hip/
At any rate, this one has undergone significant changes in recent years, after a sale from Rouse to Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) in 2003. These transformations included a partial “de-malling” in 2009, in the wake of a departed IKEA (first American location) that relocated a few miles away. This outdoors-oriented, lifestyle center portion of Plymouth Meeting is now home to the mall’s most upscale stores, with a Whole Foods Market as its anchor. Others include Charming Charlie, Orvis, Chico’s, and Ann Taylor Loft.The restaurants in the outparcels also seem to be doing well, and the fact that the exterior has attracted choosy culinary clients like Zoë’s Kitchen, P.F. Chang’s and California Pizza kitchen is a promising sign. But then, restaurants are holding their own, in these times of retail dearth.
As for the rest of the mall? It’s hanging in there…but certainly no better than that. And “hanging in there” is par for the course.It’s got some of the staples: Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, American Eagle, Kay Jewelers, Sunglass Hut, Foot Locker. It’s well-maintained enough. But it also has some of the signature sub-prime tenants: Armed Forces Recruiting Center (also Navy and Marines), H & R Block Tax Preparers, a number of mom & pop vendors, and particularly large in-line tenant devoted to a health clinic.Incidentally, it also includes Church on the Mall. While storefront churches are normally a red flag for a mall’s economic health, in this case it appears the church located at this site in the 1960s, shortly after the mall’s opening, making it the oldest continuously operating mall-based church—a real anomaly. I surely would have taken pictures of this church if I had noticed it during my 2014 visit to Plymouth Meeting. Malls didn’t usually move to churches back then; they couldn’t justify the high cost of the real estate.
But the real lifeblood of Plymouth Meeting, like most malls, should be its department stores. As anchor tenants, they often are the bellwether of mall performance, but often, since they pay little to nothing in rent, department stores can keep on trucking even as the interior of mall is hemorrhaging tenants—sometimes even after the interior of the mall has completely closed. After the dismantling of the old IKEA, Plymouth Meeting could only claim two legitimate anchors, which now are Boscov’s and Macy’s.And the latter offers at least one curiosity in the courtyard at one of the major entrances.In my opinion, the horizontality still evokes the mid-century origins. And while I’m not sure about the age of the rectangular stone wall, by now we’ve all caught on to the popularity of small rectangles as a motif, both as a soon-to-be-passé ceramic mosaic for the interiors, and perhaps here as well. But something else about that wall makes it much cooler.A placard with the year of construction: 1965. And the seal above it?Strawbridge and Clothier, the original department store and a Philly institution, at least until Federated (Macy’s, Inc.) purchased May Department Stores as part of the last and largest in the wave of department store consolidations that took place at the turn of the 21st century. Federated converted this location from Strawbridge’s to Macy’s in 2006, the same year the fateful merger took place.
In other words, Macy’s either decided it wasn’t worth the cost to chisel out the reference to Strawbridge’s on this distinct “Seal of Confidence”, or else the firm remained confident that it was an effective, salvageable hat-tip to its predecessor—an appeal to the nostalgic customer. But I suspect that nostalgia is a double-edged sword: it might make this location seem fashionably retro, but it reminds old-school Philadelphians of that era when Strawbridge’s, Wanamaker’s, and other local shopping institutions were still surging. Up until the 1980s, most department stores tended toward regionalism, with a few dozen locations spread across a couple states. And now? More than half of all malls across the country have some combination of the same stores: J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Bon-Ton, maybe a Kohl’s, and, if they’re lucky, one of the handful of surviving family-owned stores…like Boscov’s. In metro Philly, at least five other malls have a Macy’s or Boscov’s, or both. What distinguishes mall A from the Mall B that’s ten miles away, besides their in-line tenants? And how often do people go to a mall exclusively to shop at little tenants like Foot Locker? And aren’t those in-line tenants often the same as well? This Strawbridge seal at Plymouth Meeting might not be a harbinger of doom, but it’s undoubtedly and deliberately a reminder of a past—a past that was, by almost every metric for this mall, better than the present.