Mall history at Plymouth Meeting—a possible seal of disapproval?

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:

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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.108107The 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.111110113114 editsIt’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.115Incidentally, 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.102And the latter offers at least one curiosity in the courtyard at one of the major entrances.103In 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.104A placard with the year of construction: 1965. And the seal above it?105Strawbridge 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.

8 thoughts on “Mall history at Plymouth Meeting—a possible seal of disapproval?

  1. Matt E.

    As malls make like the middle class and either go high-end or low-end, Plymouth Meeting started emptying out about a decade ago. As you noted, all of the success has been with the outparcels – the restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and the Whole Foods/Jos. A. Bank. Ironically, because PREIT built on the outparcels, there is now a parking shortage for inside-the-mall patrons on certain sides.

    King of Prussia is eating everyone’s lunch. It’s like a black hole, sucking up all the retail within 5 miles. A longtime REI in a shopping center between Conshohocken and Plymouth Meeting is decamping for the new KoP Mall expansion being built. PMM just can’t compete with KoP, which is one exit down the PA Turnpike.

    It’s interesting to note that the Plymouth Meeting Mall, like Oxford Valley, Neshaminy, and Montgomery Malls, has a lot of power centers around it. King of Prussia has very few. But KoP also has three highways. How much of KoP’s success is due to the transportation access and how much is because of surrounding development is up for grabs.

    Reply
    1. Matt E.

      Let me add that you can also find that seal at the Neshaminy Mall and at the Gallery in Center City, in the east end basement walkway that connects to the subways. There are probably more out there in Delco.

      If you go inside the Plymouth Meeting Macy’s and turn around to look at the doors, you will see these distinctive mid-century backlit vestibules that identify each exit (“West Parking Lot”, etc.). Neshaminy Mall also had an original Strawbridge and Clothier and has the same vestibules. I even think the Neshaminy location has the horizontal stone pattern, too.

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      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good observation. The replacement tenants probably determined it cost too much to replace them, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad look either way. It was probably a standard feature of Strawbridge’s locations back in the day. Besides, since Strawbridge’s is now completely gone, it’s not like its referencing a competitive threat.

        Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Matt. Interesting that you should mention a “parking shortage” at Plymouth Meeting Mall–particularly as correlates to mall patrons on certain sides of the building, indicating once again how unwilling people are to walk any further than absolutely necessary.

      And the solution? The power center, which I suspect we’ll be seeing more of. There’s an enormous one outside Hagerstown, Maryland, I just learned about–far bigger than you’d expect a small metro such as this to be able to support. I haven’t noticed what you observed–in terms of the lesser malls being surrounded by them–but you could be on to something.

      From what I can tell, metro Philadelphia essentially has three alpha malls, one in each of the three states: King of Prussia, Cherry Hill (in NJ) and Christiana (in DE). People are willing to buzz right past the mall closer to home to go to the bigger ones. All three of them also have a Nordstrom–coincidence?

      Reply
      1. Chris Barnett

        KoP also has a couple other destination department stores besides Nordstrom to drive traffic: Lord & Taylor, Bloomie’s, and Needless Markup, er, Neiman-Marcus. Once there was also a Sak’s, but that may be the location that is now L&T since they are both outposts of The Hudson’s Bay Co.

        I’m not aware of another US mall that has six anchor department stores. Not even Mall of America.

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        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks, Chris. If you count the KoP as one entity–it is essentially two loosely connected malls–it has seven anchor tenant spaces. A two-story Sears closed a few years ago, replaced in part by Dick’s Sporting Goods (one floor) and the recently opened Primark in the other floor.

          Apparently it an eighth anchor (the former Wanamaker/Strawbridge’s) that got demolished in 2011 to make way for more smaller stores, many of which are still in the process of opening.

          I had forgotten that Mall of America only had 4 key department stores. I’m pretty certain that Southdale Center, just a few miles away from MoA, is suffering some of the same malaise as Plymouth Meeting. Incidentally, Southdale Center is in Edina, one of the Twin Cities’ most affluent suburbs. Still floundering.

          Reply

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