Tri-State Mall: not yet dead, but gangrenous.

I’ve encountered some pretty bleak suburban shopping districts in my day, but Delaware’s Tri-State Mall, just a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania state line in the Philadelphia suburbs, ranks near the top.

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Notice I said “near the top”. It’s not number one: I can’t quite place it at the same tier as the Bannister Mall area in Kansas City—nothing I’ve seen quite reaches the severity and expanse of that suburban blight. But Tri-State Mall comes close. And, in some ways, it’s tougher to explain: the entire 1950s-era residential community surrounding Bannister Mall declined in the 1990s, so the death of the mall itself came as no great surprise to people who monitor this sort of thing.

But Claymont, Delaware, the home of Tri-State Mall, doesn’t quite fit this mold. It’s merely a Census Designated Place (CDP), the classification the US Census Bureau uses to monitor unincorporated areas with a clear identity by treating them like discrete quasi-municipal units. Claymont has no strict borders, but the general Claymont vicinity—within the CDP’s boundaries—has lost population over the last thirty years. Still, it doesn’t represent a huge swath of decline. It sits squarely within the large conurbation between Philadelphia and Wilmington. And one can find perfectly acceptable retail less than a half mile away from the Tri-State Mall, along the same arterial (Naamans Road) on the other side of Interstate 95, where Northtowne Plaza hosts a Home Depot, Rite Aid, Wawa, and a PNC Bank, among other outlets. While the Bannister Mall area revealed substantial disinvestment for miles in every direction, the Tri-State Mall offers perfectly stable middle class areas just a half-mile away.

So what went wrong with the Tri-State Mall?IMG_8826My impression is that it was never a real heavy-hitter. Opening in the late 1960s, the mall hosted two anchor spaces and about 50 inline tenants at its peak. Most likely, the location attempted to capitalize on Delaware’s absence of a sales tax to lure both Pennsylvania shoppers from the Philadelphia suburbs as well as New Jersey, just across the Delaware River (and Claymont is only a few miles from the Commodore Barry Bridge). But several of the communities nearby in Pennsylvania were hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs at this time—most notably Chester, which today carries the dubious distinction of being Pennsylvania’s most impoverished city. Some of the negative characteristics of Chester crossed the state line into Delaware, though most of the social ills remain isolated on the south side of I-95—the Claymont side of the highway.

Additionally, Tri-State faced competition just a decade later. Tri-State’s tribulation arrived when the region christened the Christiana Mall, just southwest of Wilmington. This second mall rested at the convergence if I-95, I -295, and I-495—a site equidistant from Maryland and New Jersey—and still pretty close to those Philly burbs—and in a more uniformly affluent area. To this day, even amidst the escalating malaise of malls in general, Christiana Mall remains a Class A retailer, over a million square feet in size and hosting such mid-upscale tenants as Nordstrom, Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, and Swarovski. At various points in the past, the Apple Store at Christiana Mall was the number one seller of iPhones in the country, teeming with people seeking to avoid that sales tax. But that’s not all: about seven miles to the west, Concord Mall also encroaches on Tri-State’s market. Despite being older than Tri-State and farther removed from a major interstate, Concord Mall boasts a much larger size and more reliable tenants: Boscov’s, Macy’s, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Hollister, Yankee Candle. It, too, capitalizes the lower cost of shopping in Delaware.

IMG_8819While these sales tax advantages make the First State particularly attractive for many retailers, customers will inevitably gravitate toward the more appealing environments. Never fancy and certainly nothing to look at, the Tri-State Mall simply could not compete. It began to take a nosedive in the 1990s, but as recently as the late 2000s it remained viable, hosting Value City and a Big Kmart. Looking at the parking lot in this old Google Street View, it still filled a blue-collar niche. Value City closed in 2008 when the company folded; a Burlington Coat Factory (the notorious death knell for malls) replaced it. The perpetually struggling Kmart closed in 2014.

Indie filmmaker Dan Bell covered Tri-State sometime in 2015 and noted that it has long been a popular haunt for fans of dead and dying retail, not only because of its perpetual woes but the sheer ugliness of the interior. Apparently it received no real upgrades throughout its life; one commenter (from the largely inactive blog Labelscar.com) noted that Tri-State is “easily one of the bleakest and most unappealing malls that we’ve visited.”   Dan Bell caught the mall when it had, at most, a half-dozen tenants in the interior.

Bell’s visit was the mall’s swan song. The interior completely closed in November of that year. By last summer, the Burlington Coat Factory relocated a few miles away. It previously occupied the large, taupe-colored space visible in the distance.IMG_8822You know a retailer’s outlook is grim if even Burlington Coat Factory decided it’s not good enough. The rest of the Tri-State’s exterior is predictably austere.Tri-State Mall Claymont DelawareInterestingly, the old Mall’s primary entrance—barely visible in the photo below—now seems to host some fenced-in lumber storage. So at least the property manager is eking out a bit of revenue by leasing the pothole-riddled parking lot.IMG_8824See the red letters in the distance on the right with the word “M A L L”? That’s what’s left of Tri-State.

Except that it isn’t.IMG_8820The Wikipedia article on Tri-State Mall does not consider it dead. It’s a struggling mall, no doubt, but not completely defunct. The sign in the pic above reveals the tenants in the appendage immediately to the southeast of the old mall’s core, which is visible in the map below.Tri State mapThe “protuberance” is a strip mall that remains part of the Tri-State Mall complex and prevails with an array of tenants.IMG_8828IMG_8829These retailers are unequivocally low-end—beauty supply, nail salon, check cashing, liquors, tobacco express, a discount grocery store—but they’re doing well enough.IMG_8818Elsewhere, the Tri-State campus hosts one national brand name: in the distance in the photo below, to the left of what I suspect was once a Wendy’s.IMG_8830

 

Beyond these snapshots on a bright cold January day, there’s not much else to convey about Tri-State Mall that the unusually generous photo-chronicles of Google Street View can’t capture. It always was a third-tier mall. What’s remains interesting is the sharp dichotomy between the interior portion of the mall—completely closed—and the comparatively active strip mall portion. These binary economic outcomes bespeak a largely overlooked disadvantage to the enclosed mall as a building typology: it offers little more than a windowless shell to passers-by, with no possibility of engagement or awareness of the interior outside of signage. Without a parking lot full of cars, a mall is an inordinately uninviting place. This configuration contrasts sharply with our historic town centers, which rested in a gridlike configuration that, even at their most neglected, still offered numerous points of ingress and egress for random passers by. The buildings in old downtowns also featured windows, so, even when in disrepair, they piqued some curiosity as to what might lurk inside. Malls are the retail equivalent of a cul-de-sac: if we have no reason to go there, we’re highly unlikely to even glance by the periphery.

A half-century ago, malls offered a hermetically sealed, climate controlled world for commerce to take place tidily under one roof. We loved them. They afforded a great convenience, as long as there was reason enough to enter in the first place. Lacking that magnetism, enclosed malls may have less of a reason for being than even the ugliest strip centers, like the exterior portion of Tri-State Mall. The typology has, in effect, backed itself in a corner, or off the edge of a cliff—which explains why, when malls decline sharply, they rarely offer any chance of recovery. They venture past the point of no return far more easily than a main street or a historic central business district, many of which have revived marvelously from former dire straits. This predicament may also explain why, when so many automobile oriented malls die, the optimistic developer will convert them to an unimaginative power center: a cluster of strip malls anchored by some big-box retailers. Strip malls boast a fundamental extroversion that malls lack and are therefore more prone to a second life with some savvy investment. Malls just necrotize.

If Tri-State Mall in Claymont ever gets its makeover, I suspect the revived portion will look more like the wing that’s still hanging in there (if by a thread). While the long-term fate of Tri-State seems bleak, it may actually survive longer than many other shopping centers, which Amazon and online shopping continue to decimate. After all, much of the clientele at Tri-State has such moderate incomes that they lack the access to credit to make online purchases, and they will always need a bricks-and-mortar outlet that accepts cash. Being as low-end as possible, therefore, may be Tri-State Mall’s lifeline. That and it’s Delaware: no sales tax.

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21 thoughts on “Tri-State Mall: not yet dead, but gangrenous.

  1. Chris B

    I think Concord Mall and the nearby big boxes on Route 202 just inside Delaware are much closer in driving time to the affluent Chester County suburbs in Pennsylvania. For someone near West Chester, it’s closer than King of Prussia…same stores, and no sales tax. Tri State is closer to the working class (first ring) Delaware County suburbs north of Chester.

    For readers unfamiliar with greater Philadelphia, US202 is the de facto outer belt highway through Chester County, along what used to be the western edge of the metro. It runs from the top of the “12-mile circle” PA-DE border north and east to King of Prussia, where it meets the Turnpike (which is the northern leg of the beltway).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Yeah, I suspect that pretty much covers it. I’ve come to the general conclusion that most of the lower Delaware River, from PHI down to Wilmington, is generally pretty working class. Not that that should come as a surprise based on typical development patterns, but it seems like a mile away from the River is significantly more affluent than that closest mile that hugs the west bank. There’s additional suburban blight a bit further south, on U.S. 13 (Governor Printz Blvd) on the way to Wilmington–a massive strip mall about 80% vacant, along with a movie theater that looks like it’s been closed since the late 1980s.

      As for Tri-State Mall, I think it really started to plummet at the onset of the Great Recession. As recently as 2008, it had the Kmart and Value City, as I noted, but the strip mall area also hosted a Joann Fabrics, a retailer (slightly) less associated with low-value strip malls.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        There’s certainly no question that if both Kmart and Burlington have abandoned a mall, it’s dead.

        Value City department stores in the Midwest were most often freestanding, but the controlling family were liquidators so it’s not terribly surprising that they exacted a good deal on a low-end mall space.

        The interesting angle is that even in a low income area, a “lifestyle center” strip mall on the site hangs on.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Agreed. It seems like the original developers, 50 years ago, never fully took into account how much they could capitalize on Delaware’s lack of sales tax and proximity to other heavily populated states. Christiana Mall did exactly this, while also making it convenient to Maryland. My guess is that, if malls continue to die en masse (and why shouldn’t they?) we may get to a point where metro Philly has only three viable suburban shopping hubs: King of Prussia, Cherry Hill, and Christiana. One in each state. Then those might eventually die as well.

          Reply
  2. Clay

    Your premise is too kind. This mall is dead, and you’re correct that it never really operated at a significant market tier. It’s hayday was sometime in the 1970’s when the movie theatre there would show first run movies. That only lasted for a short time.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the clarifications, Clay. Not surprised at all. Nonetheless, I think the strip mall portion (lifestyle center?) could continue to survive, as an outlet for low- and moderate-income shoppers who cannot make purchases online because they lack access to credit.

      Reply
  3. Ray

    When Tri-State opened it was anchored by Grants in the spot that finished up as Kmart and Wilmington Dry Goods in the Burlington spot. It was a jumping spot for a short time with decent vendors. Nice movie theater, the normal assortment of mall stores at the time, men’s stores, dress stores, book store, etc. Treasury Drug had a large store. Often had events, one of my funniest memories was of there being a temporary petting zoo setup and a goat was eating my shoelaces, my mother freaked out! The lower level had both a Silo (appliance retailer), a Pathmark which is now Save a Lot and a Wendy’s, Goodyear and Levitz in the parking lot. I think the liquor store is likely the only original business, but has likely changed hands many times. Across the expressway where Home Depot is now was shopping center with a Woolco and an Acme.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks Ray–it doesn’t sound like Tri-State was prosperous for much more than a decade. Now it’s interesting how the Home Depot and a middle-class hotel can do fine on the other side of the freeway (just a quarter mile away), yet this south side is so bleak. I don’t know enough about the area to explain why much of the corridor between the Delaware River and I-95 is so blighted, but it seems to be a stark divide. Most of the Wilmington burbs farther away from the river are pretty affluent.

      Reply
      1. J.R.

        I studied a little bit of Wilmington history, and this is what I can gather.

        The general Wilmington area riverfront was the site of heavy industry towards much of its history. There is and was a shit ton of pollution going on all the up to the 1970’s. The only people who were going to live in places like Claymont are the people who were going to work the factories.

        In contrast, the people who had money tended to push out into the pretty little leafy suburbs that were basically part of the Historic DuPont Corridor:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuPont_Historic_Corridor

        Delaware is such a “Have” and “Have not” kind of state.

        Reply
  4. Ray

    I think the steel mill that was adjacent to this area closing was a partial death blow to the area from 95 to the river. Just east of Tri State was a Lionel Playworld and a bit further down was the Naaman’s Drive Inn. If you go just another mile or two into Delaware on 13/Phila Pike there is a quite exclusive private school, Archmere Academy. It is almost like there is an area of about a 2 mile radius that was cursed. I think a decade was about it for Tri State to thrive.

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    1. AmericanDirt

      Sounds about right. I’m not going to pretend I know the area all that well, but my occasional trips along I-495 (and the adjacent Governor Printz Boulevard) shows a corridor of retail decay that’s as bad as any inner-ring suburb I’ve seen. Yet it’s easy to see, amidst all the aging buildings and label scars, how that row of dying strip malls was probably flourishing in the 1980s.

      Reply
  5. Anonymous

    I lived in Delaware from 1986-1988. I used to stop at the Wendy’s drive thru at Tri State Mall to pick up my supper after work. And even back then there was often some thug waiting at the drive thru speaker to try and sell you hot jewelry.

    Reply
  6. Frank Chimienti

    The first Big change, I believe was soon after “Willmington Drygoods” left; which was t big draw. They carried name brand clothing & later appliances at good discounts. However, at t close of t 60’s & early 70’s as Chester was dying so was
    the TriState Mall showing slight signs of loss business. Next t big furniture store closing & by t
    late 90’s – the only big draw was K Mart. Their Manager carried this operation & when he retired they never recovered his leaving – this killed t Mall!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the details, Frank. It doesn’t seem like Tri-State was ever intended to be a high-performing mall; its proximity to Chester (poorest municipality in all of Pennsylvania) certainly couldn’t help. Interesting that you’d mention chester was dying by late 60s and early 70s; I would have expected Chester’s visible decline would have started long before that time. It’s more or less as bad as Camden, and I know Camden was perceived as a rough town even in the early 1950s.

      Reply
      1. J.R.

        I live in Delaware but I’m not familiar with Tri-State Mall, but I did read in posts on Facebook groups about memories of this area that the Wendy’s on Route 202 opened up in 1982 and closed in 2017. It was then turned into a Starbuck’s.

        The struggling strip mall with the long-abandoned movie theater you referenced is called Merchant’s Square. Here is a link to a 2009 Flickr album on Merchant’s Square which had a Strawbridge location that got demolished:
        https://www.flickr.com/photos/retrolandusa/5662800809/in/photostream/

        The theater was called Cinemart and it closed in 1980. It was only open for a little over a decade and it was a single screen theater with a thousand seats, which is probably what led to its demise. There is a really creepy video on YouTube where urban explorers realize that a family is living upstairs in the projection booth. (Thankfully the squatters were not present when the urban explorers were there.)

        Earlier in this decade they did add in a Big Lots and a Food Lion which seems to have stabilized the bleeding but it still really doesn’t look like it came back.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Thanks for the updates with that great photo series of Merchants Square. It clearly was a strip mall whose demised happened long ago, but I didn’t think it would have peaked that far in the past. It’s hard to imagine an old Wendy’s around Tri-State being able to support a Starbucks, but I know Starbucks has pioneered (often unsuccessfully) in some economically challenged areas.

          That old Strawbridge’s seemed to have a pretty attract façade, as strip mall department stores go.

          Reply
  7. JubilationTCornpone

    Merchant’s Square is defying the odds and indeed making a comeback. Not to It’s heyday, but the Big Lots has been joined by some other discount retailers, which completely invested in and remodeled their spaces. The beat-up office furniture store is finally closed so it looks like it may soon be end-to-end functional, if not high-end retail.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the update. If that area has been economically depressed as long as people say it has (since the early 80s?), it may have gone around a full cycle and has started becoming the nearest low-value area to encourage reinvestment. It’s certainly highly visible, accessible, and conveniently located. It’s a shame that it presents such an image of blight to people traveling along the I-495 corridor.

      Reply
  8. Brent

    I lived a few miles to the west of the Trip-State Mall from 1984-1994. It was decidedly low-end then but mostly thrived with some stores that had been there from the beginning. My favorite was the Yum-Yum Bar, which sold hot dogs and fries at very low prices. It was always clean, bright, and with a friendly owner. The mall had a Photo Booth and I still treasure the photo of me and my daughters when they were just 2 and 4 years old.

    Other stores I remember were a men’s barber shop and a mens wear shop. The mens wear shop catered to a more urban clientele and seemed to be doing well. The anchor stores of K-Mart on one end and Wilmington Dry Goods on the other drew enough people to keep the mall going.

    The movie theater became a focus of bad publicity due to late night fights among the patrons.

    I also remember the large parking lot that was never full. The lower end was always a home for hundreds of sea gulls who would stand around in a group, only flying away when someone would purposely drive toward them toward the exit onto Naamans Road.

    Reply
  9. Katie

    My brother worked at the Tri State mall theater for a year or two in the mid-80’s. Decent theater. 4 screens. They had to pause the movies, one night, because the police ran through the theater pursuing a murder suspect. And, the hub caps were stolen from his car in the parking lot while he was working. It was a cheap mall, but one that was still surviving, in the 80’s. A WSFS was there. The drug store. A bar/restaurant. A cheap gift store. And, a store that sold knock off concert t shirts. But, when I was growing up, the main draw to the Tri State mall was the movie theater – which was in the back, forcing you to walk past all of the odd stores on the way.

    Reply

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