It’s been a tough decade or so for the American retail scene, a condition I’ve explored numerous times in the past. Social turbulence, exacerbated by a pandemic and the erratic response to it, only further maimed an already hobbled industry, facing persistent pressure from online commerce. The fact remains that people just don’t go out to shop like they used to, and since goods-oriented merchants have long comprised the lifeblood of shopping centers, it should come as no surprise that we’re facing a glut of underused or completely vacant old strip malls. And it’s likely to deteriorate more in the years ahead, as even the service-oriented businesses that had become the second-most common tenant are also retracting. After all, the pandemic proved that considerable numbers of businesses can operate perfectly effectively with many of their workers remaining at home on their laptops. They don’t need that extra office space.
Nonetheless, successful shopping centers do still exist, and these survivors often warrant recognition for whatever features might help them buck the trend. Take Marchwood Shopping Center as an example. Buried thick within the expansive Philadelphia suburbs (in the unincorporated community of Exton, specifically), it occupies an unassuming, low-lying point amidst the comparatively gentle hillocks of Chester County, next to a branch of the Valley Creek.
Even this zoomed-out photo, featuring about two-thirds of the structures that comprise the property, should make it clear: Marchwood Shopping Center isn’t new. It offers more than a few dead giveaways: the overwhelming beige, the gabled roofs, the faux-neoclassical columns. And the centrality of the parking: more than an acre’s worth of pavement, almost completely absent of landscaped islands.
I suspect the center dates from the late 1960s or early 70s, given the style of housing developments in the immediate area. Several larger, newer, more prominent power centers stand just a mile to the south, along Pottstown Pike (State Route 100) and its intersections with more prominent Swedesford Road and Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30 – Business Route). And Marchwood Shopping Center is hardly a top-tier destination. It’s not thriving, but it’s not kaputt either; it’d estimate it had about a 75% occupancy rate during my spring 2021 visit, certainly an above-average status given a year of lockdowns and hundreds of thousands of small business closures.
Perhaps most perplexing about the tenancy at Marchwood is the mix: a combination of local entrepreneurs and low-profile national chains.
To the left of the above photo are three establishments that can unequivocally claim local origin: a property management company, a butcher shop, and a shoe repair (nearly always a family-run business). Pivot 180 degrees and it’s a similar array, but with some familiar logos.
Aside from a Japanese restaurant taking the largest lease, one encounters a veterinary office, a music store (mostly guitar lessons). a hairstylist, a chocolatier, a purveyor of various jerky products, and a travel agency. All local, all mom-and-pop. But also tucked in this row is Kumon, part of the national chain of tutoring and educational instruction, using a method pioneered by the individual who gave the company its name. Pivot a bit to the right and we encounter one of the largest tenants, a hardware store under the True Value name.
True Value has historically functioned as a cooperative, like other well-known brands Ace Hardware and Do It Best; these companies have typically targeted humbler retail footprints in smaller, often less urban markets, or in less fiercely competitive (cheaper) real estate than such big-box corporate brands as Home Depot or Lowe’s; in other words, a place like Marchwood Shopping Center. But in 2018, a Washington DC-based private equity investment firm, ACON, purchased a controlling interest in the company. Though its scope and mission may still resemble Ace more than Home Depot, True Value’s affiliation is corporate and its scope is national. Plenty of older, mid-sized shopping centers across the country would kill for an anchor tenant like this. Juxtaposing True Value with the other tenants in that adjacent strip and we have all the tenancy of a successful block in an urban main street. One can easily contemplate a fashionable neighborhood strip in South Philadelphia boasting a chocolate shop, a jerky manufacturer, a sushi bar, a butcher shop, etc.
The other well-tenanted elements of Marchwood Shopping Center function largely in the same vein.
It offers a medium-sized Indian grocery, a smaller Asia-Pacific grocery, and various other ethnically oriented retailers. While these hardly indicate a high-rent district, in a lower-density suburban area like Exton, they face fewer competitors nearby and often have considerable staying power. Rounding out the small retailers are a karate studio, a tobacconist, a nail salon, a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, a vacuum cleaner supply store, a pet groomer, a mom-and-pop pharmacy, a dentist office, a wine and spirits shop (state-run in Pennsylvania), and Marchwood Tavern, a sizable middle-tier restaurant with outdoor seating. I recognize these types of tenants can come and go quickly, and this portfolio could be radically different a year from now. But this is the mix at the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns, one of the most troubling economic periods for small businesses in the last half century—a period as devastating for retail as the Great Recession was for homeowners. As of May 2021, they’re still chugging along.
The eastern edge of Marchwood Shopping Center, closest to State Route 100 (but no access to the highway) merits separate consideration.
There in the distance, on the right (with the cars out front), is a Goodwill Store and Donation Center. While hardly an indicator of pricey real estate, it’s at least a nationally recognized, reliable tenant. And to the left, in the two-story facility, are a series of service-oriented offices; this photo came after their normal operating hours, so it’s difficult for me to judge their occupancy level.
Nearby, one can witness two larger structures that would host anchors akin to the True Value and Goodwill.
The strange massing of this building—its unusually high gabled roof, its breadth—and the ornamentation (an arcade entrance) or lack thereof (no windows) would suggest a pavilion or showroom, except that those aren’t normal features for a suburban strip mall. Tucked within that arcade are several blank vertical panels, suggesting the display posters for an old movie theater. And perhaps those massive red panels to the left and right of the arcade once hosted the listings in the style of a marquee. Makes sense. It’s not a movie theater anymore; it’s a gym with a large CrossFit element. For the scale and tenant mix of a place like Marchwood Shopping Center, this would likely pass as an anchor tenant—certainly no more or less of an anchor than a six-screen movie theater. The final structure is probably the largest and most glaring vacancy:
From the glassed entrance to the protective bars along the canopied sidewalk, numerous features make it clear that this once was a grocery store. It turns out Swann’s Pantry—barely visible on that sign—was a mini-chain of discount grocers with three locations, run by the Swann family for almost thirty years, forced to close due to flagging sales in early 2020, before awareness of the pandemic had reached full throttle. In other words, it gave Marchwood another anchor tenant, and one that was long-lasting enough to border on “institution” status.
I recognize at this point that I may need to check my own biases toward Marchwood Shopping Center, a place I can recognize most people would find drab, dated, and not particularly appealing. Though it seems well-maintained, some people might nonetheless deploy the adjective “run down” simply because it has so obviously received few or any aesthetic refreshes in its half-century of operation. Not much more than a new coat of paint and an occasional resurfacing of that enormous parking lot. And perhaps my reasoning through these preceding paragraphs suggests an inexplicably favorable disposition on my part. For some reason I like this place, perhaps in defiance of sound judgment. And perhaps I’m rationalizing its success. After all, these tenants don’t suggest a shopping center of such regional significance that it is “too big to fail”: a shift in the winds could put a half-dozen out of business, and then I might be forced to sing a different tune. Aside from Goodwill and True Value, these aren’t what the industry would call “credit tenants”. Most of the others are the type that fold within five to ten years.
The reality is that I can still maintain, almost two months after visiting Marchwood, that it seems to be holding its own, after a punishing economy and against all odds, given how little the property owners have invested over the years to help it change with the times. It’s almost retro-chic. And its location is hardly a selling point: sure, the area is fairly affluent with stable single-family and multi-family housing in all directions, but the very name is an obscurity outside of the most immediate area. Marchwood. It’s the street that intersects Pottstown Pike and provides access to the shopping center, but that’s about it. It might be three-quarters of a mile long at most, and its only other function is to access a large single-family detached neighborhood just west of the commercial properties near the Pike. This Google Street View shows almost Marchwood Road’s entire length, with the shopping center in the lefthand periphery. It would barely pass as a minor collector road. Therefore it’s a strange naming choice upon which to build a brand. But while the location and appearance may not be doing Marchwood Shopping Center any favors in 2021, it boasts a smartness to its design that borders on prescience. Take a look at it from Marchwood Road, down the slope.
It’s almost like entering some sort of hillside hamlet, with a mass of pavement in the middle instead of a town green. The diversity of architectural styles supports a diversity of uses. As is frequently the case in land development, function follows form. Those intermittent second stories can support purely service-oriented offices, while the generous fenestration on the lower level are more conventional storefront retail. The setbacks between the parking and the buildings themselves offer space for outdoor dining, or yard-sale clearances, and they provide a variety of aesthetic options, depending on what the tenant prefers. It’s not fully attached—some buildings are autonomous, while others function as minor clusters of tenants. The U-shaped configuration gives unity to the entire thing, and it’s all equally visible as one approaches it from Marchwood Road. Heck, some of these upper levels might even work as apartments.
Whether intentional or not, the conception of Marchwood Road seems to have ensured its resiliency. It caters to almost all types of commercial uses. Though it may not fit the 21st century definition of mixed-use common to urban planners and real estate developers, it’s hard not to see how it aspires to that configuration, made all the more impressive when we recognize that it probably dates from a time when auto-oriented living was surging, because people couldn’t get away from the cities fast enough. Strip malls built at that era usually lacked any aesthetic function; convenience was king. By the standards of the 1970s, Marchwood Shopping Center actually is pretty nice looking, featuring architectural details that most other strip malls of its time would have spurned. How do we know this? Because virtually all of Marchwood’s competitors are absent from the scene. They’ve either rebranded themselves so completely that they aren’t recognizable as a 50-year-old shopping center, or they faced the bulldozers long ago. So, from a real estate and land development standpoint, I can’t help but tip my hat to Marchwood Shopping Center. I’m biased; so sue me.