Towamencin Shopping Village: a strip mall, all dressed up for a date, but not a single suitor. (MONTAGE)

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

I’ve featured more derelict malls and shopping centers than the average reader can shake a selfie stick at.  (An apt reference, since the oldest chroniclers of struggling retail—the sites DeadMalls.com and LabelScar.com—haven’t received updates since the popularization of the selfie stick.  But they were great sites when I first started blogging!)  As far as depressed commercial real estate is concerned, the Towamencin Shopping Village in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania shouldn’t be anything special.  And it really isn’t, both within and beyond the context of my portfolio of documenting distressed retail real estate.  But something distinguished it for me back in 2016, when I took these photos.  I held off writing about it because more interesting topics took priority.  But I’m succumbing to that temptation now, almost seven years later, for two factors: one old, one new.  The old factor was what really caught my fancy as I drove through mostly unfamiliar suburban terrain during that long summer evening in August: there it was, a generally tidy looking shopping center in Towamencin Township, the heart of suburban Philadelphia in Montgomery County, long defined as a bastion of affluent suburbia.  Towamencin Township may not be the richest part of this township (always ranked among the top 100 wealthiest in the country) but it’s confidently middle and upper-middle, with poverty rates generally well below 3%.  Not a distressed area in the least, yet it featured a community shopping center about 95% vacant.

But the other factor—the new factor—is that I decided to revisit Towamencin Shopping Village again, this time virtually, thinking recent local news media or Google Street View walkthroughs might reveal signs of reinvestment.  But no—it’s in even worse shape.

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

This place must be a paradigm in deferred expectations: a property that enjoys good or even very good investment with little to no evidence of a return.  The only impetus I can see is that it’s probably a community of active, committed homeowners who would collectivize and lobby for change if the strip mall ever lapsed into visible desuetude.  

Though it’s hard to elicit any deeper sociocultural analysis of Towamencin Shopping Village than I’ve already provided, I’ll do my best to speculate on why it has languished for so long, and why its day of reckoning may still be years in the future, or tomorrow.  But first, since this is a montage article, the photos:

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

And now a bit more background on this strangely-named place that is likely unfamiliar to anyone more than twenty miles away from it.  It’s one of three municipalities in Pennsylvania to adopt the Lenape word, though the other two use a slightly altered “Towamensing” spelling.  The “shopping village” sits at the corner of Forty Foot Road (PA State Route 63) and Allentown Road (State Route 1001) in a township almost perfectly in the center of its rectangular shaped county.  Given its location, I’d assert that Towamencin Township and its affiliated nearby communities (the Borough of Hatfield, the Census Designated Place of Kulpsville), and the much larger borough of Lansdale) are outer-suburban but not exurban.  Though most of the arterial roads have sidewalks, the population density does not support much walking; there’s nothing very close within the fifteen-minute stroll that the typical person finds acceptable.  Neither of the two roads that comprise the intersection for Towamencin Shopping Village would prohibit bicycling, but there’s nothing in their design that accommodates it—neither desirable nor an imminent threat.  Looking at the age of the development and telltale architectural features, I’d estimate that the township really exploded in population in the 1970s.  (The decennial census supports this speculation; the township grew over 130% in that decade.)  The 70s were not a time of great pedestrian accommodation; most new housing developments didn’t include sidewalks.  It’s an auto-oriented area, and commercial nodes support this method of transportation; the nodes almost exclusively feature strip malls.

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

But Towamencin Township is resolutely stable, middle-class (if not upper middle class) and most evidence would suggest it doesn’t suffer from an oversupply of commercial/retail space; the township zoning map shows about 90% of the land area is designated for varying densities of single-family residential.  And, most importantly, the architectural features of the Towamencin Shopping Village suggest that it’s hardly a relic.  Online research reveals that the strip mall first broke ground in 1952, at the start of a decade that witnessed a smaller surge in population—a precursor to the greater surge in the 1970s.  But the aesthetics of the Towamencin Shopping Village clearly date from a later era than the 1950s.

The ornamentation—faux gables and dormer windows that pantomime a second floor, columns, a bricked veneer in the lower half, and (most telling of all) those teal awnings—are all redolent of 1990, give or take a year.  So the entire property received a head-to-toe renovation at some point, and since the premises show little evidence of deterioration, the property management company still cares for the façade despite the overwhelming vacancy.

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

The good condition of the premises only amplifies the mystery.  Landscape is tidy and abundant, the lighting at twilight seems to work, pavement looks almost completely free of potholes, scarcely any litter to be seen.  If Towamencin Shopping Village received such a thorough update and remains well maintained, why is it so empty?  The label scar for the Rite Aid in the above photo may have more to do with the fact that, at the time I took these photos (late 2016) the brand was in the midst of hotly contested merger with Walgreens, the latter of which sought to acquire as large of a percentage of the Rite Aid as it could, without running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust concerns.  It was a time of volatility for the company.  Then again, the ugly, squat, difficult-to-read entrance sign suggests that the Rite Aid was already long gone.

Half the businesses on this backlit sign were already gone at the time. But is there any explanation for all the other vacancies?

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

About all that survived at the time were small in-line tenants:

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

Postman Plus is a packaging supply store—a small scale equivalent to a UPS Store.  The location in this photo has since closed; I only count three left, all in the Baltimore area.

The Store Outfitters is probably the tenant the comprises the largest floor space.  A clothier exclusively for men, it originates from the same time the developers first broke ground on the Towamencin Shopping Village, making it one of the strip mall’s first tenants and clearly its most loyal.  Well, it originated: the owner announced The Store’s closure two years ago.

Still operating in 2016, this Subway restaurant and the dry cleaners have both since closed.

The only strength remaining at Towamencin Shopping Village comes from the outparcels, and even that’s dubious.

Spice Kitchen, an Indian restaurant that apparently offered table service, had slick lighting and a smartly conceived logo.  It looks like it occupied a restaurant site that intended to offer drive thru service, though it’s unlikely Spice Kitchen ever did.

Needless to say, it still closed a couple years ago, about the same time as The Store Outfitters.   So did a Boston Market that was still open back in 2016 but is no more.  (This wave of closures may have a single explanation, which is forthcoming.)  And this outparcel, ostensibly intended to accommodate a bank, hasn’t boasted a tenant for quite some time.

Maybe it was the First Priority Bank, placed upside-down and backwards in the featured backlit entry sign.

One of the few surviving businesses is a Wendy’s.

A Wells Fargo and a Verizon reseller also seem to endure, with frontage adjacent to Forty Foot Road.  None of the tenants fronting Allentown Road are open, which isn’t all that surprising; the topography of the area makes the shopping center far less visible for motorists approaching from that direction than along the flatter Forty Foot Road.

Towamencin Shopping Village looked bleak when I visited over six years ago, and, despite the fact that current owner Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation (PSDC) has announced plans to rebrand and redevelop the site into an “entertainment lifestyle overlay district”, it failed to reverse an image of continual decline.  At the very least, the announcement did help PSDC negotiate a conditional use request with the Township Board of Supervisors to lure well-known health club Planet Fitness to the shopping center, a large tenant that no doubt helps fill the cavernous parking lot during peak periods.  I’ve referred to Planet Fitness in the past as “budget-minded”, indicating that the company typically seeks depressed real-estate, where the high vacancy guarantees rock-bottom leasing rates.  Planet Fitness takes up considerable more floor space than anything else I’ve featured, at least since The Store Outfitters closed.  Beyond that, more recent Google Street View photos suggest that Budget Rent a Car leases a portion of the parking lot to store its commercial vans.  I can’t determine the basis for this contract, but it no doubt offers PSDC a bit more revenue.  But is it enough for a strip mall that can’t stop shedding tenants, even when the surrounding housing developments are doing just fine?

Apparently Towamencin Shopping Village is a bit of a joke in the surrounding community.  It has retained this “manicured ghost town” appearance for many years; aside from faded paint stripes on the parking lot, the only evidence of its poor state is the vacancy itself.  It looks far better than any 90% vacant shopping center I’ve seen before.  It’s a belle waiting eternally for the next ball. The strip mall’s lingering vacancy is even more puzzling when one considers that, just a quarter mile up the road, a much larger shopping node straddles all corners at the intersection of Forty Foot Road and Welsh Road.  Perhaps this bigger “shopping town” overshadows the Shopping Village?  Both have been around for quite some time, but the bottom only dropped out of Towamencin.  This neighboring shopping center, just outside the Towamencin Township municipal boundary, seems to be thriving: Kohl’s, Aldi, Ross Dress for Less, Lowe’s Hardware, ShopRite, and at least a dozen outparcels and smaller in-line tenants.  Known as Ralph’s Corner, it underwent a significant face lift back in late 2017 and 2018, much of it rebuilt down to the wall studs—an investment that breathed new life and lured more tenants, while retaining many that were there before.  But it was never as vacant as Towamencin Shopping Village is today, and Towamencin had faltered long before Ralph’s Corner’s reconstruction; after all, these photos in this montage date from summer 2016.

Meanwhile, the articles I’ve researched indicate that, in the (distant) past when Towamencin Shopping Village was thriving, it hosted solid tenants: Eckerd Drug and Sears Hardware were anchors for many years, as was Genuardi’s Market, a grocer with a handful of locations in the Philadelphia metro (but never the city itself) that shuttered its last location in 2015.  And, as previously indicated, all evidence suggests that this is a stable area in general, without even a hint of localized job loss.  Which is why the various proposals to resuscitate it over the years have shifted the community’s response from optimism to derision: just last summer PSDC announced an unnamed grocery store tenant, which their renderings prompted social media buzz to conclude that the Shopping Village might soon greet an Amazon Fresh.  Chipotle and Mattress Warehouse also secured approvals to relocate at the former Boston Market. 

Towamencin Shopping Village in 2016: nearly 100% vacant

Nearly a year has passed, and not one has materialized.  Given the current state of Amazon Fresh, locals have reason to scoff.  A November article suggests the developers are facing challenges from the enduring aftermath of COVID, as well as lagging permitting from the Township.  No doubt these assertions are at least partially truthful: a homegrown Youtube survey of the site in spring 2021 (right before Planet Fitness opened) suggests that remaining tenants like The Store Outfitters and Spice Garden closed through eviction (something I cannot confirm), but the video evidence shows a complete reinvention similar to Ralph’s Corner down the street.  Gone at last are the faux gables, the clock tower, those teal awnings.  The new aesthetic remains as much a mystery as the tenants.  It’s a fine site for a medium-sized neighborhood shopping plaza, and if anything the area is gaining population (slightly).  But in an era when bigger and glitzier malls are facing similar struggles, who can guarantee that an attractive but humble little strip mall can reinvent itself?  Even after a Cinderella-like transformation, our heroine may need a bit more than a fairy godmother to get her away from Anastasia and Drizella.

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14 thoughts on “Towamencin Shopping Village: a strip mall, all dressed up for a date, but not a single suitor. (MONTAGE)

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    While Google Street View is no help, with the most recent imagery from August 2019, the 3D satellite view panned down shows active construction on the ground and facades already redressed in the bland pseudo-prairie-style design that ran its course among Midwestern lifestyle centers some 20 years ago.

    https://goo.gl/maps/7a2NcktetfLZrhwg9

    Various construction projects in the area reveal deep red soil more befitting North Carolina or Georgia. I didn’t realize it was also prevalent in the Philadelphia region.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You’re good at digging around, once again. The satellite view pretty much lines up with the Youtube video that I referenced near the end of the post, though at that point everything was still stripped. Given the amount of time it’s taken for this place to get off the ground, I’d be very surprised if the end result is anything creative. Towamencin Shopping Village is just not big enough to justify some radical reinvention. It will never make waves. Competent is more than enough.

      I’d have to do a bit more research to find out of your red-soil observation is typical of the area or just a fluke. My peak days of soil-awareness days were way back during my Afghanistan time. Maybe one day I’ll muster the energy to revisit the subject–but for the time being I’ll just have to remain ignorant.

      Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    The fact that the more thriving shopping center near by is in the next township suggests to me it cannibalized this one most likely through a more favorable tax situation. Why the property owner has maintained this one so well is definitely an interesting question. Maybe they are maintaining it hoping to lure things away from the other township with better tax incentives here. I’m sure there is some perverse incentive that is driving this bus.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good point, and that definitely crossed my mind. Hatfield Township (the neighbor) appears to be slightly less affluent than Towamencin, though not enough to be statistically significant. Both have almost identical populations, though Hatfield is a political donut, with the Borough of Hatfield as a big hole in the middle. Given the age of the Towamencin Shopping Village, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s older; it also has closer to the size one would expect from a pioneering commercial development dating from before this part of the Philly suburbs had really taken off. It would make sense for Hatfield to seek to cannibalize commercial development from its neighbor, given how lucrative shopping centers are in terms of property tax revenue jurisdictions that otherwise have no major employment nodes.

      That said, a few other details muddy the waters. Ralph’s Corner (the strip mall in Hatfield Twp) was also suffering as recently as the mid 2010s, and it underwent a similar face lift in 2018–stripped down to the studs. Here’s an image in 2015: https://goo.gl/maps/GfdSRiEqqRYE8y5b9 The architecture from that time period definitely gives a 1970s vibe. Newer than Towamencin Shopping Village, but not new at all. Secondly, from what I can tell, Towamencin remained a viable strip mall after its 1990-era renovation, at least until the late 2000s, when it bit the dust.

      The fact remains, Towamencin Shopping Village has been a big concern throughout the 2010s for both private citizens and the Township Board of Supervisors–and this is due entirely to its persistent vacancy, because, given the low occupancy rate, it’s unreasonable to fault it for looking bad. I can think of plenty of strip malls with 90% occupancy that look worse than this. A close-knit community active constituents probably ensures that the property owners will keep things looking nice, because the outcry would be that much greater if it were both vacant and unkempt.

      None of these complications obviate the likelihood of a “perverse incentive” as you mention. In comfy places like Towamencin they just have to be discreet about it.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hey, I’m just flattered you read it. Hopefully I captured the essence of the area pretty accurately. It seems surprising to me that such a strip mall would be vacant for that long, if they still clearly maintained it. Probably because it’s a nice, stable area with homeowners who wouldn’t allow it to go to pot.

      Let me know if I got anything really wrong…

      Reply
    2. Justin B

      Seems pretty good to me. I remember when it was just fields, brush and no shopping center. There was a crappy jack-of-all-trades store called “the Store” down a bumpy stone driveway we went to sometimes when I was a kid. Then the development came when I was around 12 years old. Lots of high school classmates worked at the Wendy’s that was in the parking lot (not in the main strip mall part) or at the Genuardi supermarket that was one of the anchor stores. I think my sister worked at the Boston Market next to the Wendy’s. My dad used to hit up the Sears Hardware or Lowe’s that was kinda the other anchor.

      I think the owners of “the Store” were the landowners. I always thought maybe their rents were too high, but I have no information about any of that.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        That’s interesting. Yeah, when I was there and saw all that vacancy, I had just eaten at the Boston Market. But my research told me it had opened way back in the early 50s; maybe that original strip mall got demolished and sat as a vacant field for a while, then the new one got built? Everything I read suggested that that was one of the first commercial developments to open in the township, back when it was the frontier of Philly suburbia.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for reaching out, Jim. I don’t live anywhere near the area anymore, but I did a sort of “reconnaissance” using Google Streetview, to see if it has any updates. It does.

      From what I can tell, the buildings all received a face lift. But I don’t yet see much of a sign that it has secured new tenants. It still has a planet fitness, as well as most of the out parcels. The Boston Market has been demolished, but that’s no huge surprise; that fast-food chain is in retraction and may not be long for this world.

      The biggest difference, unfortunately, is the near complete removal of all the trees on the parcel. Previously, Towamencin Shopping Village was tree-lined across the major streets and had far more trees than usual on the inside around the parking lots. Very nice in the summer, though it probably hurt the visibility. From what I can tell, all trees are gone, making it look more like a conventional shopping center, which could help attract more conservative tenants (who don’t want something with compromised visibility) but also means the new Towamencin looks a whole lot more like every other strip mall…which could also hurt it.

      Without having seen it firsthand, that’s the best I can offer.

      Reply
      1. Jonathan O

        I live just down the street from this property, and have been following it for years. There was some current development happening, with plans for a large retailer or grocery store to move in (rumors are that it was Amazon Fresh). However, the main tenant backed out a year or two ago, and nobody has been able to secure a new one. The township is also very difficult to work with, which isn’t helping matters.

        As far as what happened to the shopping center, I think it was mostly bad luck. The three main stores at this location were a Genuardi’s grocery store (closed a decade ago), a Sears Hardware store (bankrupt), and a Rite Aid (which has gone bankrupt several times). I’ve heard the grocery location was an older site that’s smaller than what they like to build today, so grocers have chosen to build elsewhere in the township rather than take over this property. There’s a Planet Fitness in the old Sears location, but that’s about it.

        Personally, I believe it would make a great location for a Target, although they would probably have to tear down what’s there now and start from scratch.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for sharing. Sounds like it hasn’t perked up much beyond the Planet Fitness…and Planet Fitness (as I indicated in my article) notoriously seeks to lease space in cheap real estate.

          You’re probably right about the grocery location being too small for today’s tastes, unless of course it’s a specialty store (like Genuardi’s used to be). Those have become more popular–not just high-profile ones like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but niche competitors like Fresh Grocer or Fresh Thyme or hanging-by-a-thread Earth Fare. It might also be the right size for Trader Joe’s parent Aldi or its emergent competitor Lidl (emergent in the US at least). It’s also the perfect size for an ethnic supermarket (Latin, Asian, Middle Eastern) though I don’t know if any of those ethnicities have a large presence in that area.

          So far it doesn’t seem like it’s working out for the developer who gave the property a reboot, but if the situation improves in the next year or two, I’ll eat my words.

          Reply
  3. EE Adam

    I was thinking of the Towamencin vacant shopping center this morning and wanted to dig into who owns it and what was going on with it… there’s always rumors floating around for the asking. I was delighted to stumble onto your post!
    Living nearby for 40 years, I remember when the old stone farmhouse/inn type of structure sat on the intersection where the Verizon store currently sits. It had a liquor license and attracted a beer and roast beef, dart league clientele. The owner grew up on the farm and also owned, The Store. At some point the value of owning the farm land and a liquor license must have become obvious with the growing development in the area. The bar was moved to a place called, Pizza Pub in the center of the new shopping center, The Store moved in, and the new center was anchored by a Genuardi’s and Sears. It worked for quite a while.
    The area is once again experiencing growth and change. I see lots of potential in transforming this vacant space to meet the evolving community needs amid the new housing developments like Del Web, the PA Turnpike rerouting, and the 8-acre Garden of Health Farm. Rumors suggest a 55+ community behind the Towamencin shopping area in the near future. Strategic planning for the space is crucial.
    Many say the area needs a couple nice eateries- a good breakfast spot, a finer dining spot or two. A cosmopolitan space for eating, people watching, and recreation for all ages would be ideal. Perhaps a pop-up farmer’s market. Rumors fly and fizzle on potential new businesses. The community hopes the “Coming Soon” signs inspire meaningful progress. The Towamencin Center could once again reflect the future stability of this small community.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thank you for sharing. It seems to me that Towamencin benefitted greatly from having two very long-term, stable tenants that served as anchors: the Genuardi’s and Sears that you mentioned. And the center almost become overly dependent on them, possibly opting out of other aesthetic improvements and facelifts that might have made the whole shopping center feel more modern. When Sears and Genuardi’s both failed in rapid succession, the whole place seemed “snake bit”–there were other options very close by that were bigger and glitzier. All those trees, which made Towamencin more attractive, also made the shops within the plaza harder to see from the road.

      I’m glad a developer invested so much money in it, but, at the same time, there’s probably good reason why so many other developers were unwilling to touch the property for 10-15 years. Is there any sign of any new tenants moving in? From what I can tell, most of the trees are now gone. If the 55+ development comes near by, that will certainly help. But if Towamencin can’t secure a good tenant at the level of Genuardi’s in the next 2 years, the equity partners are going to want a word or two with the development team who misjudged. At a certain point, there are just too many shopping centers.

      Reply

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