Paramus, New Jersey boasts one of the largest concentrations of retail space in the United States, with over 6 million square feet of retail clustered around the junctions of routes 4 and 17. At one time or another, there have been no less than six enclosed shopping malls within a few miles of this junction, all in Paramus or nearby Hackensack.
The true behemoths of this area are the Garden State Shopping Center and Paramus Park. The former is a 2 million square foot superregional mall, the latter is half its size but no less successful, offering top-tier tenants without the hassles associated with the GS Shopping Center. There’s also another, more upscale mall that offers top-tier tenants like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.
Where does that leave Bergen Mall, the true black sheep of this flock? Close to death. See for yourself.
The Bergen Mall opened in 1957 as an outdoor shopping center, and one of the first malls in the region. Anchored by Stern’s and Orbach’s, the mall opened to much fanfare and included many community-oriented spaces, such as a live theatre, an ice skating rink, and a bowling alley. Located at the junction of Route 4 and Forest Ave., the mall actually included a separate strip area on the east side of Forest Ave. that was (and still is) connected to the remainder of the property with an outdoor pedestrian bridge.
The mall was enclosed in 1973, and despite many changes through the years, looks mostly as it always has. Orbach’s gave way to Steinbach, who later gave way to Value City. Stern’s was acquired by Macy’s, and their store here became a (very redundant, frankly) short-lived Macy’s store before shutting. During the 1990s, the mall also positioned itself as a value-oriented center compared to its swankier brothers and sisters, and courted tenants like Saks Off Fifth Avenue, Marshalls, Gap Outlet, and the aforementioned Value City.
Simon sold the Bergen Mall to Vornado in 2003, and plans are underway to drastically convert the property. I haven’t been able to find a firm plan, but the mall was plastered with renderings of its transition that appear to suggest the mall will be converted to an open-air format, with large-profile stores (such as the Century 21 Department Store that’s already under construction, and a Target store) and architecture that recalls mid-town Manhattan. This is an interesting twist, and one that’s cognizant of the mall’s geographic location, on the new lifestyle center format so it’ll be interesting to see. Unfortunately, the Bergen Mall’s interior is such an amazingly-well preserved example of 1970s shopping mall architecture that it’s pretty hard to see it go. Let’s take a tour starting with the exterior:
That last photo is of the strip center, on the far side of Forest Street. It clearly once housed a supermarket (one of the A&P banners perhaps? It reminds me of the old Kohl’s Supermarkets in Wisconsin). Now that we’re inside, let’s take a look at the floorplan to orient ourselves:
Pay close attention to the “lower level” there. It’s one of the things that makes this mall so unique.
The following photos were taken strolling around the main part of the mall. The former Value City space is at the mall’s westernmost end, the former Macy’s (which is in the process of being converted to the Century 21 Department Store) is at the center court, and the eastern end of the mall houses Marshalls, Saks Off Fifth, and the bridge to the strip center.
In that last photo, we were strolling down one of the two side hallways branching off of the mall’s center court. At the end of that hallway, we saw this:
The escalators lead to the basement. There’s one long corridor in the basement, that provides access to a local museum, the performing arts center, and the 34-year-old Carmelite Chapel of St. Therese, which due to Bergen County’s blue laws, is–like the rest of the mall–ironically closed on Sundays.
Most interesting, however, is the “Village Mall,” a drab collection of very small stores tucked into a space near the bottom of the stairs. Made to look like a wild west village–but clearly untouched since the 1970s–this eerily quiet space hosts only a few active tenants (including a psychic, a hobby shop, and a few other businesses) but otherwise feels as though it has been abandoned for decades. There are several “streets” in this area, forming a pattern not unlike an “8,” and room for maybe 20 or 30 different stores, though each individual store space is probably only about 500 square feet. Note the dreadful carpeting:
Now that is a treat. It may not be very successful, but I’d like to see a lifestyle center try something this unique. Also, if you want just a little bit more, check out this short documentary on the Bergen Mall by filmmaker Robin Groves. It was clearly filmed a few years ago now (Stern’s was still present), and it gives a good impression of what made (and makes, for now) the Bergen Mall so strange.
ADDED 9/29/06: Someone even set up a MySpace page on the Bergen Mall! Check it out; there are some photos from when Stern’s and Value City were at the mall, amongst a ton of other great stuff. People seriously love this mall. Why can’t we clean it up and save it?