Greater Philadelphia, the second largest metropolitan area on the east coast, stretches across four states and contains an impressive 6 million people total. With a population of around 1.5 million, the New Jersey suburbs of Greater Philadelphia shoulder about a quarter of that total. Most of these South Jersey suburbs are post-war enclaves of sprawling single-family residential developments, mixed with low-level commercial and some industrial areas near the Delaware River. For the average tourist, there’s little going on here, unless one happens to enjoy touring post-war sprawl and shopping malls – and we do! – or, for the more daring urban explorer, the city of Camden offers a post-apocalyptic exception to the suburban sprawl, with its disintegrated, densely urban infrastructure crumbling before our eyes.
Nestled 25 miles northeast of Center City (downtown) Philadelphia, Burlington Center Mall is one of a handful of regional shopping centers on the New Jersey side of the metropolitan area. Opened in 1982 by Rouse, Burlington Mall is the newest regional enclosed center in Greater Philadelphia, and was conceived in order to fill a dearth of regional malls that exists between Cherry Hill/Moorestown and the mall north of Trenton. A considerable amount of residential growth in this section of Burlington County, combined with the height of regional enclosed mall development, precipitated the birth of Burlington Mall. Unfortunately, though, the mall has fallen on hard times as a result of locational disadvantages, competition, and a perception of crime, and is in a significant amount of trouble today.
Originally, competition was not an issue for Burlington Mall. In fact, Burlington Mall’s 1982 debut eventually helped kill several smaller malls in the vicinity. The extant built retail environment in this area prior to the construction of Burlington Mall consisted of several smaller local/neighborhood centers – the enclosed set of Cinnaminson Mall and Willingboro Village Mall, and the outdoor Willingboro Plaza – all of which closed and were significantly redeveloped by the early 2000s.
Located along Burlington-Mt. Holly Road on a small strip of land between two major parallel highways – the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 295 – the Burlington Center Mall enjoys access to both, and also to a bridge across the Delaware River into populous Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This locational advantage, along with its size and relative newness, put Burlington Mall many steps ahead of the aforementioned smaller malls in the area, which are mostly located along US 130, a semi-controlled access highway with frequent lights.
During the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the two-level Burlington Mall enjoyed success, reaping the rewards sowed by a great location and a lack of competition in its core market. In 1996, the first and only expansion of the mall took place, with the addition of a JCPenney store near the crux of the mall’s two L-shaped hallways. The other two anchors were Sears and Philadelphia-based Strawbridges (changed to Macy’s in 2006), at the far ends of each hallway, respectively.
The end of the 1990s and the dawn of the new millennium saw a shift in shopper preferences which would eventually lead to a downward spiral at Burlington Mall, as offerings shifted from a dominance of staid, popular, national brand stores to local mom-and-pops and vacancies. Also, the mall had begun to show its age, and, as of 2010 has not received a significant renovation in its lifetime. In contrast, nearly all of the other malls in South Jersey have undertaken renovations and expansions of varying degrees, the largest being the complete renovation and addition of Nordstrom at Cherry Hill Mall, the largest mall on the New Jersey side and the second largest mall in the Greater Philadelphia area. Also, in the mid-2000s, the lifestyle center craze of outdoor malls hit South Jersey, and the large Promenade at Sagemore opened in nearby Marlton, contributing to competition in an already-crowded market.
In 2007, Burlington Center Mall received a pall in the form of bad press. On the night of January 13, 2007, a gang fight erupted in the mall, involving over 20 individuals. The mall closed early that night, but that wasn’t as big of a deal as the ongoing bad press the mall received in coming weeks and months, which earned Burlington Mall the reputation of being an unsafe haven for gang-bangers. Once a mall is branded as unsafe, a positive feedback loop often begins, regardless of whether or not the reputation is actually earned. Shoppers begin to avoid the mall, causing stores to close, causing less traffic in the mall overall which, in turn, causes even more stores to close. This feedback loop correlates with a downward-spiraling trend of tenancy, eventually leading to a mall’s closure, and can often be traced to a single event or series of events exposed by the media.
Unfortunately, this downward spiral is already taking place at Burlington Center Mall. It has also reached critical mass, as evidenced by a recent blow from Macy’s, who announced in January 2010 that they were leaving the mall, citing poor sales. Adding insult to injury, the media exposed the larger troubles at the mall in addition to the Macy’s departure. According to an article that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer and announced the Macy’s departure at the flagging mall, Burlington Center Mall is a “dead mall” full of “junk stores”.
The same article also had a quote from the mall’s marketing manager, Sunshine Lewis, who has a glass-half-full mentality and stated the Macy’s departure will give the mall an opportunity to court another anchor. In her defense, the mall isn’t quite dead just yet, and still has a fair amount of national chains like American Eagle Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, a handful of shoe stores and jewelry stores, and a decent full food court. But it also doesn’t have far to go before it’s dead, either.
Burlington Mall’s owner is Jager Management, a relatively small player in the world of the PREITs, Simons, Maceriches, and Westfields. Jager, based in Burlington County, owns two other malls – the very dead Mountaineer Mall in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the Fairgrounds Square Mall, a flagging mall in Reading, Pennsylvania. Because of their relatively small (and underperforming) portfolio, Jager is not well-poised to ward off competition through updates and renovations, which are necessary tools in today’s marketplace, especially in the face of bad press. All of the other malls on the New Jersey side of Greater Philadelphia are owned by either Simon, PREIT, or Macerich, all companies that have access to millions of dollars in assets and loans in order to keep their centers current and viable. And they have – every other center in South Jersey providing competition to Burlington Mall has undergone extensive renovations within the past few years.
So, when Burlington Mall’s manager stated the departure of Macy’s represents an opportunity, she was right. In order to remain viable, the mall needs differentiate itself from its competition. The area around the mall still has an above average household income, and the mall’s location is advantageous, so it’s become clear that laissez-faire management has become the major problem. Use the mall’s location, between two well-traveled highways, to locate a destinational store or attraction there. Invent an entertainment district. Put in a discounter or some other non-traditional entity as an anchor. Renovate and modernize the mall. There obviously has to be more of a reason to come here, since locals are bypassing this mall and going to others like Cherry Hill/Moorestown and Sagemore, which are 15 minutes away.
We visited Burlington Mall in Summer 2008 and took the pictures featured here. Leave your own suggestions, comments, and experiences about Burlington Mall.
Michael Lisicky has submitted the following pictures from 2005, before Strawbridge’s became Macy’s, and a close-up of the famous fountain:
And here are some pictures that Caldor took when in the area in November of 2006. The mall felt dusty and deserted, and the Macy’s (former Strawbridge’s) wing felt like it was in especially poor shape, with little other than empty storefronts or hip hop wear stores: