The placement of enclosed shopping centers in urban cores and downtowns in America has always been a bit curious and fascinating to us. Perhaps it’s because their designs must be creative in order to weave the structure into the existing built environment. Or maybe it’s because they challenge the very notion of the traditional downtown, which struggled with its identity after the automobile age brought clusters of stores into the suburbs and away from downtowns, outmoding them from the 1950s to the present day.
At any rate, most medium- to large-sized American cities have, or at one time had, some semblance of a mall downtown. Most of these malls were built as urban renewal projects starting in the 1970s as a response to the explosion of suburban malls, in order to compete with the suburbs and keep people and businesses from fleeing downtown areas. Some of them were built a bit later in successful downtown districts like Indianapolis (Circle Center, 1995) and Chicago (North Bridge, 2000). Many of these hatve also failed, succumbing to the conveniences suburban malls offer shoppers, such as free parking, less traffic, and convenience to home. Many downtown malls have also failed even after protracted periods of success, like the downtown malls in Salt Lake City, Columbus, Milwaukee, Rochester, Hartford, and many more. But why is this? In most large American cities, people still congregate downtown for work if not for play, and increasingly people are choosing to live closer to urban centers because of gas prices, culture, and other economic issues, not to mention commuting is a pain.
Center City Philadelphia is full of shopping destinations, most of which center around Market Street, the major east-west thoroughfare through downtown. Along Market Street are several small atriums and enclosed shopping facilities, but only a few of them really function as malls per se, and The Gallery at Market East is by far the largest of them at 1.1 million square feet. It opened in 1977 (with a major expansion in 1984), and is currently anchored by Burlington Coat Factory and K-Mart, with Modell’s, Old Navy, and Pay/Half taking junior anchor space. I probably needn’t say more after that, except that the Gallery only holds a modicum of success today when compared to still-successful downtown malls in other cities like Chicago. But why?
The Gallery’s layout and design are the most interesting features of the center overall, combined with the mall’s facade and how it interacts with the street. The main entrance of The Gallery along Market Street provides a portal of access not unlike entering a large fortress. Because the ground level of The Gallery is subterranean, a wide staircase leads down from the street to sets of doors, which are flanked along a tall wall of glass. Although this entrance looks impressive from the inside of the mall, the outside of this facade is in a rather small space and easily glanced over. In addition, the rest of the street facade is also unremarkable, outdated, and awkward. Gallery East also does a poor job with continuity, and breaks the space in between Independence Hall, downtown, and Chinatown abruptly rather than connecting these areas of the city with a pedestrian-friendly theme.
The layout of the mall itself consists of four main levels in two “Gallery” developments, Gallery I and Gallery II, which opened in 1977 and 1984, respectively. Gallery I was the first development and consisted of the block between 10th street and the former Strawbridges. Gallery II was a westward extension of Gallery I ending at the former JCPenney (now Burlington Coat Factory); today, the I and II distinctions are mostly gone and the mall is simply known collectively as The Gallery At Market East. The first mall level is subterranean and goes throughout the length of the entire mall, from the former Strawbridge’s anchor in the east to Pay/Half on the west end, spanning nearly two blocks and going underneath K-Mart. The next level of the mall is at street level, and spans from the former Strawbridges in the east directly through K-Mart in the middle, where it is discontiguous at 10th street and shoppers must go outside and cross the street (or go up or down a level) to come back in again to continue across to Burlington Coat Factory. The third and fourth levels go from the vacant Strawbridges directly through middle anchor K-Mart and comes out on the other side, ending at Burlington Coat Factory, except the third and fourth levels converge to go through K-Mart.
Throughout The Gallery’s history turmoil has taken its toll right from the beginning. As soon as the project was announced, city leaders and developers were criticized for the city’s infusing money into the project at the expense of Philadelphia’s beleagured neighborhoods away from downtown. Obviously the irony that the city ponied up money to compete with the suburbs at their own game while other parts of the city suffered, also because of suburbs, wasn’t lost. In addition, during its early periods of success Gallery I was the site of numerous protests due to the fact that no black entrepreneurs owned any of the businesses there despite the fact that a great percentage of Philadelphia is black. Oops.
Nonetheless, The Gallery at Market East enjoyed decent period of success, through the 1980s and into the 1990s. By that time, even though the center was integrated into SEPTA’s system with three stations, it was still obvious that the mall itself just didn’t ‘feel’ integrated into downtown and the surrounding areas. Because the area to the east is a heavily trafficked tourist area, The Gallery should present a welcoming facade to them with high street visibility on the Market Street facade, drawing them into the mall, and vice versa from the City Hall side, where locals use the mall’s entrances for a bite to eat at the food court, shopping, or to enter SEPTA. In addition, the indoor corridors of the mall’s four-level structure could also be updated with warmer fixtures and lighting.
Anchor and tenancy issues haven’t helped The Gallery’s plight either. The original anchor and stalwart for all of downtown Philadelphia shopping was the flagship for Strawbridge and Clothier, which became the east end of the mall in 1977. Macy’s, who ended up purchasing the Strawbridge chain, decided to close this location in 2006; it’s still vacant as of August 2008. The original west anchor was Gimbel’s, which later became the center’s middle anchor after Gallery II opened in 1984. After Gimbel’s closed in 1986, this anchor became Stern’s and Clover before K-Mart in 1999. The west anchor, JCPenney, opened with Gallery II in 1984 and closed, later becoming Burlington Coat Factory which it is today. The in-line roster of stores has also degraded somewhat after having a more upscale set of stores some 15-plus years ago; today, many of the stores selling apparel are urban wear, discounters, or shoe stores. The food court has, however, remained viable due to the amount of foot traffic from people accessing the train and tourists in the area.
Some redevelopment plans and steps in the right direction for The Gallery have emerged over the years. In 2006, PREIT, the company who owns The Gallery, acquired the vacant Strawbridge’s flagship and have been shopping it around, mostly to uninterested parties.
In short, The Gallery At Market East could be a wonderful centerpiece for downtown Philadelphia, connecting a multiplicity of neighborhoods and peoples with a far more upscale line-up of stores and services than it has today. With its accessibility and location, it has the potential to be both visually and economically stimulating to the city of Philadelphia, and in a city living in the shadows of the east coast this is probably not a bad idea. Instead, The Gallery is slowly withering and even dying, earning a sour reputation among Philadelphians. Normally I would suggest milking a mall’s decline for all its worth, but not here. Normally I would advocate the placement of Burlington Coat Factory, Pay/Half, and K-Mart, because these viable stores are better than nothing. But not here. This area can do far better. That is, if it gets in gear and makes some renovations and changes to not only bring the mall into this century, but to bring different parts of Philadelphia together. It could really be nothing short of amazing.
The pictures featured here were taken by me in July 2008. Feel free to add your own stories, information, comments, or reactions in the comments section.