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In Center City Philadelphia right now, Market East is about as hot as it gets. But there’s one section of prime real estate that remains mostly empty. If you were around at the turn of the millennium, you know what it is.
Yes, we’re talking about the site of the infamous “Disney Hole” — which developers tell Billy Penn they’re still striving to transform.
Over the past half-decade, the rest of Market Street stretching from City Hall to the Historic District has seen an unprecedented level of interest, with millions of dollars pumped into the once drab corridor.
At 8th Street, there’s the the Fashion District, the glitzy new revamp of the former Gallery mall. Right where that ends at 11th, things pick up with the multi-block East Market development, comprising hotels, office towers, a supermarket and residences. A slew of major brand retail destinations have taken over several former discount storefronts in between.
Then there’s the barren surface parking lot that stretches all the way from 8th to 9th streets.
At one point, the 30,000-square-foot lot was home to the biggest department store in the world. Now that same property sits unfulfilled as a PPA-controlled home for vehicles. It’s been that way for years.
Why has this choice location been so stubbornly resistant? Not for lack of trying, said Maureen Garrity, spokesperson for site owners the Goldenberg Group.
“We have invested millions of dollars to date in an effort to sculpt a destination site that maximizes foot traffic while complementing the surrounding cultural, historical, and commercial attractions,” Garrity wrote via email. “Our continued efforts are a testament to our deep commitment to creating meaningful development along…the corridor that will have long-lasting impact.”
Here’s the history of the lot that keeps getting ghosted.
A golden age of department stores
The southwest corner of 8th and Market hit its prime at the turn of the 19th century, in an era when grand department stores dominated.
Gimbels opened there in 1894, and it had some great company: across the street were the famous Strawbridge & Clothier and neighbor Lit Brothers. With the help of the new marketplace, the area exploded in popularity — especially among wealthier Philly residents.
“Handsomely dressed women fought and scrambled to gain admittance to the store,” the Philadelphia Record reported at the time. “Bonnets were crushed, clothing torn and umbrellas twisted into almost unrecognizable shapes.”
The store became a Philadelphia icon. Gimbels produced the nation’s first-ever Thanksgiving Day parade in 1920, and seven years later saw a 12-story expansion that turned it into the biggest department store in the world.
But the quick expansion became too much for the owners to handle.
After opening stores in Cheltenham, Upper Darby, Northeast Philly, King of Prussia and Moorestown, NJ, the Gimbels operators became overwhelmed — and couldn’t manage their stores efficiently.
Sales started to decline. The flagship Philadelphia operation relocated to a smaller building in 1977, then closed for good in 1986.
After Gimbels left the 8th and Market site, a Chicago-based development group took the property over, and promptly razed almost the entire building, save for the expansion on the Chestnut Street side.
For over a decade, the once well-trafficked Gimbels lot sat vacant. By the 1990s, it had been acquired by the Goldenberg Group.
In 1998, Disney entered the picture, promising to invest $150 million as part of its ill-fated expansion tear.
Building off its popular destination parks in Florida and California, the mega-entertainment company decided to try to bring the fun to urban areas. Instead of DisneyLand or Disney World, each indoor arcade-slash-theme-park would be called DisneyQuest.
The first one popped up in Chicago. The second was planned for the fair city of Philadelphia.
Plans advanced pretty far down the line. Disney worked with the Goldenberg Group to start construction — and dug a giant hole on Market between 8th and 9th to pour a foundation.
But here’s the thing: In its midwestern location, DisneyQuest wasn’t doing so hot. Why? For one thing, it cost $36 to get in. That’s almost 60 bucks in today money. Sixty dollars! For a glamorized arcade! See you never.
To Chicagoans, the place just seemed…unnecessary. In such a major city, there were plenty of entertainment options. DisneyQuest just wasn’t it.
Realizing their hundred-million-dollar-plus operation was tanking, Disney cancelled the idea altogether. All the company left behind in Philly was a giant hole.
Whispers of development that never panned out
After the Disney pullout, Goldenberg Group tried to find other uses for the site.
Legalization of gambling in Pennsylvania offered a new option. Called Market8, it was gearing up to be “a world-class casino project…slated to include clubs, hotels and restaurants” according to Garrity, the developer spokesperson.
Though it wasn’t beloved by everyone, including community leaders in nearby Chinatown, the casino project received strong support from a coalition of African American leaders, who cited its potential to spark economic development on what was at that point a struggling corridor.
But it was not to be. “Ultimately,” Garrity said, “the gaming control board awarded the license to another applicant”
The PPA then took over part of the under-used site and built a 30,000-square-foot parking lot there. That remains its fate, despite rumors of a a mixed-use high rise that never came to fruition.
However, last year the parking authority entered into an agreement to sell its share back to the Goldenberg Group. There have been rumblings of interest ever since, and the developer says it’s courting “a number of top national brands” to create something great at the site.
“We will continue to work with the city, economic development agencies, civic leaders, community organizations and other key stakeholders to bring our shared vision for 8th and Market to life,” Garrrity said.
“We envision a development that engages and contributes to a vibrant community — from City Hall to the waterfront — for the next 100 years.”