Malls were once as iconic to American culture as baseball and apple pie. With their soaring atriums, cool fountains, and lushly faux-tropical gardens, shopping malls were quasi-public spaces designed to replicate the downtown shopping experience for residents of the fast-growing suburbs of the 20th century.
Now, battered by pandemic shutdowns that followed decades of decline, the age of the American shopping mall is creaking to a close.
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Across the United States last year, there were only about 1000 malls left, according to real estate analytics firm Green Street Advisors. And many of those appear to be on life support. Vacancy rates are hovering around 11%, according to Moody’s, among the highest ever reported. Despite the maturing of a generation that grew up in and around them, and a recent surge of pop culture interest in the ’90s — from vaporwave music to “Stranger Things” and “Fear Street” — shopping malls have become relics of a bygone age.
A recent tour of eight Philadelphia-area malls, from still-bustling King of Prussia to the ghost towns of Voorhees and Exton, gives insight into the vanishing role of these once-iconic retail titans, which have become living monuments to their own decline.
Fashion District Philadelphia (formerly The Gallery)
901 Market St., Philadelphia
The mall now called Fashion District Philadelphia opened in 1977, and was envisioned as a way to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Philadelphia.
In its former incarnation as The Gallery at Market East, it was a retail and mass transit hub that saw considerable foot traffic both from city shoppers and suburban commuters transferring between the nearby PATCO and SEPTA Regional Rail stations. But its subterranean construction always gave it a slightly dim and dingy atmosphere, especially as store occupancy dwindled in the late 90s.
Following a difficult multi-year renovation, the rebranded Gallery opened anew in 2019. Concrete, steel, and tile have been replaced by gleaming, futuristic white plastic and glass, like something out of a sci-fi video game or a Stanley Kubrick film. The whole place is brightly, almost aggressively lit, but its winding underground hallways remain as labyrinthine as ever and the COVID-related decline in mass transit usage means it still doesn’t see much foot traffic.
There’s already talk of converting part of the space into a new downtown sports arena — the latest in a long line of stalled redevelopment plans, including a mid-Aughts bid to transform half the space into a casino.
Oxford Valley Mall
2300 Lincoln Hwy. Langhorne, Pa.
The Oxford Valley Mall (est. 1973) looks like many malls in the Philadelphia area. Vaulted atriums house a mix of national chain stores and idiosyncratic local one-offs, including an unusual “slime” store, a leggings emporium, and a knockoff Star Wars–themed Airsoft range.
Shoppers are numerous but scattered, and more than a few storefronts sit empty, including several of the all-important “anchors” — large department store spaces that provide the bulk of a mall’s leasing revenue and draw much-needed foot traffic.
Still, one can walk the corridors and understand the appeal of the regional mall. It’s a place you can go to buy shoes, DVDs, clothes, hair care products, slime (apparently), and almost anything else your heart desires, but with almost park-like recreational accoutrements that can’t be found online or at a big box store like Walmart. Many of the shoppers are senior citizens who arrived by nearby public transportation, or parents with small children enjoying an air conditioned space to stretch their legs on a sweltering July afternoon.
Not that the passage of time hasn’t taken a toll. Most Mall Age fixtures — the fountains, the statuary centerpieces, the lush gardens — are long gone, giving it a slightly hollow quality. There’s been talk of converting half of the vast building into condos and an upscale “lifestyle complex”.
707 Neshaminy Mall, Bensalem, Pa.
Instead of being left to feel dated and quaint, the Neshaminy Mall, opened in 1968, has been subjected to a series of heavy facelifts, most recently in 2015. The original interior was replaced with a more “corporate modern” style. The look of sterile white walls and polished gray tile is a fate also suffered by the nearby Philadelphia Mills (né Franklin Mills).
Like many malls that have seen modern redesigns, these aesthetic updates have seemingly done little to change Neshaminy’s ongoing decline.
The first thing a visitor sees is an empty (but still recognizable) Abercrombie & Fitch storefront. Its aggressively clean tile halls are, if anything, even less busy and less occupied than Oxford Valley. The constant hum of distant air conditioners, and the lack of cheerful mall Muzak, gives it the same crisp, oppressive atmosphere as a car dealership waiting room — although fans of brisk, 1980s-esque architecture may be quite happy.
The mall is not without its charms. One wing houses a popular 24-screen AMC theater, an indoor playground, and a fellow visitor from an earlier era: a somewhat busy Barnes & Noble, complete with built-in Starbucks.
Burlington Center (permanently closed)
2501 Mt. Holly Rd., Burlington, N.J.
Malls are real estate, and the Burlington Center — or, rather, its former site — is a reminder of what happens to unprofitable land. Opened in 1982 at the height of the mall boom, it fell into a long decline that culminated with the 2008 financial crisis. It stood mostly vacant for several years, before closing for good in 2018.
Visit today, and you’ll meet a fleet of bulldozers and cranes hard at work on a massive new warehouse and logistics complex, built to serve the growing needs of online shoppers. The only indication of the site’s former tenant are a pair of battered metal signs bearing the mall’s stylized bird logo, now rusted and vine-covered like a background prop from a horror film.
The sole survivor of the Burlington Center? Petal the elephant, a massive bronze statue that once stood in the mall’s main atrium and which was based on a beloved Philadelphia Zoo elephant. The real Petal died in 2008, but her likeness was acquired by a local arts group. It’s currently in storage while they search for a permanent home.
400 NJ Rte. 38, Moorestown, N.J.
The Moorestown Mall in suburban New Jersey is that rarest of things: a mall that is, by all appearances, doing just fine. After many renovations and reincarnations, the insides are bustling if not quite busy, even on a Tuesday afternoon. 1990s pop music plays over the speakers, the fountains still burble merrily, and most (though by no means all) of the retail space is occupied.
The key to the Moorestown Mall’s durability may be its transformation into a restaurant hub with the allowance of liquor licenses on site last decade. Almost every entrance features one or more active restaurants, including higher-end chains like Harvest, Yard House, and Naan Indian Bistro (though an effort to open spots from star Philly restaurateurs like Marc Vetri and Jose Garces flopped). The inside is surprisingly refreshing, with a number of concessions targeting families with young children, including a scooter rental that lets parents and children drive around one of the atriums on the back of a futuristic motorcycle or large stuffed animal.
With enough retro charm to still feel like a mall but enough modern amenities to keep a small family reasonably occupied for a couple hours, the Moorestown Mall feels like one of the best-case-scenarios for the genre.
Voorhees Town Center (formerly Echelon Mall)
2140 Voorhees Town Center, Voorhees Twp., N.J.
Part of a planned community that opened as the Echelon Mall in 1970 during the suburbanization boom, this was once the second largest mall in South Jersey, after the nearby Cherry Hill Mall. Those days are long gone.
Now officially called Voorhees Town Center, following a failed 2007 rebrand, the mall is now a ghost town. Footsteps echo ominously through empty tile halls that contain just four or five operational storefronts, including a karate dojo and an inexplicably new-looking Bath & Body Works. The handsome corporate modern-style food court, complete with hotel lobby palm trees, is completely vacant. Every restaurant and every concession stand has closed, leaving nothing behind but dozens of tables, two bowls of plastic fruit, and a couple workers from a nearby behavioral health clinic enjoying their bring-from-home lunch in uncanny silence.
Across the cracked parking lot lies “The Boulevard,” a collection of “Truman Show”-esque apartments, condominiums, and restaurants that was supposed to revitalize the empty mall, but now merely exists in its long and lurking shadow. Other nearby malls have found their own ways to struggle on and survive. But of the Echelon Mall, there’s simply nothing left.
King of Prussia Mall
160 N. Gulph Rd., King of Prussia, Pa.
If there is a suburban shopping institution in the Philadelphia area, it’s the King of Prussia Mall. The sprawling array of department stores, outlets, high-end retailers, and restaurants that opened in 1963 was once two distinct malls, which were conjoined by renovations in 2016. It’s now considered the third-largest mall in the U.S.
Between destination brands and high-end stores designed for affluent shoppers, the interior takes on the uncanny geometry and baffling architecture of a Las Vegas casino. The packed hallways seem to fold in on themselves, leaving you disoriented among apparently endless sunlit atriums and multiple redundant food courts.
The mall is absolutely packed even on a Thursday afternoon, but there’s something inhuman and bracing about it. Despite the abundant seating, scrupulously clean floors and food courts, and baffling array of outlets (including a side-by-side Apple Store and Tesla retailer, a telling indicator of the mall’s target clientele), it frequently feels more like a very expensive airport terminal than something designed for humans.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the King of Prussia Mall’s owners worrying too much. If there is a lesson here, it’s that malls may go out of fashion, but wealth never does.
Exton Square Mall
260 Exton Square Pkwy., Exton, Pa.
The Exton Square Mall is a Chester County retail hub that opened its doors in 1973. Instead of benefiting from its proximity to the bustling King of Prussia center, the opposite seems to be true: despite what look to be recent renovations and an architecturally impressive tree-lined food court, the only thing found in abundance is empty space.
It’s not totally empty. A Round1 entertainment complex (a sort of combination bar, bowling alley, and arcade like a grown-up Dave & Buster’s) occupies the space that once housed a JCPenney, while Main Line Health operates a large outpatient medical facility out of another former anchor space.
The end result is that most of the mall feels like it’s given up the ghost, with an overwhelming and inexplicable smell of carpet glue and multiple stores seemingly in the process of closing up shop. There may be a future for the Exton Square Mall, but being an actual mall does not appear to be part of it.