For decades, The Gallery at Market East has been a piss poor example of urban shopping malls, a genre known for piss poor shopping. The blogosphere has been buzzing with rumors for Kmart's vacant space with everything from a Bloomies to scaled back retail space allowing for more tenants.
But can the Gallery ever be more than it is as a mall? It will still be an enclosed, urban shopping experience. An experience that never thrived in any city since it began in the 1960s, and is even less likely to thrive now that residents have revisited their love affair with the urban experience.
There are of course a couple ways that the Gallery could improve its reputation as a shopping destination. Altering its Market Street façade, namely at the street, opening its retail space to the sidewalk would be vastly more inviting to pedestrians than a concrete wall that doesn't even utilize its existing display windows. But if PREIT ever hopes to attract high end shoppers, changing from its current state to a King of Prussia rival won't organically evolve. The mall would have to be shut down, remodel, and reopen with enough fanfare to squash its reputation amongst locals.
But even that is a gamble. Center City already has its answer to King of Prussia and it's growing. Walnut Street's high rent is pushing retailers to Chestnut Street. If anyone thinks the Gallery should try to compete with suburban shopping, they're ignoring the fact that suburban shopping never worked a few blocks from City Hall.
Of course that leaves us with a white elephant on Market East, one PREIT seems to be maintaining as-is until adjacent development changes the district's market and puts more people on the street. But PREIT is thinking inside the box, literally, assuming that a building built as a mall must be a mall.
The Gallery sits on very unique corridor within Center City and those vested in its success have completely ignored what that corridor uniquely offers: thousands upon thousands of tourists. On one side the Gallery is a dense cluster of hotels and at the other, the city's historic district.
Thousands of tourists and conventioneers traverse Thunderdome every month, ignoring the Gallery and huffing it to 6th Street. In turn, PREIT ignores them, dreaming of a Target replacing Kmart or a few Forever 21 carbon copies turning out the same revenue as those already at the Gallery.
Tourists are looking for their traps and PREIT isn't listening. I heard my uncle complain about Philadelphia after attending conventions here. Gushing about Baltimore of all places, I had to explain to him that he needed to venture a few more blocks to experience Philadelphia. But the truth is, he wasn't looking for a local Philadelphian experience, he was looking for those trappings he found near Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Convention Center: ESPN Zone, Dave and Busters, maybe a movie theater.
The Gallery is the perfect locale and a blank slate for these venues. It's too perfect to ignore, yet PREIT ignores it. If those in charge had the foresight to think of the Gallery as more than a mall, they could have worked with Live Nation to salvage the Boyd Theater's grand auditorium and rebuild it inside the vacant Kmart. The two story Old Navy is the perfect venue for a two story microbrew or concert hall. Anchor the east side of the mall with a flagship Urban Outfitters, our city's homegrown purveyor of hip clothing. Sure there's one on Walnut Street, but if two H&Ms can succeed a few blocks from each other, an Urban Outfitters on Market East, catering to an entirely different, tourism driven market would thrive.
If PREIT is waiting for nearby development to spawn interest in the neighborhood, it's ironic, because The Gallery at Market East is the perfect space to kick off interest in the neighborhood. But it won't succeed as an indoor, suburban style shopping mall for the same reason it's never succeeded: that's not what those passing by want. Right now, PREIT is the only legitimate game in the vicinity, and if NREA moves ahead with its East Market between 11th and 12th, the Gallery is going to find itself not only facing competition amongst shoppers, but also tenants.
Start marketing the location and catering to tourists on the street. Stop thinking about locals who already have a Diesel and a Betty Page on Walnut Street, don't need a Macy's equivalent, and are just as unwilling to lug home a desk from Target as they were from Kmart.
Suburban shopping will never succeed in an urban environment because it's urban. The only want to adaptively reuse a behemoth like the Gallery, particularly one tucked conveniently between the tourists and their destinations, is to stuff it full of Lego stores, Ripley's Believe it Or Not and Guinness Museums, and maybe even an FAO Schwartz.