Can Wild Boar Save the Suburban Mall?

Once the hub for both retail commerce and our teenage lives, the regional mall is struggling. Developers are betting celebrity chefs like Marc Vetri and Jose Garces can resuscitate it by offering high-end dining in a landscape of Boscov’s and Sears. But will customers bite?
Death of the Suburban mall

If these malls could talk.
Left: a bustling Cherry Hill; Right: Echelon in Voorhees is a shell of its old self.
Photograph by Sam Oberter

WHEN I HEARD the news, I thought Vetri was nuts, too. And I used to live in malls. From 1984 to 1988, my mom dropped me off just about every Saturday, and I did very important things there, like sample the new Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion at the Clinique counter, try on European-sized pants I couldn’t afford at Benetton, and stroll by the Gap approximately 361 times to see if Alex Sperry was working so I could walk in and be all, like, “Hey.” Now I go to the mall—mine is Cherry Hill—about three times a year, including once to stand in line with my daughters for Santa. Otherwise, I avoid it like the Schuylkill.

“I hope Mr. Vetri knows something I don’t,” says my friend Sara, a 34-year-old Marlton mom of three who grew up hanging at Moorestown. She stopped by there three months after Osteria opened last November, only to find that the mall was still unequivocally “lame.” (“There wasn’t even a Gap.”)

“It’s a work in progress, man!” barks Joseph Coradino when he hears this assessment. Coradino, 62, is the CEO of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), which owns the Moorestown Mall. His staff and many of his clients think of him as a visionary, kind of a Mall Yoda, albeit with one of the thickest Philadelphia accents I’ve ever heard. Even so, some folks in his inner circle thought that luring Vetri out to the sticks to reboot a tired mall was a crazy idea. Except “crazy” might be the only strategy to save the remaining 1,000 or so malls nationwide, of which 120 or so are pretty much seeing the white light, with some sold for pennies per square foot to be razed into parking lots.

To start with, Coradino, whose company owns 35 malls, doesn’t even really like the term “mall.” Back in the day, he explains, “I could fly you to any mall in any city in America and it would feel exactly like ‘your’ mall.” That’s the kind that’s dying, he says. To stay alive now, a mall has to be different. “You need to ‘create cool,’” Coradino says. (He also describes his business as “place-making.”) And all that cool he plans to create is supposed to transform the Moorestown Mall into … “an urban center.”

“It’s never been done before,” he says.

As hokey-pokey as his pitch sounds, PREIT has a solid track record for turning flat-lining Delaware Valley malls into something. When the company bought the Moorestown Mall 11 years ago from the gigundous Rouse Company, the $548 million deal included five others—Cherry Hill, Echelon, Exton Square, Plymouth Meeting and the Gallery at Market East. All needed a shot of adrenaline to get more shoppers through the doors.

So PREIT got creative. Echelon became the “Voorhees Town Center,” with the township occupying the mall’s very vacant second floor and high-end apartments moving in next door. In Plymouth Meeting, PREIT wooed Whole Foods, P.F. Chang’s, and a surefire foot-traffic ge­nerator—a 23,500-square-foot outpatient facility run by Mercy Health. That plan worked so well, Exton Square just added the Main Line Health Center. Cherry Hill put on some fancy big-girl pants—Nordstrom, Henri Bendel, Crate and Barrel, Armani Exchange, Season 52, Capital Grille—and in the third quarter last year, an impressive $629 per square foot in sales followed. (A healthy mall does above $400. KOP historically pulls in an average of $700.) PREIT hasn’t even started at the Gallery, but Coradino has a top-secret plan, to be revealed any day now. There are rumors it may go high-end, with a Bloomie’s, perhaps—although Coradino had earlier described a “Fast Fashion and Food” vision (i.e., H&M, Forever 21 and the like); that may be the front-runner, since he told me he’s confident “the millennials will go gaga over it.”

But all those goodies PREIT added to Cherry Hill basically rang the death knell for Moorestown, where recent sales were sub-par—just $348 per square foot. The two malls are only three miles apart and share the same customer base. With Apple, Banana, Urban, Abercrombie and a RadioShack at Cherry Hill, why would any South Jersey shopper, millennial or boomer, go to Moorestown anymore? (Except, maybe, to score a really close parking space when buying a new dishwasher at Sears, which … um … is the only time in 10 years living in South Jersey that I’d ever been to the Moores-town Mall.)

Joe Aristone, Coradino’s senior vice president of leasing, remembers the meeting four years ago in the PREIT offices on South Broad at which his boss announced the big brainstorm: Bring Philly’s celebrity chefs to Moorestown!

“Okay, Joe,” Aristone thought to himself. “That’s gonna happen.” For one thing, Moores­town had been “dry” since Prohibition, and lifelong locals were dead set on keeping it like that, so as not to pave the way for brothels, tattoo parlors and throwing-up on streets—concerns that were actually raised in township meetings. Second, big-name Center City restaurateurs moving out to the ’burbs hadn’t exactly proven a keen business strategy. Stephen Starr—who’s braved A.C., D.C., Miami and New York—has never done it. And those who have—remember Perrier’s Georges’ in Wayne?—failed.

But Aristone knew PREIT had an “in”: Marc Vetri’s business partner Jeff Benjamin, who lived in Cherry Hill. Benjamin understood South Jersey. And he complained with the rest of us about how few good places to eat exist on this side of the bridge. In fact, he’d already approached PREIT to get into the Cherry Hill Mall.

“They told me Cherry Hill was pretty much wrapped up, but they were growing different parts of their portfolio,” Benjamin says. Coradino pointed him a few miles east on Route 38, knowing that getting Vetri signed on at Moorestown would not only legitimize his whole scheme and help convince the township to sell him some liquor licenses, but would also, you know, save the mall.

Trouble was, Vetri wasn’t convinced. In fact, he says these were his exact words: “No way.” The only reason he ever went to South Jersey was to buy diapers for his kids at Babies “R” Us, then maybe stop at Target for a value pack of ibuprofen. Did people even eat out over there?

Benjamin spent an evening driving Vetri around. See the Maggiano’s at Cherry Hill? Packed. See the Redstone at the Promenade at Sagemore in Marlton? Packed. See? But the numbers PREIT pulled together were precisely what Vetri needed to know about the feasibility of filling a new, funny-sounding, gravy-free Italian restaurant at a Gap-less mall. Philadelphians spend an average of $3,561 eating out every year. People who live in the Moorestown Mall’s “trade area”—
Marlton, Medford, Mount Laurel and, of course, affluent Moorestown, where average home values are $400,000 and up? They spend $4,900—37 percent more. (Incidentally, this explains why you’ll wait in line down the road at Cherry Hill’s Bahama Breeze.)

Plus, Vetri just liked the PREIT folks. “They were genuine guys really looking to make something special,” he says. “I know that’s not very business-savvy, or even an economically sound model, but it works for me.”

What PREIT did offer by way of sound economics was a sweet lease (Aristone prefers to use the word “fair”), though no one will disclose the specifics. “Let’s just say,” clarifies Benjamin, “we could not get the same deal at the King of Prussia mall.”

After years of cage-fighting in its town hall, Moorestown voted to award the mall four liquor licenses. In September 2012, Vetri tweeted the signature page of the lease agreement.

And—boom—in July, the Moorestown Patch broke the news that famed Philly Iron Chef Jose Garces was coming, too, opening a version of his West Philly Distrito later this year right across the hall from Vetri.

“We actually called [Garces],” admits Benjamin, who pretty much peer-pressured his pal: All the cool guys are headed to Moorestown.

“With Marc already invested in the project,” says Garces, “it just seemed like something we wanted to be a part of. So many incredible chefs are opening in airports, casinos, stadiums and other places where you didn’t typically find great food, because they want to change the notion that these places are food wastelands.”

And—boom—a month later, Frank Rizzieri confirmed that he’d be closing his award-winning flagship Rizzieri Salon and Spa on Route 73, his home for more than 20 years, and moving to the mall. PREIT wanted Rizzieri so badly, it offered to sell his current salon (boom—sold!) and help him with the renovation of the new custom-designed 12,500-square-foot space in the same wing as the restaurants, anchored not by upscale Lord & Taylor, but by Boscov’s (cue sad trombone). That didn’t matter to Rizzieri, who saw the bigger opportunity—moving closer to where a lot of his regulars live, and also adding something to his business he never had before: foot traffic. Still, the marquee power of Moorestown’s new celebrity chefs was the clincher.

“If [PREIT] would have come to me and said, ‘We want you to come here and we’ll give you cheap rent and your own outside entrance,’ I wouldn’t have done it,” says Rizzieri. “If [Vetri and Garces] weren’t going out there, I wouldn’t have done it.”