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?

AND THAT’S THE THEORY behind Coradino’s master plan. Whether he’s attracting new tenants or new customers, he’s confident he can entice them to the mall with something that’s totally non-retail, a.k.a. totally un-mall.

“We’re selling the customer an experience,” says Coradino. In this case, that experience is savoring Osteria’s polenta budino, or seeing Garces’s wall decorated with luchadore masks, or getting a $145 haircut and blowout. (“You can’t get a haircut online,” Coradino notes.) And then, after your glycolic peel at Rizzieri, and after you grab an order of huarache de costillas for lunch at Distrito, and after you browse boutique row (because that’s coming next, right across from the spa—a strip of high-end local shops), then … hopefully … by the grace of God … you’ll wander out of the cool-kids wing and pick up some sneaks at Lady Foot Locker.

Let’s be clear—most owners of struggling malls are attempting some form of this pied-pipering. They’re leasing to gyms, schools and churches (like Bethel at Franklin Mills). They’re building glow-in-the-dark mini-golf courses and museums (like the now-extinct Dinosaurium at Granite Run Mall) and staging concerts (not unlike Tiffany’s “Beautiful You: Celebrating the Good Life Shopping Mall Tour ’87”). The American Dream Meadowlands would be the first new mall built in the country in almost a decade, with its own water park and amusement park, a sky-diving simulator and an interior ski slope (and 400 shops)—if only the project hadn’t gotten stalled, passed off from developer to developer. It’s now slated to break ground in 2016, four years late.

“A lot of retail owners are going that route,” says Ryan McCullough, a real estate economist with Washington, D.C.’s CoStar Group, which tracks real estate trends. “They’re bringing in restaurants, spas—anything that’s immune to competition from e-commerce.” Sure, online sales were up 10 percent this past holiday season. But Coradino says sales in his malls were also up, by 3.2 percent—and, he’s quick to clarify, “That’s based on the shortest holiday season p­os­si­b­l­e—six days shorter than [2012], plus three snow days. We lost nine shopping days.”

What’s different at Moorestown—what, as Coradino claims, has “never been done before”—is importing big-name local chefs (i.e., not national stars like Bobby Flay, as PREIT has done at Cherry Hill) from the city where they thrive to a new market where no one (i.e., the moms in my book club) really knows who they are. Those chefs will, thereby, infuse that downtown, urban feel into the ’burbs.

That’s what Coradino means by “an urban center.” Which is kind of funny. All the new shops and the new spa and Vetri and Garces are “reinventing” the mall into exactly what it was originally invented to be. This is why malls were built in the 1960s—to create “urban centers” in the ’burbs. Now, Moorestown Mall will be even more like Rittenhouse Square. Except with a spanking-new 56,000-square-foot 12-screen Regal Premium Experience movie theater. And a Piercing Pagoda.

Even so, if you build an “urban center” on Route 38, near 295, close to the New Jersey Turnpike, will they come?

“I’m worried about a lot of things,” says Coradino. “But I’m not worried about Moorestown anymore.”

But what about the news? What about the projection from real-estate researchers Green Street Advisors that 10 percent of the nation’s malls will close by 2022? What about Moody’s prediction that the only malls that will make it are the ones already doing well (like Cherry Hill) and the ones that are the “dominant or only mall in the trade area”?

“It’s all bullshit, man.” Coradino says.

CORADINO ADMITS HE has a secret weapon, the source he goes to for his most influential market research—his 23-year-old daughter. And guess what? “She loves the Vetri concept,” he says. “She says it’s ‘absolutely the way to go.’”

Attracting young people is crucial. All of that hanging-out my pals and I did in malls in the ’80s, sporting our pegged jeans, grabbing handfuls of Auntie Anne’s samples, buying candles we would never light at Wicks ‘n’ Sticks? We made malls cool. We made them “a place.” We sparked the nationwide craze for the striped Gap rugby. We dubbed Polo cologne the scent that got high-school boys laid. We dined at the fancy new restaurant called Chi-Chi’s because we begged our parents to take us there. (They refill your chips as many times as you want!)

“The tab at Osteria or Distrito is probably well out of reach for a 16- or 17-year-old kid. But they’ll want to go because they’ll hear that it’s cool,” says Coradino. “And they’ll come with their parents, the ones who lost their connection to the mall. Their kids will bring them back.”

Or will they?

In about five years, my oldest will be of mall-hanging-out age. And I’d bet a 10-pack of hoop earrings from Claire’s that she won’t be begging me to take her to the mall so she can snag some of that wild boar bolognese she’s been hearing so much buzz about.

Still, I do see some teenagers at the Cherry Hill Mall. And surely those $629-per-square-foot numbers validate Coradino and his people at PREIT. And maybe it’ll work at Moorestown, once all the pieces are in place.

However, even with all the new stuff at PREIT’s updated Plymouth Meeting Mall, a shopper from Conshohocken wasn’t exactly drinking the Orange Julius: “I used to take the kids there to see the fountain and ride the carousel, but I never bought anything inside. It’s dying.” A Somerdale shopper isn’t buying the hype at Echelon: “The owners are trying to invigorate it by calling it the Voorhees Town Center and adding restaurants and condos nearby, but we all know it for what it is—the dying Echelon Mall.”

Granted, Osteria is doing good business. Already, lots of regulars who used to drive over the bridge now come here once a week instead, though the waitstaff is finding it needs to explain more to customers. As one local patron complained to his server: “I don’t know what this food is! This is like a menu in Italy!

But even on that Saturday night, with that 45-minute wait in the packed Osteria, there were about 13 people in the actual mall.

The only store Osteria customers can see when they walk out of the restaurant into the mall is PacSun. It sells California-y clothes to people younger than 20-s­omething manager Frank Cipolone, who stands near the cash register in his entirely empty store. Cipolone is “really excited” about the changes in the mall, especially Osteria, which he pronounces incorrectly. But hey. It’s a weird word.

“I’m not sure if it’s really affecting sales, but there are definitely more people walking around the mall,” he says. “It’s like we’re starting to be like Cherry Hill.”

He laughs.

“Well, we’ll never really be like Cherry Hill. I mean, they have a Capital Grille.”
First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.