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?

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT—THIS IS MARC VETRI’S OSTERIA. It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, with a 45-minute wait and good-looking people standing three-deep at the bar. Ever-present beverage director Steve Wildy hustles in his ever-present dark gray suit, uncorking the second $75-plus bottle of red for two beefy guys who loom over a Lombarda pizza, which Food & Wine deemed the restaurant’s “signature” pie. Chef and partner Brad Spence, his whites strangely clean, surveys the dining room, which is tight and loud and thick with the aromas of braised rabbit and dry-aged rib eye and that magical wild boar bolognese. It’s exactly what we expect Osteria to be.

Except for one little hitch—the giant blue neon sign shining in through the front windows: SEARS.

Because here’s the thing: We’re not on North Broad.

We’re in a mall.

And not the swanky King of Prussia mall, or even the newly Nordstrom-ed Cherry Hill Mall.

We’re in the Moorestown Mall.

A mall? This is where Vetri decided to erect the second coming of Osteria, a restaurant that Newsweek called one of the 101 best in the world? Waaaay out on Route 38 in South Jersey? Facing a Sears? Staring right into a PacSun? Kitty-corner to a Spencer’s, with its sizeable selection of rainbow penis lollipops?

This would make sense … in 1986. That’s when the Moorestown Mall was totally bitchin’, packed with Gen X-ers scamming at the food court and Medford Wives browsing at Wanamaker’s, while everyone still marveled at the pretty fountain and the stream that ran right down the center of it all. This mall—and all malls, really—was a place to meet up and socialize, to be and be seen, like a Rittenhouse Square in the suburbs. Except with a consistent temperature of 75 degrees. And a Piercing Pagoda.

Not anymore. As one former mall chick in Riverton opines, “The Moorestown Mall is super depressing.” In February, on Moores-town Mall’s online directory, at least 25 out of about 100 stores appeared to be vacant. Just three years ago, the township’s Economic Development Advisory Committee worried that the mall—Moorestown’s biggest taxpayer­—was foundering. On the same evening we dined at Osteria, parents were having a birthday scavenger hunt for their daughter in the mall, because they knew “no one would be there.” In fact, at any given time, on any given day, there are so few people inside that we half expect to walk into Kay Jewelers and be instantly consumed by zombies.

“Apocalyptic.” That’s how the current state of the American mall was recently described by Bloomberg TV. And the bad press only gets worse from there: “extinct,” “sick,” “dying” or, more to the point, “dead.”

“It has outlived its usefulness,” announced Rick Caruso, CEO of one of the country’s largest privately held real estate companies, Caruso Affiliated, in his keynote address at the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in January. There are all kinds of reasons for the decline: online shopping, fewer chains leasing space, fewer people living near malls. Caruso—who, it must be noted, owns malls—predicts that without a mass reinvention, enclosed malls as we knew and loved them will go the way of lickable stamps and Blockbusters in, at most, 15 years.

Even here, in the fifth largest retail market in the country, Moorestown is only one of many malls gasping. The Granite Run Mall in Media and the Coventry Mall in Pottstown were so empty and languishing in such debt that they were auctioned off last September. The Gallery at Market East, the old Cedarbrook Mall on Cheltenham Avenue and South Jersey’s Echelon Mall have all earned prominent (and justified) mentions on the nostalgic website

Most telling, the Gen X-ers who grew up in malls, who now have the income to spend in malls, aren’t really psyched to shop in them anymore. When I asked some former mall rats, their evaluations were plain: Franklin Mills in the Northeast is “scary”; the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem is “sad”; Exton Square is “a goth fest”; the Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne is, simply, “shit.”

It’s no wonder, then, that when Marc Vetri announced he was opening at the Moorestown Mall, his fellow Philly restaurateurs asked him the same question, again and again:

“Are you nuts?”

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.”

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.

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