Saturday, January 19, 2013

MONTAGE: Stratification across the river.

Late last year I featured an article on the unusual Oxford Valley Mall in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a mostly upper-middle income suburban region of Philadelphia.  It’s a distinctive mall because it’s simultaneously both low-rent and affluent: it has such high-end tenants as Williams Sonoma or Swarovski, but it also has Five Below, Dollar Hut, and a number of mom-and-pop establishments that you’d typically only see in struggling or dying malls.  This is unusual, since most malls either assume a uniformly upward trajectory, or they manifest their gradual decline.  Meanwhile, Oxford Valley has a higher vacancy rate than it probably should, especially since one of the four department stores has been empty for several years.  But it’s still attracting new tenants, both fancy and downmarket: Sephora (the former) and H&R Block (the latter) are opening in the mall over the upcoming weeks.  So what’s the verdict on Oxford Valley?  Is it on the fritz or will it persevere?

I’m not from Bucks County and haven’t gotten to witness it over the years, so it’s hard for me to form much of a judgment.  But it’s not the only mall in the area that suffers from this strange split personality.  Just across the river, in Windsor Township, New Jersey, the Quaker Bridge Mall must grapple with an equally uncertain future. 

It’s not far at all: less than 15 miles from Oxford Valley.  Like the Pennsylvania mall, Simon Property Group manages the space.  In fact, the story here is so similar to its predecessor, I’m going to intervene minimally with text and let the pictures tell most of the story.

Quaker Bridge Mall opened in 1975, just two years after Oxford Valley.  Like its Pennsylvania counterpart, Quaker Bridge sits in a mostly affluent suburban area, just a stone’s throw away from Route 1.  It, too, contains over one million square feet across two floors, though Oxford Valley has it beat in size by about a quarter million.  (Quaker Bridge just barely passes the one million mark.)  Both malls feature four department stores, though only Quaker Bridge can claim occupancy in all of them.  The ubiquitous J.C. Penney, Sears, and Macy’s take three of the spaces, while Quaker Bridge’s most prestigious department store is the Lord and Taylor, featured above.

In addition, if one were to judge the affluence of a mall by its interior aesthetics, Quaker Bridge would probably come out ahead.

The shiny, white faux-marble floors and the relative lack of ornamentation evoke contemporary notions of privileged consumption a bit more precisely than the dowdy, middlebrow appearance of Oxford Valley.  To top it off, Simon Property Group (50% owner as well as manager) was investing in a full renovation at the end of 2012.

Apparently, until recently, Simon had bolder ambitions for this property: the company hoped to inject a distinctively upscale vibe through a 600,000 square foot expansion that would include Nordstrom, Nieman Marcus, and about 100 new inline stores and restaurants.  The recession a few years later put the kibosh on those plans, and these days the renovations are a bit more modest: new flooring, ceilings, lighting, signage, hand railings, and landscaping.  And apparently within the past year, Simon leased a newly constructed space to The Cheesecake Factory attached to the mall and widely visible from the parking lot.

The presence of a recognized restaurant chain at Quaker Bridge further enhances its advantage over Oxford Valley; while the Bucks County mall can claim a few outparcel restaurants, none are physically connected to the mall.  A drive around the perimeter of Oxford Valley reveals nothing more than a blank wall; the mall orients itself completely inward.  Simon also has made no announcements regarding any upgrades at Oxford Valley.  Regardless of the scaled-down ambitions at Quaker Bridge, the fact that Simon Property Group has invested in both renovation and new restaurant construction suggests the company’s confidence in the long-term viability in the mall.

All of the above conditions indicate that Quaker Bridge enjoys more auspicious economic forecasts than its counterpart across the Delaware River.  But does it?   To the right of The Cheesecake Factory in the photo above is an entrance to the mall, and as soon as a visitor walks through the doors, this is what he or she sees:

The checkerboard motif coupled with intermittent yellow accents suggests California Pizza Kitchen to me, though if Quaker Bridge hosted a branch of this popular restaurant in the past, it must have folded a long time ago; I can find no online evidence that it existed here.  Across from the old CPK?

The photo featured earlier, with the renovation explanations, also shrouds a huge vacant in-line storefront.  This entire minor entrance corridor is vacant.  Proceeding through this passageway to the mall’s main commercial spine, the vacancies are glaring:

Quite a few on the upper floor as well.  It has reliable tenants, like New York and Company:

And a Hallmark store, which seems to be more prevalent in the Northeast than it does in the Midwest.

The typically commodious Forever 21 seems to be taking a major space in the near future:

But much of the floor is patchy.

That Wendy’s is a real oddity.  It’s all by itself on the second floor—no other restaurants nearby.  In mall milieus, one usually finds a Wendy’s in either the food court or an outparcel in the vast parking lot.  The fact that the Wendy’s is isolated reveals two other leasing hurdles the mall is trying to overcome.  The first of these hurdles is that the mall currently lacks any real food court.

Apparently one is on the way, but, in the meantime, the management has crammed remaining fast-food eateries in an unpleasant passageway leading to another mall exit.

Not much to look at, and the eatery options are meager.  Despite the thick crowds, this hallway cannot attract better tenants than a locally owned convenience store:

One typically only sees the likes of QB Express in seriously struggling malls.  The second of the two hurdles that explains the oddly located Wendy’s is that the mall didn’t need an appropriate tenant at this space; it just needed any tenant.  To put it frankly, Quaker Bridge will take whatever tenant it can get to put a dent in its approximately 20% in-line vacancy rate.

So maybe Quaker Bridge is floundering?  The Star-Ledger article that I cited earlier acknowledged that the mall recently ushered in a slew of new upscale online tenants, such as Michael Kors, Sephora, Teavana, and Sur la Table.  It also can claim the following choosy tenants:

And a few other specialty retailers are on their way:

But the current retail mix does not seem like the type that could usher in a Neiman Marcus.  I was quite surprised to see cash-for-gold store at this mall—a service that spouted like mushrooms about the time of the Great Recession.

And just take a look at the mall’s deadest wing, over by J.C. Penney:

The notion that J.C. Penney would be the least active section of a mall surprised me; after all, most of my mall tours of the past have proven that Sears is the typical Achilles’ heel.  (I blogged about it a while ago.)  But the general profile of the J.C Penney wing at Quaker Bridge is emptiness or unknown mom-and-pop stores.

As far as I can tell, this is the only location in the nation for Pelle and Company.  It doesn’t seem to have a website.  Just a few yards away, Belgium Jewelers reminds me of the sort of retailer one might see in a second or third-tier mall in Dubai:

Peering over the balcony to the floor below, witness another unknown:

The only other location for this mom-and-pop called Rubee?  None other than Oxford Valley Mall.  Rubee doesn’t have its own domain, but at least it has a Facebook page.  Elsewhere on the lower floor are a few more obscurities:

The Grand Fragrances store again looks like exactly something from Dubai of the 1990s.  Another little-known vendor along the J.C. Penney wing seems to have folded.

Meanwhile, Arthur Murray Dance Studio may be a national name, but its reduced hours and relative lack of impromptu visitors makes it an undesirable fit for a major mall.

After all, it was already closing down on the busy weekend night that I took these photos.  Simon Property wouldn’t even consider a dance studio if this mall commanded top-dollar leases.  The bleakest part of the J.C. Penney wing, however, is the cluster of inline stores directly abutting the entrance to J.C. Penney’s itself.

A Payless Shoes in a mall with upscale aspirations?  Not likely.  But J.C. Penney has suffered meager revenues these past few years, and, despite all the renovations taking place at the Quaker Bridge Mall, the management at J.C. Penney’s has apparently postponed updating this particular branch to the new “jcp” logo that is becoming more commonplace.  Then again, since it’s the third logoin as many years, it’s probably understandable that a floundering department store isn’t willing to hedge its bets at a conspicuously transitional mall.

As mentioned earlier, demographics around Quaker Bridge loosely echo those of Oxford Valley: both are mostly upper-middle class suburban areas with large foreign-born populations, which lean poorer in the older urban sections and wealthier in the newer exurbs.  This New Jersey side may be more extreme though: just a few miles away down Route 1 from Quaker Bridge sits the state capital, Trenton, a swatch of intensely concentrated poverty.  Conversely, the neighboring suburbs of Princeton and West Windsor Township far surpass anything in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in terms of affluence.  But Quaker Bridge also hosts a more intensive concentration of retail within a mile radius, because several newish “power centers” (inward turning strip malls) stretch along this same segment of Route 1: Mercer Mall, Nassau Park Mall, Windsor Green, and the Square at West Windsor.  The purlieus of Quaker Bridge Mall offer a ton of shopping options, all of them competitors of Simon Property Group with discrete goals of skimming away some of the choicier tenants at the forty-year-old enclosed mall.

Quaker Bridge might be more worthy than Oxford Valley of a follow-up blog in a year or two; it is, after all, under renovation (albeit a modest one), and it would be interesting to see if Simon’s original vision ever materializes.  At present, though, all the judgments I made in my Oxford Valley article—income disparities, the over representation of malls, and the increasingly diverse consumer base—still apply at Quaker Bridge.  The economic fortunes of these two populous, culturally dissimilar states may ultimately prove the stronger determining factor regarding which (if any) mall prevails.