Not that long ago, a trip to one of America’s oldest open-air shopping centers involved a pretty straightforward proposition: You parked your car and then beelined to one of its mall-type stores to buy stuff. In and out. Bing, bang, boom.
“You would come to Macy’s and it was very underwhelming," 37-year-old Amie Sheridan told me this week after a workout at Life Time Fitness, the buzzy exercise/food/work/child-care outpost that took over Macy’s multistory anchor at the shopping center about two years ago.
If you lived on the Main Line, you’d trudge over to Suburban Square because it was easier than doing a cannonball into the super-jumbo-size indoor mall 20 minutes to the west. “It was the only option," Sheridan, a working mom of three, said, with a bit of a shrug, "beyond going to King of Prussia.” It was small. It was cozy. It was easy.
Necessity, however, has invented something quite different at this 90-year-old Main Line mainstay. And it’s amazing to behold.
Suburban Square, bloodied and bruised as much as any mall that has lost revenue and raison d’être to Amazon’s online onslaught over the last decade, is undergoing a staggering face-lift. If you remember what this place looked like just a few years ago, it’s all the more amazing.
Gone are the Banana Republic and J. Crew that, until recently, had kept this place feeling like its old self even as shoppers increasingly stopped buying at actual stores. Gone, too, is a second open-air parking lot. It was recently replaced with a parking garage.
New: boutiques and hair-styling outposts and food establishments — and buzz of much more to come.
On a sweltering few days over the past week, there was massive construction equipment along an entire block of Coulter Avenue, and a swirling concrete truck; men laying bricks along Anderson Avenue; crews doing landscaping; other squadrons working to finish a block-long new, two-story retail strip and sidewalk where, for years prior, there had been what some people called the “dollar lot” parking lot.
Where there used to be a wide concrete expanse connecting two rows of chain stores across a barren courtyard, there is now a communal square with bright lounge chairs and the same spongy green turf that developers are increasingly using to create what might pass as cozy public spaces at other high-rent real estate confections. They hold concerts and do group exercise here.
“This is my happy place,” Sheridan said when we caught up by the courtyard Wednesday. She comes almost daily to work out, to work (she’s a self-employed content strategist for sports tech product companies and uses a co-working space inside), to buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, and to just get away from the home office one town over.
I had stumbled through Suburban Square last week while waiting for a two-hour oil change around the corner on Lancaster Avenue. I’d already hung out at the newly expanded Trader Joe’s and sampled the new garage. But all this new stuff blew me away.
My colleague Inga Saffron checked in on the center’s progress over a year ago and reported early signs that it was starting to work. But I was skeptical.
For eight years I had written extensively about the retail economy, during and after the Great Recession. I’d seen many places go dark or struggle as consumers fled to cheaper and faster online shopping. Amazon has single-handedly stopped a tradition as old as time, of Homo sapiens needing to actually go somewhere, physically, to get stuff.
But here, along one of the Philadelphia region’s few Amtrak and SEPTA Regional Rail stops, in densely built and prosperous eastern Montgomery County, was a sassy and expensive attempt at a full-body makeover of a place no longer drawing people.
It’s amazing what’s possible when a large piece of real estate is controlled by a single and well-funded landlord — in this case, Kimco Realty.
Across the train tracks in downtown Ardmore, a balkanized mix of many different landlords along Lancaster Avenue and its offshoot streets have for years made wholesale transformation of that old-timey business district a far more incremental affair, even as it has allowed for more organic success.
Downtown Ardmore is sparking with its own new restaurants, apartments, ice cream and fancy dessert shops, and entertainment.
“A lot more is coming,” said Nancy Scarlato, executive director of the town’s business improvement district, Ardmore Initiative.
But at Suburban, even Scarlato admitted that reinvention is happening at what seems like superhuman speed.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
The same level of awe was apparent when I talked to 82-year-old merchant George Breslau. His store, The Paperia, has designed custom invitations for 29 years at Suburban Square.
“This place is going to be jumping a year from now,” he said while peering through a front window toward construction on Coulter Avenue.
His neighbor on Coulter, family-owned jewelry store Dandelion, has been there 40 years and found it challenging to cope with all the construction. It’s kept some customers away, said manager Lynn Spiller. But change is also essential.
“Nobody wants to go to the mall,” Spiller said. “People avoid it, tell me all the time that they want to come here, and walk around.”