As malls continue to suffer, those who have watched the crumbling of brick-and-mortar retail are looking for innovative ways to reinvigorate them.

It’s why a developer has proposed to build 600 high-end apartments at Oxford Valley Mall in Bucks County, and another wants to build an indoor sports center at Voorhees Town Center’s former Macy’s store in New Jersey. The mall’s food court, town officials said, could be transformed into a modern hangout, complete with microbreweries, widescreen TVs, and finger food.

Voorhees Town Center.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff
Voorhees Town Center.

The plan is to “make it more of a Dave & Buster’s type of environment,” said Mario DiNatale, director of community and economic development for Voorhees Township.

Elsewhere, builders are ambitiously eyeballing languishing malls.

Developer Cornerstone Tracy and Simon Property Group, the largest shopping mall corporation in the United States, have proposed building hundreds of luxury apartments at Oxford Valley Mall in an effort to revitalize the shopping center. Like other malls, Oxford Valley has struggled over the years, losing two of its four anchor stores and numerous smaller shops. The mall is now bookended with JCPenney and Macy’s, with 140 vendors within.

“Their argument is, the new multi-family apartments will drive the future of the mall and actually attract retailers and shops and restaurants, so that’s really the theory,” said Pat Duffy, Middletown Township director of building and zoning. “So that’s what we’re looking at right now — looking at whether that argument makes sense, whether the 600 apartments make sense.”

“They’ve got a nice big area to work with," he said. "But we have no idea what kind of stores, shops, or restaurants would be coming in.”

As online sales have cut into traditional retail, thousands of mall stores have shuttered, with some — Sears, Payless ShoeSource, and Charlotte Russe — filing for bankruptcy. More than 7,500 major retailers’ stores have shut down so far this year, compared with 5,524 in 2018, according to Coresight Research, a global research firm that studies retail trends. According to the firm, 4,500 stores could close in the remainder of 2019.

A crowd at the Oxford Valley Mall.
Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer
A crowd at the Oxford Valley Mall.

As shopping centers have hemorrhaged retailers, some malls — including some local ones — have made the drastic move of closing. A website, Dead Malls, has documented mall closures across the country. And nationwide, town officials are left questioning what can be done with empty shopping complexes.

“It’s what’s been happening to a bunch of malls, a bunch of retail," Duffy said.

Bigger malls, such as King of Prussia, with higher-end anchor stores and luxury boutiques, have been more fortunate than local counterparts that are often classified as “Class B” or “Class C” malls.

So in places like Voorhees and Middletown Township, where the malls lack luxury retailers, town officials and developers have had to get creative.

“We needed to do something a little out of the box,” DiNatale said. “The trends across the country seem to be going the direction we’re going.”