Correction: The original version misstated the date Gallery II opened. It was in October 1983. Market East Station (now Jefferson Station) opened in 1984.

THE NEWS STAND. Toys "R"Us. Easy Pickins. Taco Bell.

One by one, stores and eateries have been closing at the Gallery in recent weeks as the clock ticks down for a major renovation of the nearly 40-year-old Center City mall that stretches along Market Street from 8th to 11th.

At the FYE entertainment-media store, signs tell customers to visit the store's Broad and Chestnut location. Large red-and-yellow banners hawking huge markdowns hang from the ceiling.

During the past several days, FYE added a "count-down-to-closing" sign: "Final 7 Days," it said yesterday. But an employee said the sign should have said "6 Days" since the store will close Monday.

A number of stores in the newer Gallery II, which abuts SEPTA's Jefferson Station, will remain open, employees said, including its anchor store, Burlington Coat Factory.

The abrupt closings and silence from the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), which manages the mostly city-owned property, has everyone - customers, merchants, commuters - asking questions:

* How long will the mall be closed?

A few merchants told the Daily News that Gallery I will be closed first - for two or three years, the first step in a phased renovation of the mall, which once housed 130 stores.

* When will Gallery I and Gallery II be closed to shoppers?

* Will a few stores remain open through the renovations?

* Will commuters have access to the Regional Rail system, Market-Frankford El and PATCO Speedline as they now do?

Jerri Williams, a SEPTA spokeswoman, said transit officials are scheduled to meet with PREIT this week to discuss the impact the closure will have on the 13,000 commuters who use Jefferson Station each weekday.

Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said: "I believe that there will be continuing public access from the street on 10th and 11th," just as they do when the Gallery is closed during normal operations.

Fran O'Brien, a spokeswoman for PATCO, which operates New Jersey trains to Philadelphia, said her agency is "in a holding pattern until we get more specifics from [PREIT]" about how renovations will affect more than 5,000 PATCO daily commuters who use the line's 8th and Market station.

A PREIT spokeswoman said her company understands the curiosity, but hasn't yet finished its plans.

"We are currently in the process of finalizing our redevelopment plans for the Gallery," Heather Crowell, PREIT's Philadelphia vice president for communications and investor relations, wrote in an email.

"As construction phasing details become available, we intend to provide updates. To the extent any significant portions of the building are closed to the public, we will of course be sensitive to maintaining access to mass transit."

Even a construction worker near the field office of Shoemaker Skanska, the joint-venture company that renovated the space for the new Century 21 store, in the old Strawbridge's building at 8th and Market, didn't know when the renovations would begin.

"We don't know, " he said. "It changes every day.

Renewal key to future

McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, said he couldn't say what the economic impact of a mall shutdown for two or more years would mean for the city.

But he added:

"The mayor continues to believe that the redevelopment of the Gallery will be a major boost to Market East and to Philadelphia, which is why it remains a priority for his administration."

Some employees and customers said they are excited about plans to renovate the Gallery.

"I think it's a great idea," said Danielle Mellanson, who works at Call It Spring shoe store.

"We're right next to the Convention Center. . . . People are coming in from all over the country, and from all over the world, and we don't have much to offer them now.

"I'm excited. I can't wait to see what it will look like."

At the Hallmark card shop on the lower level, employees say they don't know when, or if, the store is closing.

"Every day customers ask us when we're closing, and we tell them we don't know," said one saleswoman. "We've put out our Valentine's Day cards, but we don't know if we'll be here for the holiday."

Lateysha Black, 23, was browsing at FYE last week and said she had not heard that the Gallery may close temporarily.

"I love coming here," said Black, a home health-care aide. "If I can't come here, I guess I will do everything online. I don't have a car, so I can't go to King of Prussia or Cherry Hill [malls]."

"I feel sad about it closing," said Shirley Knight, of Logan, a custodial worker at Philadelphia International Airport.

She said that on her way home from work, she gets off at Jefferson Station and spends some time shopping before walking through the mall to the Market-Frankford El at 8th and Market to go home.

Knight stopped at the mall last week to have jewelry repaired at a kiosk run by George Thomas, who has been in business at the Gallery for 20 years. Thomas, meanwhile, said he will be moving to a new store on South Street, near 6th.

Opened in 1977

The Gallery at Market East opened in 1977, anchored by the Strawbridge & Clothier and Gimbels department stores, ballyhooed as one of the nation's first urban malls.

Gallery II opened in October 1983, with the opening of SEPTA's new Market East Station.

PREIT leases the mall from the city's Redevelopment Authority (RDA), according to Luke Butler, chief of staff to Alan Greenberger, the city's deputy mayor for economic development.

While PREIT owns the anchor buildings housing Burlington Coat Factory and Century 21, the mall space in between is owned by the RDA.

Last February, Greenberger told the Inquirer that the city is working on a new lease that would give PREIT control of the entire property.

"Once that lease is finished, PREIT will seek private financing for the substantial renovation of the Gallery," McDonald told the Inquirer in November. "The city has been asked for help to fill in any gaps in that funding. We are working on the issues, including the lease and funding, and we don't have a final plan in place." Alluding to other redevelopment plans for the south side of Market Street between 11th and 12th, including new retail stores and a 322-unit apartment building, Butler said the city has made revitalizing Market East a high priority.

"Over the next couple of years, there will be a lot of new retail opportunities and economic development along Market Street," Butler said.

Making the Gallery more attractive is a crucial part of that plan.

"That's been a big part of our discussions: How do you open the Gallery up to the street level and really engage pedestrians?" Butler said.

"With the Market East development on the south side of the street, the proposed redevelopment of the Gallery and with the arrival of major national Gallery retailers like Century 21, everything is aligning at the right time to really transform Market Street and bring it back to some of its former glory."

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