Julia Monaghan's recent evening at King of Prussia Town Center shows how shopping has become intertwined with happy hour, yoga and even painting class.
While waiting for a coworker, Monaghan, 27, popped into Nordstrom Rack and bought two pairs of earrings and a dress. Then she and her friend walked by an outdoor area with water fountains, where yoga classes are held, to drinks at City Works. They later planned to cross the street for a painting class, with drinks, at Muse Paintbar.
"It's like you're in the middle of going downtown," said coworker Tina Parekh, 46, who lives in King of Prussia.
As some brick-and-mortar retailers struggle, there are indications that the center, which opened in booming Upper Merion Township in 2016, is thriving. Property manager Joseph Mancuso, said the 1,164 parking spaces are often at or near capacity and local owners say their restaurants are some of their best performing stores.
Mancuso called the mix of retailers, entertainment and food at the King of Prussia Town Center "fairly Amazon-proof."
"Most of what we have here, whether it is food or health and beauty, are items that you can't order online or most people don't order online," said Mancuso, managing director of CBRE Global Investors. "We're trying to create experiential retail."
The center's diverse selection of shopping, dining, and outdoor space is what one real estate executive called a "perfect example" of how developers are manufacturing an urban-like downtown in the suburbs and offering shoppers experiences they can't get online. Meanwhile, traditional suburban malls across the country are either closing or pivoting away from apparel and toward entertainment and restaurant retail — some even dropping the word "mall" from their names.
While older "lifestyle centers," such as the Providence Town Center in Collegeville, are similar to open-air malls, the King of Prussia Town Center has created a downtown-like setting with events, such as outdoor yoga, movie nights, and concerts, echoing activities on Race Street Pier or on the Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia.
"This is what retail has become," said Tom Simmons, president of the Mid-Atlantic Region at Kimco Realty. "Retail needed to change in order to be current in today's shopping environment."
This suburban renaissance happened much earlier in other hubs — such as Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Dallas — than in the Philadelphia region, said Ed McMahon, a sustainable development and environmental policy chair at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "Philadelphia was not what you would describe as a hot market city," McMahon said, "at least until recently."
Bruce Toll, principal of BET Investments, called King of Prussia, with apartments and a town center making up the Village at Valley Forge, the "perfect example" of this trend. Less than 20 miles away, he's bringing the concept to 25 acres in the Montgomery County community of Upper Dublin, where he plans 400 high-end apartments, a resort-style pool, retail on the first floor, and a 2.7-acre park with walking trails.
"This did not exist 20 years ago. It's all brand new," Toll said. "It's the way of the future for the next 15 to 20 years.
Michael Markman, BET Investments president, said his task at Upper Dublin is to create a place that people are drawn to and feel active while they're there.
"The whole placemaking thing is so much more important," he said. "It all comes down to people having the amenities at their doorstep."
As millennials start working and having children and baby boomers reach retirement, town centers are an example of how the region's suburbs are adapting to meet their needs. The young professionals and parents are looking for a walkable community with city-like retailers, and those retiring may be looking to downsize.
"Millennials don't want their parents' old suburbs, so that's a big part of it," said McMahon who is also chair of the board of directors at Main Street America, a national main street center focused on revitalizing commercial districts.
Mark Nypower and Bekka Rueda, ages 29 and 23, are among the millennials looking for something different in the suburbs. They moved out of the city and into Bryn Mawr after having a baby and now, Nypower said, it's just "so boring sometimes."
"We have neighbors but there's not much to do," Nypower, said while waiting on an outdoor bench with his fiancee and 16-month-old baby for a table at City Works in the King of Prussia Town Center. The couple thought they missed city living, but on a recent trip to Philadelphia, they said, the sidewalks are crowded and their baby couldn't really play without their fearing he could run into the street. When they want something fun to do in the suburbs, the King of Prussia town center provides options such as Duck Donuts, Fogo de Chão and an outdoor space for their baby to play.
Nypower referred to the town center as "a Philadelphia-lite."
The center's mix of restaurants, entertainment, apparel and amenities, surrounded by pedestrian areas, greenery, and housing, not only gives consumers a desired convenience, but also allows retailers to open stores in nontraditional formats or markets, said Stephanie Cegielski, a spokesperson for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Developers and communities are starting to realize that mixing retail with living and office space creates the density needed for a vibrant place where consumers spend time.
For Duck Donuts, the move to King of Prussia Town Center last summer has been a success, said Todd Rindfuss, the franchise owner. The location is one of the chain's leading stores in gross sales and volume in the country, he said. The store sees steady traffic throughout the day and attributes that to the variety of options in the "game-changer" environment of a downtown atmosphere.
"They all feed off of each other," Rindfuss said, referring to the mix of stores at the town center, "so we experience a good amount of traffic from City Works [and]… Founding Farmers."
Operators of nearby restaurants, such as Mission BBQ and Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar, said they are seeing similar success from the frequent foot traffic.
Sitting in the King of Prussia outdoor area with her 7-month-old daughter in a stroller beside her, Mary Pan thought about how it reminded her of European cities. Pan, 33, from Rome, now lives less than a 10-minute drive away. She sat on the greenery during a move night while she was pregnant and she often walks around here with Manzo, her corgi.