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Turning The Gallery into a showcase

In Philadelphia, old and distinguished places like Independence Mall are cherished along with the new and exciting, like Citizens Bank Park.

In Philadelphia, old and distinguished places like Independence Mall are cherished along with the new and exciting, like Citizens Bank Park.

The Gallery at Market East is not aged enough to be loved and it's certainly not new, stuck in a suburban time warp when teens roamed malls with Sony Walkmans and pinch-rolled jeans. Today, most people live in fear of the teens who roam The Gallery.

The Gallery is Market East's foundation, though, and it needs a face-lift, not a wrecking ball, to update its dark tiles, incandescent bulbs, dusty plants and bad public image. The outside may need a sledgehammer or two to open up its blank walls to the thousands who pass it by every day.

"It's just a concrete box," said City Councilman Frank DiCicco. "Walking in front of Macy's [across from City Hall], it just feels different. It feels better. That's what the shopping district should be. We are an inner city. We're not suburbia."

The issues of suburban vs. urban, high-end vs. low-end are perceptions that have played into The Gallery's and Market East's troubles, allowing some to simply write it off as another dead American mall. It's not dead, and plans to redevelop The Gallery need to keep its current customers in mind.

On a recent weekday afternoon, The Gallery's lowest floors were filled with mostly black, Hispanic and Asian customers. The food court was hot and poorly-lit, but there wasn't a seat to be found.

Gabriel Gottlieb, a city real-estate agent, said that The Gallery wasn't a major destination for Center City residents from the beginning, and became even less of one after it catered to "poorer or middle-class customers."

"It's either not fancy enough for them or not trendy enough for them," he said. "They want something different than the suburbs."

The Gallery is basically no different from a suburban mall, like Cherry Hill; it just happens to be dropped into an alien environment of busy city streets. Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust owns both malls, but although Cherry Hill Mall underwent a recent $200 million overhaul, The Gallery has seen only minor changes over the decades and has never adapted to the city.

The architectural firm hired by PREIT to draw up redevelopment plans thinks that the space needs unique tenants, like bowling alleys and movie theaters on its upper floors, and, more important, more entrances on the street, where those blank walls are. In a way, The Gallery needs to turn inside out, a concept the city adopted in its strategic plan for Market East.

"We're going to get rid of the idea of a mall," said Stanton Eckstut, of EE & K Architects.

A PREIT spokeswoman said that the company isn't ready to announce redevelopment plans, although The Pavilion at Market East is listed as a "development" project on PREIT's website.

Paul Levy, of the Center City District, said that PREIT is working with the city on complications related to the site, including ownership, along with potential new tenants whose agreements could boost revenue. The city owns the land beneath The Gallery.

In the food court, Norman Ransome, 75, of West Philadelphia, didn't really feel that the place needed any redevelopment at all.

"It pretty much has everything you need," he said. "I'm satisfied."