If Philadelphia were a basketball court, Market Street East would be that inexplicable dead spot on the floor, the place where the ball just doesn't bounce.

The eight-block corridor has four Dunkin' Donuts stores and two Subway sandwich shops - but no outdoor cafe. A McDonald's sits in what used to be a porn emporium.

The midstreet shopping selection on what should be a glittery avenue ranges from drugstore to cut-rate clothing to cash for gold. Addicts come and go from a methadone clinic. The homeless own the corners, and the constant rolling wall of buses fouls the air.

For years, when people like Paul Levy pitched the route's potential to developers, they answered: "Yeah, I get it, but nobody goes to Market Street."

Now that's changing - fast.

People involved in massive construction plans say that, finally, Market East is poised to become the worthy, prosperous connector of Center City's two great icons, City Hall and Independence Mall.

"The pieces are in place," said Levy, president of the Center City District, the marketing and planning agency. "Inevitable may be too strong a word, but very highly likely."

Others share that confidence.

"I think we're closer now than we've ever been to a complete transformation of the area, and the creation of a dynamic district," said James Cuorato, chair of the city Redevelopment Authority and president of the Independence Visitor Center. "Smart developers now are looking at this and saying, 'This is the time, this is the place.' "

Gaze into the store windows on the south side of Market between 11th and 12th and you see . . . sky. Storefronts are all that remain as demolition clears land for a $230 million, 322-apartment housing and retail complex. The first announced tenant is Mom's Organic Market, a hip gourmet food chain based in Maryland.

Across the street, the bunkerlike Gallery mall is fast emptying of stores in preparation for a major overhaul. Discount designer-clothing vendor Century 21 opened as a new east-end anchor in October, a confident first step into the future, and every week there's a new rumor of interest from brand-name stores.

"We're seeing a lot of retail activity - finally," said Laurence Steinberg, senior vice president at CBRE, the global real estate giant.

He said his company was close to placing a Target Express store just south, in the Brickstone Cos. development being built on the 1100 block of Chestnut Street. Shops and 112 luxury apartments are planned on a block now defined by a Dollar-O-Mart.

But big questions remain: What exactly will happen to the Gallery? Can the mere presence of new stores create a more upscale sales market?

Prime parcels on Market East serve as parking lots and garages, deadening the area. There's no clear sign the owners intend to build or sell.

The open-air lot at Eighth, site of the old Gimbel Bros. department store, is a main piece of the property puzzle. Over the years, it has been the planned home of a corporate tower, a Sears, a Disney entertainment center, a Target, and a gambling casino. Today, it's just pavement and cars.

Owner Ken Goldenberg, the well-known developer, declined to discuss the future of the property.

Still, said Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, there's no doubt something is happening, that some alignment of planets and suns is shining on Market East.

"Does that translate into bricks and mortar and hard capital?" he asked. "I would be cautiously optimistic that this might be the time."

But he added:

"We've seen plans come and go in this city. Lots of times. And that's the real question. What's different this time?"

Two major mistakes

In 1963, city fathers had the plan for a better Market East figured out:

An overhead promenade would run uninterrupted from City Hall to Independence Hall, and new, glass-enclosed skybridges would connect the grand department stores, combining their retail power.

The north side would become an open, multilevel subway concourse and pedestrian walkway, replete with stores, gardens, and sculpture, making arrival in Center City "an unbroken series of attractive and pleasant experiences."

The noisy, smoggy buses would be moved north, and a landscaped esplanade would compete with the greenery sprouting at upstart suburban malls.

The only question raised in the "Plan for Center City" about nearby Chestnut Street was how to make it even more alluring, to further enhance its array of fine restaurants and clothing shops. The answer: Close it to traffic and create a pedestrian mall.

Though it was unlikely the crowds would render Chestnut's sidewalks impassable, the study said, it would be best to widen them, just in case.

But the planners made a couple of crucial mistakes.

One, they believed the city population would grow slightly through 1980, reaching about 2.2 million. And two, they assumed the majestic department stores were permanent.

"There's a certain amount of denial there," said Michael Lisicky, a department-store historian who grew up in Cherry Hill. "Center City was doing OK, but it was slipping."

At the same time city planners were promoting a vibrant new vision of Market East, Philadelphia's population entered free fall - dropping 24 percent between 1960 and 2000. The department stores that seemed robust in 1963 had in fact passed their peak, soon to be pummeled by malls and discount dealers.

N. Snellenburg & Co. closed in 1962. Lit Bros. fell in 1977. Gimbels moved to the Gallery that same year - and died there in 1986. Strawbridge & Clothier disappeared in a series of mergers, and John Wanamaker was sold and resold, becoming a Macy's in 2006.

Today, it's the lone survivor on a street that's become a model of disinvestment.

Powered by millennials

At a brisk pace, it takes 12 minutes to walk from the hall to the mall, a distance that covers sixth-tenths of a mile and 300 years of history.

Market Street was originally called High Street, built wide to support fish and vegetable markets. In 1853, its name was changed to match its use.

Market East has long been known as a place of landmarks. At Seventh, in the (since-reconstructed) Graff House, Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence. The President's House at Sixth served as the nation's first White House.

The PSFS Building, now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, was among the first International Style buildings in the country when it opened in 1932.

None of those institutions could power Market Street's rise.

So what's different now? Why, after decades of failed plans and promises, is money flowing to Market East?

A big reason is the rising number of young people moving to Philadelphia. Since 2006, no major city has had a larger percentage increase in 20- to 34-year-olds. The highest concentrations of millennials live in and near Center City, fueling demand for restaurants and stores.

The central Philadelphia housing boom shows no sign of flagging, according to new Center City District data. And Market East, despite its rich history, has room for development.

For instance, two properties at Seventh, including one recently vacated by Liberty Wheels, which helps disabled people, are empty and being offered for offices or stores.

Another factor in favor of renewal, hard to quantify but meaningful: the momentum generated by the changing arc of the city's narrative.

Today, people who want to build or buy in Philadelphia don't have to make a decision based on faith - they can see the reality of resurrected neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties and Franklintown. They see the attention paid by outsiders.

Travel and Leisure magazine called Philadelphia "America's next great food city." The New York Times ranked the city third in the world on its 2015 list of "Places to Go." The pope is coming in September, and last month, Philadelphia was named host of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

"This is one of the best times to be in Philadelphia, because of everything that's happening," said Alex Ridyard, 27, who moved here from San Francisco for family reasons. "It's uplifting to live in a place that you see striving to be better."

A difficult problem

Alan Greenberger calls it the true test of a city street: the Mother Question. As in, would I let my mother walk down this street alone at night?

For Market East, the deputy mayor said, right now the answer is probably no. The street is good on the west end, with Macy's and the hotels, and good enough on the east.

The problem lies in the middle, specifically in the Gallery - the most complex piece of any Market East renaissance.

When the Gallery opened on Aug. 11, 1977, an estimated 100,000 people jammed through the doors, making it almost impossible to actually shop. Bagpipers sounded a salute, and organ grinder Terry Bruno performed with his monkey, Chi Quita Banana.

The Gallery even featured a "luncheon center," soon to be universally known as a food court. In the first four days, the cheesesteak place sold one ton of meat.

"Like a heart transplant in the decaying body of Market Street East," exulted Inquirer columnist Dorothy Storck.

Plans for Gallery II surged forward, and on Oct. 12, 1983, balloons dropped from the mall ceiling to celebrate the expansion. The actor Jack Klugman, famous as half of The Odd Couple, greeted shoppers at Jack's Corn Crib, a popcorn store his brother ran.

But the Gallery created unexpected challenges. It siphoned the vitality off Market, bringing it indoors. The huge exterior walls barred movement across Market. Filbert Street, facing the Gallery's back side, became more alley than road.

Over time, as Philadelphia struggled, pricier stores moved out. Goodbye, men's suits. Hello, airbrushed T-shirts. The Gallery ran through more anchors than the Navy, and the homeless and addicted turned the food court into their living room.

Today, it might prove harder to fix the Gallery than it was to build it.

"I've seen my share of complicated projects," said Cuorato, who worked on the Gallery's creation as a young project manager. "But this has to be the most complicated."

The Redevelopment Authority owns the land and the shell of the mall building, and the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, known as PREIT, holds a long-term lease on the interior spaces. It subleases those slots to stores, many of which have now been booted out.

PREIT executives declined to answer specific questions about the Gallery's future. It's expected the renovation will break down the mall's exterior walls and add doors, windows, and cafes to open and enliven the area.

"We know we will deliver a product that Philadelphia residents, commuters, and visitors will love," said a statement from Joe Coradino, CEO of PREIT, which last year joined with the Macerich Co. of California to redevelop the mall.

Macerich brings not only financial muscle but experience running malls in cities.

People who have talked with PREIT executives say their aspirations include an Eataly restaurant and a Cineplex movie theater. There's speculation the Gallery will become a discount-fashion mall, as Macerich runs Fashion Outlets in Chicago and Niagara Falls, N.Y., with stores including American Eagle Outfitters, Burberry, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Merrell, Perry Ellis, Tommy Hilfiger, and Zumiez.

In Philadelphia, company and city officials are discussing the details of an agreement to give PREIT control of the entire property - "pivotal for a serious makeover," Greenberger said.

An agreement could be signed within 90 days. Sometime after that, the middle of Market will become a construction zone.

Greenberger thinks Century 21 could be a prototype for new stores, offering quality products at lower prices as a way to draw shoppers of all income levels.

Others wonder whether better-off customers will visit the Gallery, ailed by reputation as well as architecture. By comparison, knocking down and putting up buildings seems simple.

"East Market is relatively discrete, relatively easy," Drexel's Steinberg said. "The Gallery is the real hard part."

Living on foot traffic

Mandi Haney's seat is cardboard on concrete, a sidewalk spot in front of a Rite Aid store.

On a recent Monday, she was losing a fight against the 26-degree cold, planning to spend the night by a Burger King where a partition blocks the wind.

Others sleep there, too. Market East has lots of homeless people.

Haney, 34, looks east to Independence Mall and west to City Hall - fearing what might go between them if the empty storefronts that boast "Retail and Office Space Available" sign tenants that push out people like her.

Electronic billboards blazed to life atop the old Lits Building in January, incandescent proof of change to come.

"I'm worried about it, because I'm homeless," she said. "The foot traffic is how I eat."

Others ask: Who will come to Market Street? How will they alter it? What will a new Market East look like?

Answers could come soon.

"There was a time when Market East was a crown jewel," said Lisicky, the historian. "Mall to hall, you've still got the bookends. Now they've got to fill in the middle."

INSIDE

An overview of plans for the Market Street corridor. A16.EndText

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