For most shopping centers, a busy parking lot means busy stores. At Cheltenham Square Mall, on the other hand, the well-trod blacktop masks a big problem within.
"There's, like, nothing in there," Kayla Smith-Campbell said Tuesday, glancing across the parking lot where a DSW shoe store closed last month, leaving only a sun-bleached outline of its old marquee.
Inside the 1950s-era mall, more than half of the five dozen stores are shuttered. Those that remain sometimes go entire days without seeing a sale, several clerks said. Of the handful of visitors in the mall at midday Tuesday, half said they were there for the air-conditioning or taking a shortcut to the Target store on the other side.
That's where Smith-Campbell was heading Tuesday. It turns out almost all of the cars in the parking lots were patronizing the freestanding big-box stores - Target, ShopRite, the Home Depot.
Area residents, whether they patronize the mall or not, say a change is long overdue.
"They need to put something people will want to shop at," said Juanette Long, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and was working last week at a phone-repair kiosk. "I don't want it to be a ghost town when I look out my front door."
The mall's new owners are working on a revitalization plan that would add more major national retailers, tear off the roof, and open up the empty corridors.
"We are moving pretty rapidly toward 'de-malling,' " said Abe Tress, director of operations at Sun Equity Partners. "The interior mall, small closed retail space, just doesn't work anymore."
The new retailers could include a fitness center, a new furniture store, a pet-supply store, and more restaurants, Tress said. With the center portion of the mall opened up, there would be more square footage and more parking, and drivers could see the stores from the busy frontages on Cheltenham Avenue, Washington Lane, and Route 309.
The mall's location - bordering Philadelphia in suburban Montgomery County - and large potential customer base make it prime real estate for national retailers, Tress said.
The area's demographics are slightly blacker than Cheltenham and slightly whiter than North Philadelphia, with a rotating contingent of college students from Arcadia and Salus Universities.
"Retailers come down there . . . they love the neighborhood," Tress said. But the area is built out with densely packed residential, so aside from the mall, "there's no room for them to go."
In its heyday, through the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the Cheltenham Mall was a place everyone in the neighborhood shopped.
In 1986, "when Gimbels closed, as a chain, that was an emotional blow," said Brad Pransky, a member of the Cheltenham Township Community Development Corp. "Like losing an old friend."
By the '90s, the mall was in decline, and crime on the rise, including shootings, brawls, and stabbings in the movie theater and parking lots.
In 2005, it was sold to Thor Equities for $71.5 million. This January, following a bankruptcy, it sold for less than half that amount to the New York-based retail redeveloper Sun Equity.
The "de-malling" approach worked well for Cheltenham Mall's nearest competitor, Cedarbrook Plaza, which razed the roof in the mid-1990s and now has Walmart, Ross, Payless ShoeSource, Cold Stone Creamery, and a dozen other small retailers fronting the parking lots.
Full plans for the Cheltenham Mall renovation are expected to be presented to the Planning Commission next month. Tress said they hope to begin construction this winter and reopen by January 2017.
Many longtime tenants are anxious about what will happen in the interim.
"It's killing me. It really is. I don't know what to do, how much to order for fall, whether we'll still be in business at Christmas," said Mike R., owner of the Mike Stevens menswear store.
With a loyal clientele for his flashy shoes, hats, suits, and accessories, Mike said, his store has fared better than most.
"When I opened in 1971, there were nine men's stores in the area," he said. "I'm the only one left. I'm a destination store now."
Township Manager Bryan Havir said Cheltenham is still hoping to get a couple of retailers like Urban Outfitters to cater to students from nearby Arcadia or Salus Universities.
Smith-Campbell and her husband, who live in West Oak Lane, said they go to Target for pharmacy and household items. But for real shopping they will drive five miles to the Willow Grove Mall, 15 miles to Cherry Hill, or 20 miles to King of Prussia.
Long, who works at the phone kiosk, said it will be tough to find a balance of stores to reflect the diverse clientele.
"You get people coming over from [suburban] Wyncote, but you also get a lot of people get off the bus and walk over to the mall," she said.
Linda Mapp, a clerk at a store that sells mostly African American art, said customers mainly find them through word of mouth. She also lives in the neighborhood and was concerned about which stores might be coming in.
"I'm a walker. I don't have a car, so it would be very inconvenient to me" if the mall closed or switched to stores she doesn't need, Mapp said.
Tress said he couldn't name any of the retailers being signed yet but confirmed that the mall is going to remain largely a discount and midmarket shopping center.
"You're not going to see a Saks here," he said.