From one end, the former Echelon Mall in Voorhees looks much as it always did: anchor stores Macy's and Boscov's floating in a sea of parking spaces.
But on the other side, a village is rising where Sears and J.C. Penney once reigned.
Following a national mall-makeover trend, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) of Philadelphia is redeveloping the ailing Echelon into Voorhees Town Center, a mixture of housing, shops and offices.
"Echelon Mall was too big and outdated," said Marc Policarpo, senior vice president at commercial real estate company Binswanger and a South Jersey Chamber of Commerce board member. "PREIT is doing the right thing."
Approved in 2006, the Main Street-style project is taking tangible shape, with the first apartments expected to rent in March.
"We expect it's going to be the heartbeat of the community," Mayor Michael Mignogna said.
Santa is presiding, as usual, in Macy's Court, but this year he looks out at a giant Christmas tree in a new outdoor plaza, which eventually will link to a business-lined boulevard leading into the residential area. Under construction in former parking lots are 317 apartments and 108 condominiums.
For ground-floor retail below the residences, PREIT is marketing to the "best of the breed" from the region - salons, spas, restaurants and services, said Joseph F. Coradino, president of PREIT services.
The first step in redevelopment was renovating and "right-sizing" the mall to half its previous size. PREIT added features, such as a Krazy City arcade and game center, but some storefronts remain vacant, and Boscov's is in bankruptcy. Shoppers were scarce one day last week, and community-event advertising kiosks were months out of date.
Despite the times, PREIT is encountering "a good reception" from potential boulevard tenants, Coradino said, although "the economy has slowed things a bit."
Upon completion, the boulevard will host periodic community concerts and festivals, Mignogna said.
Marylee Margolis, who lives about two-tenths of a mile from the mall, said she thought neighbors would welcome those events. She recalled people "mobbing the area" when the mall sponsored fireworks.
"PREIT realizes this is a very unusual limited space with residential very close," she said. "I have high hopes for it all."
Three years ago, Margolis and other residents fought the township over the property's future. The initial mall revival revolved around a Wal-Mart superstore, which residents strongly opposed.
"We feared the Wal-Mart would thrive and the rest of the mall would fold," said Lori Volpe of Voorhees.
At the request of community activists in 2006, Voorhees architect Jim Baumann drew up a pedestrian-friendly village as an alternative to the big-box anchor and presented it to PREIT and the township planning board.
"We wanted more sidewalks and bike paths - more connections to the nearby community," Baumann said. "You still really have to drive there.
"The verdict is still out on what we'll end up with. It depends on the mix they get. But it's much better than a Wal-Mart and big-box stores."
Instead of a grocery store, which Baumann saw as integral to a walkable neighborhood, PREIT built a 50,000-square-foot office building, now occupied by a 175-employee advertising agency.
Tim Evans, research director of the smart-growth advocacy group New Jersey Future, said his attitude toward enclosed malls had softened, especially when comparing them with other shopping options. While malls do require car travel, he said, at least shoppers can accomplish multiple errands in one trip, saving gas and reducing air pollution.
Mignogna said Voorhees expected an infusion of tax money from the improved properties. By the project's completion in 2010, the 80-acre property is expected to generate about $2.9 million in taxes to be shared by the town, schools, county and fire district.
Without some kind of change, Echelon, like other aging malls, was headed in a decidedly different direction, residents, developers and township officials agreed.
A 2001 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers of 2,000 regional malls nationwide identified about 19 percent as becoming "grayfields" - economically obsolete malls isolated in asphalt. Unlike an industrial brownfield, they're generally pollution-free and ripe for redevelopment.
Like many regional malls, Echelon suffered from intense competition - shoppers' preference for open-air "lifestyle" centers (such as Marlton's Promenade) and so-called category killers (like Best Buy) - and poor freeway access and visibility. In 2001, Sears was shuttered, and Penneys, another anchor store, followed within 22 months.
National nonprofits studying mall reuse, including the Congress for New Urbanism and the Urban Land Institute, rank a mixed-use center, such as the one Voorhees is attempting, among their top recommendations.
Other makeover options include what retail scholars call "mall-plus," which incorporates alternate uses such as the skate park at Moorestown Mall, and "reinvested mall," such as the Cherry Hill Mall's addition of Nordstrom's, other high-end stores, and white-tablecloth restaurants. PREIT also owns those malls.
After malls were built, not much was done to change their concept in the 1960s and '70s, Coradino said. "You attracted anchors, put stores between, and people came to shop. That doesn't work any more.
"Now we look at each situation: Who's the potential customer, and what can we do to get that customer? . . . You have to give them a reason not to drive by."