With a host of new apartments and retail stores planned for the Market Street East area, the dumpy stretch between City Hall and Independence Mall may be on the verge of becoming Philadelphia's next great neighborhood.

But there's still a huge question mark hanging over the future of the Gallery mall, that dull fortress where stores are shutting down to make way for a redesign whose details have yet to be revealed.

The Gallery, after faltering for years, recently was listed among the nation's  "dead" malls. It long ago lost such anchor stores as Gimbels, JCPenney, and Strawbridge & Clothier. It even lost Kmart. Last Christmas, the down-on-its-luck mall didn't even host a Santa Claus for the thousands of children who live within a transit ride.

That's a far cry from when the Gallery was in its heyday as one of America's first urban malls. It was so successful that an addition was built just a few years after its 1977 opening.

Curing what ails this faded center, however, could be as complex as its ownership. The ground is owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, but the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) holds a long-term lease on the interior spaces. Both the city and PREIT pay to maintain the mall's common areas, which have flirted with seediness as the mall's fortunes continued to slide.

PREIT and the city are discussing a deal for the real estate company to control the entire property. But given the public's considerable contribution to building the mall, as well as the need to improve its viability as an economic asset, the city should demand certain safeguards to protect its interests before relinquishing control.

This is a prized property on the backbone of the corridor between the historic and business districts, surrounded by a residential renaissance featuring condos for millionaires. It would be foolish to underestimate the property's worth and its potential to become the finishing touch for the refurbishing of Market Street that has already begun.

Meanwhile, during the Gallery's face-lift, safe passage should be ensured for pedestrians who typically use the mall's corridors to reach the subway, bus, and suburban train lines - shopping for food and other items along the way. If commuters grow accustomed to a different path, they may not return after the mall reopens.

In fact, the mall's new design should include features that improve the pedestrian flow between the stores inside the mall and those outside on the street. The Inquirer's Jeff Gammage recently wrote that the old design had "siphoned the vitality off Market." That mistake shouldn't be repeated. Creating more entrances into the Gallery could provide a better urban shopping experience not only along Market, but Filbert and the mall's adjoining streets as well. That would help liven up a neighborhood poised to bloom.