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Philadelphia’s renovated downtown mall still focuses on the inside, instead of on Market Street | Inga Saffron

What's up with that bathroom tile on the exterior of Philadelphia's new Fashion District shopping mall?

The poor treatment of the exterior of the old Gallery Mall on Market Street shows how hard it was to turn an inward-facing shopping mall into a true urban building.
The poor treatment of the exterior of the old Gallery Mall on Market Street shows how hard it was to turn an inward-facing shopping mall into a true urban building.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It’s great to have the Gallery mall back, even if we are going to have to call it the Fashion District from now on. What’s not so great is that after five years of planning, $420 million in construction, and the usual hefty public subsidies, the leviathan on Market Street is really just a better version of its old self. Once a shopping mall, it seems, always a shopping mall.

Like malls everywhere, the best parts of the Fashion District are on the inside. The building’s owners, PREIT and Macerich, promised to replace the Gallery’s outdated interiors — where red tile floors and Bicentennial graphics made you feel it was always 1976 — with a more modern shopping experience. They have delivered exactly that: The Fashion District’s gleaming white promenades are brighter, easier to navigate, and reflect the latest trends in mall design.

PREIT and Macerich also promised to transform the hostile, ‘70s-era box into something resembling a real urban retail building.

So why does it look like they used bathroom tile to cover the Market Street facade? And why does that half-hearted update abruptly stop after the second story, forcing us to look at the water-stained concrete and dented metal panels that remain on the upper floors?

» READ MORE: The Gallery has finally reopened as Philly’s Fashion District. Can it also change Market Street?

“We didn’t think it was worth it” to reclad the whole building, PREIT CEO Joseph Coradino told me during a tour a few days before crowds rushed in to experience the renovations.

There you have it. For all the hopeful talk about the Fashion District reviving this long-suffering part of Market Street — and $137 million in government subsidies — the public-facing part of the mall was still given second-class treatment. The new facade is the architectural equivalent of bargain-basement merchandise, and its shoddiness will make it that much harder for Market Street to claw its way back to retail respectability. On top of that, we will have to pay with our eyeballs, since the city allowed PREIT to plaster the facade with digital billboards in exchange for undertaking the renovations.

What is most mystifying about this cheapo renovation is that it undercuts the owners’ near-heroic efforts to desuburbanize the 1977 design. Where there were once long blank walls on Market and Filbert Streets, there are now lively storefronts with real entrances, occupied by the likes of H&M, Ulta, Starbucks, and City Winery.

» READ MORE: Fashion District Philadelphia brings hope to Tiffany’s Bakery, the one Gallery tenant that stayed open

Big gaps in retail continuity remain, especially on Filbert. But much that is wrong with the Fashion District’s exterior can be traced to the original concept by Bower & Fradley (predecessor to BLT Architects). Market Street was already in decline when they designed the three-block-long Gallery, and the public was told that an enclosed, suburban-style mall would support its comeback. Instead, the dowdy Gallery became part of the decline.

In many ways, PREIT experienced the same problems in retrofitting the clunky Gallery as the city did when it attempted to renovate the similarly anti-urban Independence Mall in the early 2000s. Despite promises that the long space would be stitched back into the city’s street grid, the park remains a disconnected island.

Many retail experts believe that PREIT should have demolished the mall and started from scratch, replacing the Gallery with a mixed-used apartment-and-retail complex like the new East Market project across the street. PREIT briefly considered the idea but chose to renovate, hiring JPRA Architects to oversee the redesign.

That was back in the innocent days of 2014, before the retail apocalypse hit, before heavyweights like Toys R Us imploded, before the opioid crisis turned Market Street into a campground of suffering. Back then, a mere 6 percent of retail purchases were made online. Today it’s 12 percent and rising fast.

For all that, malls aren’t dead. But they are changing.

Despite its misleading name, the Fashion District has deftly responded to the new reality. As the demand for stores selling physical objects contracts, experts believe that retail corridors must increase the number of venues offering what they call “experiential retail” — dining, fitness, entertainment. About 30 percent of the Fashion District’s 900,000 square feet will be occupied by that category, higher than the company’s other malls, Coradino says. The third floor, once an empty zone, will soon be a beehive of coworking and makers spaces, an eight-screen movie theater, and a bowling-and-billiards arcade called Round 1.

Given PREIT’s savvy, it’s surprising that the company allowed one of those experiential retailers, Candytopia, to claim the best seat in the house — the retail lot facing the main entrance at Ninth and Market. Not only does the presence of the miniature theme park undermine the Fashion District’s branding effort, Candytopia has already papered over its high-visibility shop windows with advertising, subverting efforts to make the mall more inviting.

Architecturally, the Ninth Street entrance plaza is one of the big successes overseen by JPRA’s James Grigsby, who died midway through the project. Among the many design problems with the old Gallery is that you frequently had to go down first in order to go up. To enter the Gallery at Ninth Street, you stepped into a sunken plaza, then searched for an escalator to take you to your destination. Now all that up-and-down has been eliminated with a sidewalk-level plaza and a bold, welcoming glass headhouse.

The interior reconstruction was similarly aimed at simplifying the layout and creating views through the mall’s multiple tiers. By yanking out the big box that once housed Big K, the architects created a dramatic, four-level vista from the top level, where AMC Theatres will be located, down to the SEPTA-level underground concourse.

The whiteness of the walls and floors is striking, but not unusual. White-walled malls are the rage in Asia, and the upscale Hudson Yards mall chose all-white decor, albeit in marble rather than drywall. This is partly today’s trend, but Coradino believes the white backdrop will make the stores stand out.

For some, the problem is that there aren’t enough stores, and the ones that have opened aren’t luxe enough. The Fashion District feels less densely occupied than the old Gallery, but it is only 60% leased. Coradino promises that 90% of the tenants will be open within a year. That includes an unnamed prospect that just signed up for the spectacular corner lot at Eighth and Market, once the ground floor of Strawbridge & Clothier.

Even in its brief heyday, the Gallery was never an upscale mall, despite the proximity of affluent Center City neighborhoods. Because it sits at the center of the region’s transit system, “it was always the mall for the city,” explains Steven Gartner, a retail expert at CBRE.

Sociologist Elijah Anderson, who wrote The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, put it differently, praising the mall as a “ghetto downtown” — a comfortable gathering place for the African Americans who lack good shopping in their neighborhoods. Retirees would travel to the Gallery to play chess and socialize in its food court.

After plans for the Fashion District were announced, some predicted that the new mall would be less welcoming to African Americans. PREIT has made an effort to include several black-owned businesses, including American Hats.

Based on the opening day crowd, the Fashion District appears likely to serve the same customers it served before, but with better decor and brighter lighting. PREIT is hoping more Center City residents, millennials, and tourists will join them.

If the Fashion District does succeed in becoming a destination for all Philadelphians, then maybe, in time, we’ll be able to forget that bathroom tile on the facade.