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The fading Moorestown Mall gets new life as a residential and wellness center

Once promoted as 'the mall with it all,' Moorestown Mall has been expanded and rebranded several times since opening in 1963. New plans call for reinventing it as the centerpiece of a new community.

The Yard House restaurant at the Moorestown Mall on March 15. Although it lost three of its four anchor department stores in recent years, the mall is being envisioned as the centerpiece of a new community.
The Yard House restaurant at the Moorestown Mall on March 15. Although it lost three of its four anchor department stores in recent years, the mall is being envisioned as the centerpiece of a new community.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Long eclipsed by the Cherry Hill Mall, its larger and flashier cousin 10 minutes west on Route 38, the Moorestown Mall has lost three of its four department stores.

But a proposed transformation — including the construction of more than 1,000 apartments, an outpatient medical center, and a hotel — may help the smaller mall survive the disruption of bricks-and-mortar retailing and emerge from Cherry Hill’s shadow, as well.

“A mall in a sea of underutilized asphalt is a bit of a waste, and we are reimagining those parking lots,” said Heather Crowell, an executive vice president at PREIT, the region’s largest mall owner. The Philadelphia company owns the Moorestown, Cherry Hill, and Cumberland Malls in New Jersey, along with the Fashion District in Center City (as a part-owner) and Willow Grove Park, Plymouth Meeting Mall, and Springfield Mall in the Pennsylvania suburbs. PREIT has announced it will sell the Exton Square mall.

PREIT also has malls in Maryland, Virginia, and other states.

PREIT, which entered bankruptcy briefly in 2020, has sold 17 malls since 2012 and continues to struggle with its debt. Its stock has been trading for less than $1 a share and is in danger of being delisted. In 2020, the company ceded control of the Fashion District in Center City to its partner in the shopping and entertainment complex. PREIT also intends to sell four acres of the Moorestown Mall site to Bel Canto Asset Growth LLC, a multifamily developer.

Nevertheless, “we don’t intend to sell” the mall itself, Crowell said. “There have been no discussions along these lines.”

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Located in a prosperous, densely populated portion of western Burlington County, the mall has more than one million square feet of leasable space and 5,322 parking spots on its 84 acres. Crowell said Moorestown is about 80% leased.

“A lot of malls need an infusion of consumers, but they don’t have Moorestown’s level of retail,” said Jennifer Nevitt, chief executive officer of Bel Canto Asset Growth Fund. The Plymouth Meeting company is developing 375 apartments and a parking garage on the site next to Boscov’s, the Yard House restaurant, and the Regal movie theaters.

“We believe in creating neighborhoods,” Nevitt said. “The quality of the retail will be a convenience for people who live there, including those who work from home, and it will help create a neighborhood feeling.”

The apartments on the southeastern corner of the property will be named Pearl. Twenty percent of the units will be set aside for renters of low or moderate incomes.

“We actually went to the township with the idea,” said Alexandra Staropoli, director of communications for the Fair Share Housing Center, the statewide advocate for affordable housing.

“There’s a trend in New Jersey to look at sites or buildings that are considered stranded assets, and find creative and innovative ways to use those parcels to build more affordable housing,” she said.

The mall apartments will help Moorestown satisfy the terms of its legally binding agreement to increase the amount of affordable units in the township.

Legislation co-sponsored by New Jersey Assembly majority leader Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) and Assembly deputy whip Clinton Calabrese (D., Bergen) would speed the local approval process to redevelop certain underutilized or “stranded” real estate assets such as malls, shopping centers, and office parks. The measure would require 20% of the apartments in new housing developments on the sites to be affordable.

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Malls are being repurposed, downsized, or shut down (see across the country, and South Jersey — home to five thriving malls as recently as 15 years ago — is no exception. Burlington Center, in Burlington Township, shut its doors in 2018, and that Route 541 property has been completely cleared for construction of warehouse and small-scale retail development, township officials said.

Portions of the Echelon Mall in Voorhees were demolished in 2007, and the Somerdale Road property was rebranded as the Voorhees Town Center. A new street of restaurants and shops, as well as a town hall, have since been built, along with hundreds of apartments.

But a remaining two-level section of the old Echelon Mall, dominated by the massive hulk of a former Strawbridge & Clothier store, is almost entirely vacant save for Boscov’s.

“There are ongoing discussions with a potential developer but no agreement yet,” Mayor Michael Mignogna said.

The cascade of store closings that helped doom the former Echelon and Burlington malls has not occurred at Moorestown, which in recent years has attracted fitness centers, spas, and other tenants offering wellness products and services.

“Malls may be ideal sites for mixed-use redevelopment because they represent a single large land assemblage ... and already have infrastructure, including utilities, water, sewer, and transportation,” said John Hasse, director of the Community and Environmental Planning program at Rowan University.

Opened on Sept. 16, 1963 — two years after Cherry Hill made history as the Northeast’s first enclosed shopping mall — Moorestown had its own mid-century modern glamour. The architect John Graham Jr., who gave Seattle its iconic Space Needle, designed the mall and its parasol-like interior pillars. The mall also featured the first South Jersey branches of Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker and Gimbels department stores and a cluster of upscale specialty retailers such as a branch of Center City’s Blum Store.

“The Moorestown Mall was a wonderful place,” said Michael Lisicky, who grew up in Cherry Hill and is an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony. He’s written 10 books about department stores, including Bamberger’s, which helped make the Cherry Hill Mall a go-to attraction — and indirectly helped spark development of the Moorestown Mall.

Strawbridge & Clothier was one of the initiators of the Cherry Hill Mall, and there was no way they were going to allow Gimbels or Wanamaker’s to become the second anchor,” he said. “Bamberger’s, from Newark, was fine, as long as their store was smaller than Strawbridge’s. So Gimbels and Wanamaker’s went to Moorestown.”

Lisicky remembers being fascinated by the caged birds and ornamental bridges inside the Moorestown Mall, where a large Woolworth’s store, pet store, and “a wonderful bakery” also were big with the kids. So was the large-screen Plaza Theater, which opened with a showing of the James Bond film From Russia with Love in 1964.

Moorestown Mall expanded with the opening of a Sears store in 1970, and during the golden age of American mall-dom that followed, the “mall with it all” had a jaunty radio jingle (”We’ve got the big three you’ve known for years/Gimbels, Wanamaker’s and Sears!”) and drew throngs of holiday shoppers.

The mall expanded again in 2000, when it added Lord & Taylor as a fourth anchor store. In 2013, after voters in historically dry Moorestown Township approved a ballot question to allow liquor licenses at the mall, new restaurants opened there, including Osteria and Distrito, by Philly chefs Marc Vetri and Jose Garces.

But Osteria and Distrito soon departed, and the struggles among bricks-and-mortar department store chains nationally led to the closings of Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Sears.

The former Macy’s has been reconfigured with four marquee tenants, and the discounter Turn7 now occupies the departed Lord & Taylor, which was briefly used as a COVID-19 vaccination site. Signs are up on the exterior of the shuttered Sears, announcing its transformation into a Cooper University Health Care center, which will be the largest outpatient facility in the Cooper system. It will provide diagnostic, imaging, surgical, and other services, and employ about 200 people.

In a recent letter to township residents, Mayor Nicole Gillespie said construction will begin this spring.

“Moorestown Mall has been a very important part of the community, and a destination, for decades. It’s been an important tax ratable,” township manager Kevin E. Aberant said.

A redevelopment plan approved by the township planning board in 2021, calls for “stabilizing” the mall itself by surrounding it with a mix of uses, including up to three apartment complexes, as well as a hotel.

“PREIT is being very pro-active in finding ways to make the mall continue to be a viable asset for their company, which means it will also be a viable asset for the township,” said Aberant.

Despite the prospect of redevelopment, the mall’s vacant storefronts, often sparsely populated corridors, and over-abundance of empty parking spaces may send a different signal.

John Kakowski, of Delran, a frequent shopper and mall walker, seemed relieved to hear that Moorestown Mall isn’t closing.

“It’s a nice mall,” said Kakowski, a retired office manager. “Apartments might make a big difference.”

And smaller retailers see opportunity. On March 3, Candace Murphy opened Sunshine on a Cloudy Day at the Moorestown Mall. It’s an offshoot of her retail business at the Village Shoppes of Williamstown in Gloucester County. Both stores sell crystals, fossils, and unusual gifts.

“I wouldn’t want to be here if Moorestown was just going to be a basic mall,” said Murphy, of Clementon. “It’s a gathering place. It has the right feeling. A welcoming feeling.”

Curate Noir owner Nika Corbett opened her shop at the mall 10 months ago.

“This is our first storefront, but we’ve been [online] business owners for 11 years,” said Corbett, who runs Curate Noir with her mother, Linda Stanard.

“We wanted to provide shelf space for products by Black and brown-owned businesses. We have about 65 vendors, local as well as from all over the country,” said Corbett, of Delran.

Since moving to the mall, she said, business “has gotten better and better every month.”

“If the redevelopment creates places that have the amenities that people desire and that also creates a space that is attractive [and] feels like a community, then I can see the project meeting with success,” said Hasse.

Robert Schindler, a professor of marketing at the Rutgers University School of Business–Camden, pointed out that the Moorestown Mall’s proximity to New Jersey Turnpike Exit 4, as well I-295 and Routes 73 and 38, would seem to make the property a good site for a hotel.

Having the mall become a new community’s main street also makes sense, he said.

“Acquiring things is not the only motive for people to go shopping,” Schindler said. “They go shopping to get out of the house, for entertainment, to exercise, to socialize, and to hang out. Is physical shopping going to die out? I don’t think so.”

Inquirer staff writer Bob Fernandez contributed to this article.