South Jersey will soon find out if its declining indoor shopping malls, those climate-controlled relics of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, have more lives than a cat trapped in a food court ceiling rafter.
A change in Voorhees Township may prove to be a textbook example of how to save a dying mall — or just another reason for bulldozing it and walking away.
The Voorhees Township Council’s preferred redeveloper for Echelon Mall, known recently as Voorhees Town Center, has agreed to purchase the distressed mall from its current owners. This was clearly a forced sale; the township threatened using eminent domain acquisition if the mall’s current, shadowy owners, Namdar Realty Group, hadn’t agreed to sell to the chosen private developer. The new developer, Brandywine Financial Services Corp. (not the better-known Brandywine Realty Trust), says it will turn the site into housing, plus the usual mix of “destination” entertainment and retail venues designed to be the remedy for struggling malls.
The upshot is that township taxpayers won’t be stuck immediately with buying the mall, which Namdar purchased for only $13.4 million three years ago. That’s after the former owners, large-scale mall developer PREIT (Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust) spent nearly $150 million remaking outlying sections of the mall structure with housing, plus the usual mix of “destination” entertainment and retail venues designed to be the remedy for struggling malls.
The upcoming Brandywine project ought to be watched closely throughout New Jersey. First of all, no indoor mall in South Jersey has ever been demolished to the extent that Voorhees Town Center is going to be. All that is expected to remain will be the separately owned, still-thriving Boscov’s department store, the recently added “restaurant row” and the adjacent mall corner that houses township offices.
For all the hand-wringing that’s been done over the fate of New Jersey malls, a Wikipedia page listing 114 effectively demolished malls nationwide does not include one in the Garden State. Go no farther than Maryland and you’ll find five demolished malls in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.
There are other New Jersey candidates for complete erasure, especially the virtually abandoned Burlington Center Mall. But the Voorhees site is likely to be the first one in the state to undergo serious amputation in an attempt to save the patient.
Taxpayers and community planners need to watch how several factors about the deal play out:
- What kind of tax breaks, if any, will Brandywine get for taking on this parcel “in need of redevelopment”? The mall is currently the township’s largest taxpayer at about $900,000 a year.
- What public services impact will adding “150 townhomes and an additional component of senior housing” cause? It’ll be substantial if the non-senior homes require the township to build or expand a school. Township Economic Development Director Mario DiNatale said two other prospective redevelopers that Brandywine beat out actually proposed more housing units.
- What assures the success of Brandywine’s entertainment-and-dining venues? While DiNatale described the plans as “super sexy, super cool,” it takes a lot to knock people’s socks off these days. There’s lots of competition for this discretionary (and recession-susceptible) dollar. Existing brew pubs and sports bars are numerous. New competitors in Atlantic City can also take sports bets.
If it all works out, officials from several other New Jersey municipalities with on-the-edge indoor malls will flock to Voorhees for advice. If it doesn’t, the sad truth may be that the private-sector wrecking ball, wielded without government intervention, is sometimes the proper choice.