East Market Street, or Market East as it’s often called, connects the Independence Mall to City Hall and the Avenue of the Arts. It is one of the largest retail areas in the city of Philadelphia. Among the buildings along Market East are the Gallery at Market East, the largest enclosed downtown shopping mall in the nation, the Reading Terminal head house entrance, the former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s), the former Lit Brothers department store (now the Mellon Independence Center) and the former Strawbridge’s department store. The south side of the block has small stores in low-rise buildings. Except for Macy’s, few residents of Center City shop or eat on Market East and it is not very busy at night. Few tourists spend much time there. It is largely just a thoroughfare for tourists on their way to other tourist attractions and areas.
Now, new developments and renovations that have been planned and anticipated for a long time are getting close to happening. The largest and most noteworthy change would be the long-awaited renovation of the Gallery by their partial owners and managers, Center City-based Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT). The Gallery was built in the 1970s to complement the several department stores that I mentioned earlier and provide suburban style shopping in the city. It is on four levels, with more than a million square feet of retail space, and stretches from 11th Street to the former Strawbridge’s building in the middle of the 800 block of Market Street. It has a four block long food court on the lower level that stretches from the Reading Terminal building to the Strawbridge’s building. There are several entrances along the food court into Market East Station, one of the city’s three main regional rail stations, and an entrance to the Market Street subway at 11th Street. Very few Center City residents shop or eat in the Gallery. The retail is typical middle class stores and eateries (the anchor stores are Kmart, Burlington Coat Factory, and Old Navy) that are popular with residents of the working class neighborhoods beyond Center City, particularly North and West Philadelphia residents who don’t have these stores in or near their neighborhoods. The outside of the buildings are designed almost like a suburban mall with very few storefront windows and large blank walls on Market Street, except for some small windows on 901 Market above Kmart.
The Gallery was originally envisioned by famed Planning Commission Director Edmund Bacon. He saw it as a way to compete with the suburbs at a time when middle class people were moving to the suburbs in droves and preferring to shop in suburban malls. The results are not what Bacon probably expected. As I mentioned, Center City residents have never shopped there much, perhaps because Center City residents do not want to shop in suburban malls or middle class chain stores. But residents of the more depressed areas of the city have been able to go to the Gallery for their shopping needs, without having to drive, or take a long bus ride, to suburban malls. It, also, kept a number of retailers in the city at a time when many of them were shunning big cities and their older storefronts. However, the Gallery has a vacancy rate now of almost 40%.
The biggest failings of the Gallery are the large blank walls and lack of street level windows. The idea was to have a suburban design, that focused attention mostly indoors, in the city, but that design wasn’t right for the city or Market East. So, the renovation will redesign the front to have large windows and light displays to greatly enliven the street and give views of the indoor of the mall from Market Street and vice versa. There will, also, be new restaurants in the mall that will help keep the mall and Market Street busier at night. PREIT anticipates adding many new stores for “fashion-conscious” consumers, which undoubtedly means more upscale retail. While Center City residents usually don’t want to shop in middle class chain stores, they do like upscale chain retail. There is clearly a market for more upscale chain retail in Center City. Over the years I have often heard many downtown residents expressing disappointment (re: whining) that Center City lacks some popular upscale stores that one can find at King of Prussia and other suburban malls.
PREIT would like to start the $100 million renovation this year. They received some money from the city, which owns the land underneath (the walkway in the middle of the lower level of the mall is technically Commerce Street), about four years ago. PREIT refinanced their debt, that they had incurred to renovate the nearby Cherry Hill and Plymouth Meeting Malls, about a year ago, so they’re in a stronger financial position to get the financing necessary to finish the renovation. The future of the old Strawbridge’s building is less certain. It is connected to the Gallery and had been completely empty for the past few years after Strawbridge’s finally closed for good. The upper floors have recently been renovated for office space for state workers moving from North Broad Street. The lower retail floors are still empty, though.
Catercorner to the Gallery is another site that has been eyed for development for some time. That is the south side of the 1100 block of Market Street, known as the Girard Estate or Girard Square. It is called that because it was owned for years by the organization that used the fortune of famed financier Stephen Girard to run various charitable institutions, particularly Girard College in North Philadelphia. The whole block from Market to Chestnut Streets was sold three years ago to a partnership consisting of SSH Real Estate, Young Capital, and JOSS Realty Partners. That group plans to demolish the two-storey building that stretches along Market from 11th to 12th Streets and build a four-storey, 280,000 square foot shopping center called the Pavilion at Market East. It will have a glass curtain wall and plenty of street level windows. That development could have a mix of upscale and middle class retail. Target is rumored to be the anchor tenant, but negotiations are still ongoing for that. The Pavilion at Market East will be built to support a 27-storey building on top, which may be a large anchor hotel for the newly expanded Convention Center (across the street behind the Reading Terminal building) or some other mixed-use development. The developers are hoping to be able to complete the shopping center by 2014, which means construction probably wouldn’t begin until next year.
Down the street at 8th & Market Streets, Goldenberg Group Inc. is still planning to build a large retail/entertainment center on the site of the former Gimbel’s department store, which burned down in the 1970s and is currently used as a parking lot. Goldenberg bought the site in the late 1990s and has been trying to develop it since. They first wanted to build a Disney theme park. They dug the hole, but that project fell through and they had to fill in the land after a couple of years. Then they planned a shopping center with a Target as the anchor tenant, but that also fell through because of the recession. Now, they are planning to try a retail/entertainment center again, and plans are still being formulated. It’s hard to be confident about Goldenberg’s plans after all their inability to develop that site over the years, but maybe with the other developments and the expansion of the Convention Center, they could finally get their act together and get the financing necessary.
One way that all these developers are hoping to pay for their projects is to include large electronic advertising signs on the outside of their buildings. There is a bill in Council that would allow such signs on buildings on Market Street from 7th to 13th Streets, with many restrictions. Some community groups, particularly SCRUB (Society Created to Remove Urban Blight), are very much against electronic billboards, arguing that the restrictions would be ignored and the signs would end up on historic buildings and near the Independence Mall. There are hearings planned soon on the bill. What would probably happen is a compromise allowing some signs on the Gallery, Pavilion at Market East, and whatever Goldenberg would build, with some decorative lighting also on these buildings. The older, historic buildings along Market East could possibly have the same decorative lighting that buildings on South Broad Street have at night.
All this development would certainly remake Market East for good. It would be more upscale and busier at night. I hope it doesn’t become completely upscale, though, because that could have the effect of segregating the city to some degree. And, some middle class retail, such as Target and Best Buy, would be very welcome by Center City residents. Also, it’s about time that the center of Center City had a major multiplex movie theatre. The Goldenberg development would be the perfect place to finally put that. The Planning Commission has been studying Market East and is considering other improvements, such as expanding the Reading Terminal Market onto Market Street in the Reading Terminal head house building, re-routing buses to streets north of Market East and rebuilding the bus depot at 10th & Filbert Streets with a larger facility that would have direct connections to the Gallery and Market East Station. There could be more highrise development, also. The Gallery is built to hold two 30-storey highrises on top and highrises could be built on the Pavilion at Market East, 8th & Market, 8th & Chestnut, 10th & Market, and 13th and Market. I think new highrises should include a mix of uses, including hotels, residential, academic uses by Jefferson University, and major office development. The area has numerous rail lines and is near two expressways, so office development makes sense there as well. Whatever the future holds for Market East, it will certainly be a major destination for tourists, Center City residents, office workers, and other city residents alike.
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