Wawa evolves into a supersized space in Center City

Sheri DiCicco was picking up dinner from the express case at the expanded Wawa at 17th and Arch on Thursday. "Believe me, I wish we could find more sites to do what we did at Arch Street," Wawa's chief says. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff
Sheri DiCicco was picking up dinner from the express case at the expanded Wawa at 17th and Arch on Thursday. "Believe me, I wish we could find more sites to do what we did at Arch Street," Wawa's chief says. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff
Posted: June 30, 2012

For years, it seemed, Wawa couldn't get out of Center City fast enough. With growing ambitions, the stalwart convenience-store chain ditched site after site over the last decade as it fixated on bodacious locations on more land than could be found in a dense downtown.

As the popular purveyor of hoagies, cigarettes, and coffee vacated old haunts across walkable Philadelphia to reinvent itself as a glorified sandwich spot, its departures were greeted with dismay, even anger, among residents who felt abandoned by a beloved hometown chain.

Then came the Comcast Center. And a domino of redevelopment surrounding the towering skyscraper of telecom hegemony. And a few other lucky breaks that, for Wawa, have amounted to its first major reinvestment in Center City in years.

Today, in a head-turning move, Wawa officially introduces to the public a vastly expanded and redesigned store at 17th and Arch Streets. The nearly 5,000-square-foot shop is tricked out with high-tech touches and laid out in a way that emphasizes Wawa's increasing focus on hoagies, sandwiches, espresso, and other prepared foods. The store design will serve as a model for Wawa's expansion into Florida.

The Arch Street store, one of Wawa's six remaining Center City sites, is nearly double the size of what it had been for 35 years, and is situated facing an entrance to Comcast Center.

"Believe me, I wish we could find more sites to do what we did at Arch Street," Wawa chief executive Howard Stoeckel said Thursday of the expansion, in which the store was asked by the landlord to stay — and the owner bought out a neighboring tenant to allow for Wawa's desired doubling of its footprint. "I wish we could expand more of our stores in Philadelphia."

"The landlord was doing wonderful things with that building," Stoeckel said.

Friday morning's christening of the new Wawa comes as the first tenants move into apartments high above the store, said landlord Leo Addimando, founder and managing partner of 806 Capital, which jointly developed the Robert Morris Building with the Maryland private-equity firm Federal Capital Partners. The 14-story office building has been renamed the Arch since being converted to 111 apartments.

The store was shut down for about three months as crews spent a half-million dollars to merge the old Wawa with a vacated deli next door, creating a space consistent with the company's modern-day brand identity.

Wawa was courted and granted its wish for more space (and a 10-year lease) after developers canceled plans for an upscale hotel and decided instead to turn the building into apartments, Addimando said.

"In Philadelphia, Wawa's considered an amenity," he said. "People like to live near a Wawa."

The trend of shutting down smaller Wawas across Center City continued through the 2000s, including as recently as 2½ years ago, with the shuttering of a store at 20th and Chestnut Streets, said longtime Center City retail-leasing professional Larry Steinberg, who worked on that lease transfer.

It had become a given across downtown, Steinberg said, that brokers didn't reach out to Wawa because Wawa wanted out of Center City. "It really is a shock to hear that they're reinvesting," he said Thursday.

Steinberg, the head of Fameco Real Estate L.P.'s new Center City office, had been unaware even that Wawa expanded one of its oldest sites.

"I think it's fabulous," he said. "I have not seen any new [Wawa] leases in the last, I don't know, eight years? So this would be a major turning point."

Designed to draw nearby residents as well as office workers from Comcast Center, the new Wawa has digital TV screens for advertising, in-store bread-baking, a vastly expanded prepared-foods wing, and other space devoted to catering to the grab-and-go lunch crowd the company increasingly seeks to make its core customer.

Stoeckel said that Wawa remained committed to Center City and that efforts to reposition itself in recent years reflected a desire to evolve and avoid the fate of one of Stoeckel's former employers: the defunct John Wanamaker department store.

"You've got to reinvent the business and make intelligent real estate decisions if you're going to be an enduring, sustainable organization," he said.

"When you walk in this store, you feel like you're in a restaurant, that you're in a fast, casual establishment to go," Stoeckel said. "It puts us in the league of Corner Bakery, Cosi, Au Bon Pain."

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or on Twitter @panaritism. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/MariaP

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