In Voorhees, reinventing the mall

Alyssa Caloiero brings back her lunch from Burger 21 in the Voorhees Town Center. She sold her car before moving in last October, and she works and teaches in a beauty school there.
Alyssa Caloiero brings back her lunch from Burger 21 in the Voorhees Town Center. She sold her car before moving in last October, and she works and teaches in a beauty school there. (AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer)

Echelon Mall, built in 1970 and remade as a "lifestyle center" after hard times, keeps adapting.

Posted: April 07, 2014

In the survival-of-the-fittest, cutthroat world of retail, some malls have the right stuff.

Others simply need to be "right-sized" and reincarnated - like, say, neighborhood mall, meets City Hall, meets Main Street.

Take the old Echelon Mall. Known as "The Mall" in its heyday in the late 1970s and '80s, it drew from surrounding communities, like Lindenwold, Clementon, and Audubon.

But time, disrepair, an exodus of tenants, and newer competition took their toll. By the time mall powerhouse Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) took over in 2003, Echelon Mall was already on life support.

PREIT's solution: Cut its retail space by nearly half, from 1.1 million square feet to 633,000 (close to its original size). Add an eclectic lineup of 50 retailers (with Macy's, Kay Jewelers, among others), and phase in restaurants (such as Catelli Duo), luxury apartments, and office space - including a Town Hall (the only one in the country inside a mall). After the $83 million conversion, scrap "mall" in the new name and refer to it as a "lifestyle center" instead. That's how Voorhees Town Center (VTC for short) came to be.

It's only going to get bigger: Two additional residential buildings and six more commercial buildings are still to be built - though a timeline for completion is not yet available. An additional 72 residential units will be added soon to bring the total to 425. A deal to add a hotel is in the works.

CBS Evening News featured VTC last year as at the vanguard of the "De-malling of America" - of developers making outdated, underperforming malls better suited to their local communities.

"I call it the socialization of the mall," PREIT chief executive officer Joe Coradino said last week. He described it as the "rebirth of the mall" and working with "a new canvas." He said some of PREIT's Philadelphia properties, including Plymouth Meeting and Exton Square Malls, were under consideration for a similar conversion.

"You create 'experiential retailing,' where you don't just shop anymore," Coradino said. "Dining, entertainment, health care, office buildings, and government services are all part of the experience."

Still, it was confusing for Arielle Levin, 22, of Palmyra last week when her GPS kept directing her to the former Echelon Mall as she tried to find Voorhees Town Hall.

"I kept driving around the mall," said Levin, as she picked up her birth certificate (she was born at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees) at the counter. Shoppers at the next-door Macy's could be seen through Town Hall's glass doors. One could also pay his or her township taxes, get a building/occupancy permit, or obtain a marriage license. Weekly board meetings are in a courtroom in the back.

"It's working out wonderfully," said Voorhees Mayor Mike Mignogna of relocating Town Hall from a decrepit post office to a 24,000-square-foot space at the mall in May 2011. "Voorhees never had a downtown area for people to gather, eat, shop. This gives us one."

His office is working with PREIT on adding parking to accommodate the growing restaurant crowd, especially at night and on weekends.

"This has become the heartbeat of our community," Mignogna said.

Philadelphia-based PREIT took a gamble and a few tries with VTC as a way to revitalize the underperforming Echelon Mall.

"PREIT went through many iterations, trying to revitalize that property," said analyst Ben Yang of San Francisco-based Evercore Partners, who has tracked PREIT for a decade. "Echelon Mall was deteriorating and too big for the surrounding market."

Yang said mixed-use projects that combine retail and residential (often on top of the other) - with government offices in some - have popped up in other cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Washington within the last decade - known in the industry as "densifying" a property to maximize use.

Last month Las Vegas developer and new owner Moonbeam Capital Investments announced a $230 million redevelopment of the former Burlington Center in Burlington Township that will include retail and residential units on land along I-295.

Echelon Mall was built in 1970 on the site of a former airport. Once part of the Rouse Co., PREIT acquired the mall in June 2003 when it was 50 percent occupied.

After cutting the retail space by half, PREIT demolished JCPenney and Sears, leaving Macy's and Boscov's as anchors. Figures from PREIT on Friday showed the mall was 73 percent occupied and sales per square foot were $219 as of Dec. 31. A spokeswoman for PREIT said other properties in the company's portfolio that were similar in retail mix to VTC's averaged $266 in sales per square foot.

The mall renovation was completed in late 2007. A year later, PREIT'S joint partner, Dewey Commercial, began construction of a high-end, residential complex, later renamed Foster Square. The first apartment residents moved in in June 2009. Among the perks are a fitness center, pool, and pet parks that are lighted at night.

There are 353 units that are more than 90 percent leased/occupied and 72 more to be built. They range from studios to three-bedroom apartments and rent between $1,210 to $2,290 a month. Coradino revealed Thursday that PREIT was in negotiations to bring in a hotel.

"The owners believe it is the highest and best use for the property," Yang said of combining retail with residential. "It creates more revenue sources and critical mass for the retail - you have a captive audience.

"But it does not work everywhere," Yang said. "Not everyone wants to live at the mall."

It's worked for Tom Tetreault, 40, an operations manager for a trucking company in Philadelphia.

"It's almost a resort," he said, as he walked his English bulldog, Layla, last week outside his building. "I just renewed my lease."

Coradino was the driving force behind Echelon Mall's downsizing and conversion well before he was named CEO in 2012.

"With the changing nature of the shopper," he said, "two people working in households, a time-constrained consumer, and competition from the Internet, the new mall can't be cookie-cutter."

Jan Talamo, one of the founding partners of Catelli, a fine-dining Italian restaurant on Voorhees' Main Street for years, recalled being approached by Coradino in 2009.

"He told us Catelli was to be the catalyst to drive the renaissance of the old Echelon Mall," Talamo said.

Catelli was remade into a casual-style osteria and wine bar, called Catelli Duo, that opened in September 2012 at Voorhees Town Center. Talamo said despite the bad winter, it was up double digits in growth from last year.

What has become VTC's own "Restaurant Row," the others joining Catelli Duo from late 2012 through 2013 were Rodizio Brazilian Steakhouse, Elena Wu, Burger 21, and Iron Hill Restaurant & Brewery. Apartments sit above them, while lunch regulars are employees from the offices, including the PR firm Star Group, Voorhees Pediatric Services, and the Camden County Improvement Authority.

A similar synergy occurs at the mall. Many of his birthday-party clients live there, said Robert Mondelli, general manager of Tilt Studio, a family entertainment center tucked between Chick-fil-A and the food court.

"Those old enough to remember the Echelon Mall remember it so fondly . . . and many think it went away," he said. "They are pleasantly surprised that it just never really went away.

"It got smaller and has townhomes now, and it's as big as it ever was."


sparmley@phillynews.com856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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