Friday, June 30, 2017

Clarion Mall: Clarion (Monroe Township), PA

The journey to Clarion Mall turned out to be a rather hair-raising experience.  Out of nowhere, severe storms were exploding across the landscape along the Allegheny Front, and the closer we got to Clarion the more intense they got.  We stopped at a station to escape the hail noting that we were right in the center of the storm.  When the hail stopped, we continued north to the mall hoping to capture images of this mall before it closed for the evening (at 5 PM, Sunday).  Just as we arrived at the mall, very dark clouds surrounded the area and tornado sirens went off.  Had we not left that station, we may have very nearly been hit directly by a tornado!  However, it did not appear that a tornado actually touched down.  It turns out this area is a hot spot for tornadoes having been hit by two weak tornadoes at the beginning of the month.  You know if the town has a siren, it's not uncommon!

Anyway, upon arriving at the mall we managed to get inside just before the torrent unleashed over this little mall.  Warm and dry inside, it was not a total surprise to find a mall that still retained much of its vintage charm.  It felt like I not only stepped inside from a storm, I also stepped into 1985!  Located just off of I-80, the mall holds its own as a simple T-shaped mall constructed in 1980 anchored today by Kmart and JCPenney.  The mall once featured a third anchor known as Dank's (Dank & Co.).  Dank's closed with the whole Lewistown-based chain in 1995 and was replaced with Carmike Cinemas (including an expansion for the screens).  In addition, the mall features a Peebles on the outlot.  Peebles was originally a second location of the local Brody's department store, which itself closed in 1987.

Looking down the main entrance wing into the main mall.  Carmike Cinemas is currently where Dank's department store originally had a junior anchor.  The theaters use part of the old Dank's, but added on further to the back.

Detail of the empty planters that very much appear to have been fountains originally.  All fountains were covered up in the mall.  There is no way natural plants could survive here.

Looking down the main wing from the mall to the front entrances.  Yes, it's pretty dark. 

The mall features a rather unique design element in that the mall corridor is designed with a sloped ceiling along the main corridor with skylights only on the east side.  However, the court areas feature high window skylights in front of both JCPenney and Kmart.  Planters are still found throughout the mall as well, but fountains were all completely shut off including one in front of JCPenney that was permanently covered.  In all, the mall has an older design than the date of construction suggests, but Clarion itself is a borough with just over 5,000 residents in a county just under 40,000 residents suggesting that it may not be able to support a larger mall.

A look down the Kmart wing.  Notice the loft-style skylights except in the court in front of Kmart.  The Kmart entrance wing is to the right.

A look down and back along the Kmart entrance wing.  As as typical in malls anchored by Kmart, the store is only accessible through the mall.  This Kmart, however, does not have an entrance wing on both sides.  It looks like it might have in the past, however.

The fountains are long since shut off, but the planters and benches are still very much there.  It is a pretty short walk from Kmart to JCPenney.

Next to GNC is the front entrance wing to give perspective of how small this mall actually is.

Blurry shot of the benches.  At least you can visualize yourself sitting here while your significant other takes about 10 minutes to shop here (unless he/she REALLY loves JCPenney).

Detail of the center of the mall, Carmike Cinemas on the left and the main entrance wing on the right.

What sustains the mall is Clarion University of Pennsylvania, a Tier 2 state university that serves as a draw to an otherwise remote region.  The student body itself brings in 5,000 residents each year who likely shop at the mall to avoid the much longer drive to Pittsburgh, Indiana (PA) or Youngstown (OH) to shop.  The mall also appears to be locally owned and managed in lieu of many other malls in the region that are primarily owned by Zamias Realty.  Nonetheless, it is a tiny mall featuring no more than about 200,000-250,000 square feet.  Very few malls of this size remain operational today.

JCPenney loved the slanted wood front mall entrances in the 80's.  I never get tired of them.  What I do get tired of is fountains like the one covered up there being turned off forever.

You can see here how the court area with high window skylights transitions into one with the same only on one side.

Peebles for some reason snubbed the mall (or at least its original anchor Brody's did).  Maybe Peebles will make its way into the mall itself eventually.

JCPenney is on the south end of the mall with the dangerous storm behind it.

I'm pretty sure that's a tornado trying to form on the other side of the mall, but it didn't touch down.  The Carmike Cinemas sign is the main mall entrance.  Under the Kmart sign is the other mall entrance.

JCPenney in perspective with the main mall entrance.  It's not very big unlike those angry skies.

Better detail of the Kmart mall entrance.

Unfortunately the mall sign is not very impressive.  I guess not to many would be thrilled by the mall, but when you need your JCPenney fix or cell phone fixed, it's convinient.

While the mall does have some vacancies, it cannot be considered a dead mall.  Regardless, it is in an awkward position as Kmart and JCPenney both are risky anchors.  However, quite a few options exist for anchors in the mall if either leave.  The ideal scenario would be is if Kmart leaves, JCPenney relocates into the larger Kmart space and Peebles relocates into the former JCPenney space.  Unfortunately, the greatest likelihood is if any anchors are lost, the mall will likely just be turned into a strip center connected to Peebles.  Nonetheless, whatever happens to the mall, it was a very nice find to discover a tiny small-town mall still operating today with both original anchors.  This is especially true in an era where malls large and small are being ripped up by an economic tornado strengthened by a jet stream fed by internet sales, anchor consolidation, a weak rural economy and massive store closures.

Kmart is the biggest anchor by far according to Google Maps.  Peebles is on the upper right, and the addition for the theater is clearly visible.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Indiana Mall: Indiana (White Township), PA

Malls like Indiana Mall are why I have not yet given up on retail blogging.  A hidden gem located just south of the downtown in a very quaint borough in the Allegheny Mountains, this mall is one that has seen very few updates either inside or out since it opened over 30 years ago.  Indiana itself is a college town whose primary economic engine is the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), a seriously confusing and misleading name!  Located approximately 50 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, the mall holds its own due to its location being far enough from any major malls and far enough from major interstates.  The town itself is located almost perfectly halfway between I-76 and I-80 with its nearest competitors all 40 miles away.

Built in 1979 by Zamias Realty, the mall personifies the challenges that the company, whose base is in the region, has in updating and properly marketing the malls it owns.  Nonetheless, the lack of updates is not a complaint from us as we enjoyed the time warp that the mall took us in.  Mall architecture today is mostly bland, boring, and gaudy, so it was nice to look into the past when malls provided a true sensory experience.  Unfortunately, costs have driven the owners to begin gutting some of these vintage elements.  Two out of four fountains were converted to planters and two other planters/fountains were completely removed although the total number was still far more than most modern malls.  The mall has also seen an uptick in vacancies with probably as much as 10-20% of the mall vacant and several stores filled with non-retail or mom & pop stores.  While not yet in dead mall territory, a weakness in inline stores indicates a similar weakness in anchors.

The fountain and sunken court in front of Bon-Ton deserved photos from just about every angle.  Aside from the fountain detail, this is looking also to the side entrance, into the main mall and the adjacent wood-paneled store to the right of Bon-Ton.  It should be of note that the stores next to the entrance wing next to Bon-Ton were once York Steak House.  The last pic shows what is left of the long-closed chain and staple of 80's malls.

Until the early 2000's, Indiana Mall had competition along the same road closer to downtown from another smaller enclosed mall named Regency Mall.  This older mall, constructed in 1969, was anchored by Murphy's Mart and Montgomery Ward: two now-defunct anchors that effectively doomed it as an enclosed mall.  Wards actually closed early at the mall, closing in 1993 and replaced by Martin's.  Murphy's became Hill's and later Ames, but Ames itself went under in 2000.  H.L. Libby purchased that mall in 1998, demalled much of the mall in 1999 and turned the remaining mall corridor into TJ Maxx and Jo Ann Fabrics in 2010.  It appears that today Martin's occupies the former Ames location while Ollie's Bargain Outlet is in the old Wards.  Other than the footprint, today the mall bears no resemblance to its former life.  The failure of this competing mall certainly helped extend the life of dominant Indiana Mall.

Detail of the bubble fountain and burnt orange tiled seating area in front of Sears.  The fountain is not the best design, but the whole feature to me is beautiful and remarkable. 

Unfortunately, times have changed so much that a mall being the sole survivor in a region is no longer insulation from brutal market forces.  It has a precarious anchor line-up with Kmart, Bon-Ton, JCPenney and Sears.  Because of that, prospects look frightening for this mall as it sits in an economically depressed region with all four anchors struggling to stay in business.  In fact, it was just announced on June 6, 2017 that one of its original anchors, Kmart, would be leaving the mall after 38 years.  Remarkably, both Sears and Kmart have still been operating in the same mall this long, and Sears is not (yet) closing.  Furthermore, Bon-Ton is in financial trouble and JCPenney is unlikely to remain at a mall with three other dead anchors as JCPenney also continues to close stores in an attempt to claw their way back to profitability.  In a worse case scenario, the mall could die almost overnight if the dominoes fall quickly on the heels of Kmart's closing with no replacement.

A look down the mall corridor from the Sears wing.  Lorelli's Jewerly on the right was closed.  Since it was Sunday, it may have just been closed for that reason instead of for good seeing that it is apparently a primary tenant to the mall.

Despite the vacancies, a few major chains do have a presence in the mall.  American Eagle on the right is one of those suggesting that the mall is still viable.

A couple more inside shots.  Here appear to be either removed planters or some other feature like a big clock.  The Cinemas IV deceive, because they have no interior mall access.  Patrons must go down the north side of the Kmart entrance wing and exit the mall to reach the theaters.

Unlike most malls today, Indiana Mall is a mall that has seen remarkably few changes since it opened.  In fact, the most fascinating aspect is that every single major anchor in the mall is original!  The only notable changes were the expansion of the existing Kmart in 1992 and the addition of Old Navy as a junior anchor in 2006 only for the same to close in 2012.  This lack of changes is remarkable in that the mall has been open for 38 years!  Its sister mall, Warren Mall, is not in such a good position as its interior mall portion is barely open today, but Indiana Mall is in a far better location in a larger town further from competition that is healthier economically.

Kmart's mall entrance is in the west wing of the mall.  Since there are no exterior entrances, an entrance corridor is on each side.  

A look down the Kmart entrance wing to the right of the Kmart entrance.  The Bavarian looking design to the right is actually the wall for Capri Pizza: an original tenant to the mall still open today and still serving excellent pizza-by-the-slice.  We ate there for lunch.  A planter is off to the left that I (unfortunately) failed to photograph.

Kmart mall entrance looking to other exterior entrance.  The other matching planter near the entrance is in the background.

Typical of its malls built in the late 70's by Zamias, the mall features at least three anchors and a theater.  In fact, the mall is so original that the older Bon-Ton logo not used since the early 1980's remains on the mall entrance.  JCPenney itself appears to have been an addition built about a year or two after the rest of the mall was built.  It looks to have been tacked onto an empty anchor pad when the mall was first built.  Clues that this is so are that the ceiling tiles are different in the JCPenney wing as well as the fact that JCPenney itself is flush with the mall.

I'd love to know what wonders were removed underneath, but I'm picturing an impressive planter possibly with a waterfall much like what was at Warren Mall.  Regional candy stores, like the one in the background, are common in Western Pennsylvania.

JCPenney court.  Note the different ceiling tiles.  Although uncertain, this store looks to have been added onto the mall in 1980 or 1981.  What was here before was likely either an unfinished, walled off wing or an original main entrance.

Detail of planters in front of JCPenney looking back into the main mall.

Sears is a relatively unremarkable store design-wise, but at least it's not closed.  Many stuff not currently in the city could take over this store when it inevitably leaves.

The decor found in Indiana Mall is at the very least intriguing.  Zamias was not a company to skimp on color or architectural detail on their older malls, and the remaining fountains are a feast for the eyes featuring burnt orange tiles and a bubble fountain next to Sears and another huge jet fountain in the middle of a sunken area with brick planters in front of Bon-Ton.  In addition, two sets of planters remain in front of Kmart and JCPenney, the former definitely previously used as a fountain.  JCPenney's entrance court features brick planters while Kmart's fountain/planter combination is surrounded by gold tiles.  In addition, the center court features dark brown painted wood beams and red trim providing a striking appearance even without the fountains and planters that were removed sometime in the past 5-10 years.  While apparently lost on most of today's mall owners, these features were clearly a draw for mall patrons much as they were in years past, and it is greatly appreciated that so much of these are still there.  Families with children were gathering around these features all throughout the mall, attesting to their popularity.

One of the nicest shots I've ever taken of a JCPenney store.

The Bon-Ton's exterior logo does not match the interior mall entrance.  This is also an older logo used in the mid-to-late 1980's.  Why is that?  Were there two logos used at the same time, was this updated later or what?

Appalachian beauty can be found at the mall with these hemlock trees and rhododendrons in full bloom in the northwest corner of Bon-Ton.  All over the region, the colorful rhododendrons and wildflowers really added a zest to the landscape.

Metaphorically, the day we visited the mall came after a major storm even that caused flooding across the region as well as wind and hail damage.  Like those storms, the mall is facing a severe storm in the future that may damage its ability to survive.  The sudden loss of nearly all of its anchors is a crisis, but it does not have to be.  While IUP can help sustain the mall, the owners need to take action to recruit as many replacement anchors as possible before they lose all of them.  With many major chains currently not operating any locations in the town, the opportunities are there to improve what the mall offers.

1970's knew how to make mall entrances: very dark and stark.  The burnt orange on gray/brown aluminum in those oddly small letters is so jarring it almost dares you to pass under that sign.  Nonetheless, it looks far better to me than those stucco-filled "splashy" exteriors you see on malls today with way too much going on, and the design usually out of context with the building.  This entrance is located between JCPenney and Sears.

As you can see here, a mall entrance is on the left leading to Bon-Ton and the fountain court, the Kmart (north) entrance corridor is on the right and Cinemas IV are in the middle.  Check out that 1970's color!  If Kmart had its original logo, this would be a mid-century gem.

Another stark little "MALL" entrance.  This is the one that goes to Bon-Ton and used to have York Steak House on the right just before the court.

Does this make you want to go see a movie?  However, you would expect to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on the letter board instead of what's there.

Little Caesar's will need to be packing up and looking for a new location since Kmart is closing.

...and so it begins.  These Kmart-anchored malls usually start failing with the closure of Kmart first with everything else following.  It may not seem to matter, but there are quite a few malls barely surviving at the moment whose first anchor to go was Kmart.  This is the south entrance wing to Kmart.

A wise move for the mall right now would be to begin a plan to replace the existing Kmart and Sears.  Since Kmart is already closing, and Sears is not far behind, the anchors that need to be considered consist of relocating JCPenney into the present Sears space, adding a Target or Kohl's into the current Kmart, adding a Dick's Sporting Goods, Dunham's or Burlington Coat Factory for the current Bon-Ton and bringing in a cluster of junior anchors among choices such as H&M, Forever 21, Petco or Ross Dress For Less for the rest.  In addition, the theaters should probably be relocated to where JCPenney is currently or the store demolished to create a new main mall entrance.  If JCPenney leaves altogether, bringing Boscov's into the (likely soon to be former) Sears may also fill that void as well as providing a very popular regional store to draw in more customers.  Overall, Indiana lacks many major retail chains while the current anchors are unpopular stores, so the loss of these department stores presents an opportunity to attract any of the far superior stores mentioned.  Adding those stores may also help bring in more chain stores within the mall itself thus filling the vacancies with more chain stores, although it will be necessary to transform large blocks of space over to these junior anchors.

We enjoyed our visit to, Pennsylvania.  Your mall may not have been in everyone's Top 10, but we enjoyed it.  From here, we returned to our overcrowded and overpriced cities from whence we came.

Many would look at the mall's vintage design and suggest that what is needed to rescue the mall is a major renovation.  That is exactly not what is not needed right now.  While gutting the mall and replacing it with a clean, hospital-grade atmosphere that removes all disco era elements seems like a rescue strategy, it is not an ugly mall in its current design.  A major overhaul would only drive away more tenants due to the higher rents.  It should be noted that bigger, shinier malls designed to attract major chain stores in anything but an urban A-list mall is a dangerous course right now as chain stores in malls are vanishing fast.  In fact, the mall should focus its money and efforts on attracting new anchors to the mall while bucking the trends completely.  Malls like Berkshire Mall in Reading have NOT seen a loss of customers or stores by refusing to renovate.  A tenant mix that is 15-25% mom-and-pop stores coupled with popular anchors may actually make the mall more appealing in a college town: especially local restaurants and stores that sell used records, antiques, arts and crafts as long as it is balanced with popular chain stores and junior anchors.  At the end, fountains and planters should actually be restored and even expanded in the mall as a means to create a unique draw that is missing from so many malls today.  I guess the question is, is Zamias willing to take a chance and turn this vintage gem into a diamond in the rough?

Google maps view of the mall.  JCPenney is on the right, Bon-Ton on top, Sears on the bottom and Kmart on the left.

ALSO: Here is a directory from the mall's website of the mall showing the locations of stores, planters and fountains.