Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cressona Mall: Pottsville, PA

Some malls stand out as major landmarks that are impossible to miss.  Cressona Mall is not one of those.  In fact, if you pass it driving along PA 61 you would easily mistake it for a strip mall.  If not for the name, you might not even notice that there was a mall there, but in fact there is.  A mostly dead one, that is.  While Cressona Mall has remained somewhat viable as a strip center, the interior mall is today barely hanging on with just a few local shops and a Goodwill store.  Nevertheless, for the lover of the mostly lost "community center" mall, this is one of the very few examples remaining today.

Most community malls were designed to be basically a strip mall turned inward.  Never large and never very fancy, the idea was that a climate controlled mall could house the same tenants normally found in an open-air strip center usually on less land.  Initially the typical strip mall tenants lined up to fill these malls mixed in with a variety of local stores.  In no cases did it work considering that shoppers proved unwilling to trek into these mini-malls, and chain stores likewise fled leaving a leaky, nearly derelict building with a few local businesses operating on very low rents.  Eventually the cost of maintenance led to the building being demolished in favor of a traditional strip mall.  Cressona so far has proved to be one of the very few exceptions.

The first photo is looking down the south wing of the mall toward what was Hills/Ames with a narrow office corridor to the right.  The next two photos are exterior shots looking toward Giant and Staples (former Grant's).  The second photo is looking to what was all originally Hill's, later Ames.

The mall directory shows significant vacancies in 2015, but apparently many of these have since been filled or shops combined for larger tenants.

Front entrance wing looking to center court.  It is not known what the Goodwill was originally.

When Cressona Mall opened in 1974, it housed three major tenants: a Grant's, Hill's Department Store and Bi-Lo (a local supermarket not to be confused with the larger Southern chain).  Grant's after closing with the chain became Lane Department Stores and today is Staples.  Hill's became Ames after Ames purchased the chain in 1998.  Ames at that point had overexpanded and went out of business four years later.  Today, the former Ames space is divided up into three spaces with Ollie's on the far end, a medical center in the middle and the portion connected to the mall itself still vacant.  In fact, an Ames sign remains today at the mall entrance in the Hill's oval.  Buy-Lo also changed twice: first to Insalaco (which today is a real estate development firm) and later to Carlisle, PA-based Giant.  The grocery anchor never had direct mall access.

A separate look at the front entrance wing, which is the most vibrant part of the mall.

A view of center court and what appears to have been a local department store in what was now the Goodwill judging by the fancy light fixture.

A view from the Grant's/Giant/Dollar General side of the mall looking toward Ames/Hills

This snack bar kiosk looks to have been pretty much untouched since the 80's, but does anybody know what it used to be?

The mall's struggles are by no means remarkable.  The fact that a mall is still there and open to the public is what is actually remarkable.  Not all of the mall, however, is still intact.  Dollar General built their store into existing mall space cutting off access to Staple's, which originally had been Grant's.  The mall otherwise exists today with few tenants dependent on inline access and the most vacancies found in the main part of the mall.  The front part, however, is the busiest and includes a candy shop near the front entrance is definitely one of the best I have run across.

A look at the entire Hills/Ames wing starting at the mall entrance moving to center court.  Dollar General is visible in the background, but the store does not have any mall access.

The Ames sign in the Hills oval still hangs on in 2015, but this sign will be removed very shortly for a Planet Fitness.  While sad, it is obviously not in the best interest of a mall to have a mall entrance and anchor pad sit vacant for 15+ years, so it is bittersweet.

Goodwill takes up a good size chunk of the mall in center court.

Cressona Mall is found on a corridor in a portion of Pennsylvania that has been struggling economically.  Once a center of heavy industry, it joins three other dying malls within a close proximity.  To the north is Fairlane Village Mall, which is anchored by Boscov's and Kohl's although only Boscov's maintains a mall entrance.  Fairlane Village is more than 50% vacant and at present is the only modestly healthy traditional mall in the area.  Further north is the infamous Schuyllkill Mall, a large and remarkably vintage mall located on the very top of a mountain that has been dying for years and may end up closed for good sometime within the next year.  Even further north is the infamous Centralia mine fire that led to the demolition of an entire town suggesting that happiness and a tax base remains a struggle for residents living along PA 61.  South of there is Fairgrounds Square Mall, another struggling mall in Reading, which is likely to be redeveloped after it's sale to Hull Property Group.  After Schuyllkill likely falls to redevelopment, Cressona may not be far behind considering that on April 2, 2015 it was announced that the mall was facing foreclosure.  It is clear the only real problems with the center involve the interior mall portion.

Inside the former Hills/Ames, many relics remain, but the scene only shows 1/3 of the store.  The other 2/3 was split off for Ollie's Bargain Outlet and a medical center.

Dollar General creates a mall entrance only to close it off.  It appears Dollar General filled some of the mall space with the Staples behind it the original entrance to Grant's.

The way to fill a small mall with few options for tenants is obviously to combine spaces into larger ones.  Rent-A-Center on the right takes up many spaces formerly occupied by several smaller tenants.

The owners of this little mall, however, have plenty of front-facing stores to keep this mall going as long as they want if they can just figure out what to do with or without the interior portion.  They just proved they have muscle when it was announced in 2016 that the former Ames/Hill's space would be filled with a Planet Fitness.  Many malls these days have been thinking outside the big box to fill these voids, but it remains to be seen if they will maintain the interior portion long-term.  The article states that out of 21 interior spaces that only six are presently vacant suggesting that either the economy must be picking up in the area or they are leasing to non-traditional tenants.  In addition, PennDOT just completed major improvements to PA 61, which will hopefully drive more traffic into the region.  Unfortunately, this change will also mean the loss of one of the last vestiges of dead retail in the mall: the Ames sign still found at the mall entrance.  At least with the possible jobs coming to a redeveloped Schuyllkill Mall and the continued viability of Cressona that possibly an economic renaissance may be coming to Schuyllkill Valley.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Westgate Mall: Bethlehem, PA

Westgate Mall is one of those malls easy to miss.  From the outside it does not even look like a mall.  From aerials, it is easy to mistake it for a large strip center.  This probably explains why in the many discussions about dying malls that this one is overlooked.  Originally opening in 1973, the mall exists as a forgotten yet surviving early shopping center in Bethlehem.  Since eclipsed by larger malls, the mall has largely become a community mall serving an ever decreasing customer base.  Probably the only reason it survives today is because it maintains three major anchor tenants that provide financial security although they seem to be awaiting either redevelopment or openings for better locations.

Developed by Harold S. Campbell, Westgate Mall is a combined enclosed strip and enclosed mall meaning that few like it exist anywhere.  The anchors to the original center included Hess's on the west end of the main mall, Newberry's on the east end and George's IGA Foodliner on the strip portion.  The mall also contains an upper level portion of offices on the strip portion over the top of the current Rite-Aid.  Another second level office portion was located next to Newberry's, but that portion is walled off and currently unusued.  In all, it was a strangely designed center.

It's a big step up into the mall leaving Bon-Ton (former Hess's).  However, don't expect to be stepping up into a shopper's paradise.  The first photo shows the bend from the enclosed strip into the main mall with the former Newberry's entrance on the left and a mystery staircase to walled off offices straight ahead.  Photo and all other uncredited (webmaster) photos taken May 3, 2014.

Westgate Mall in the full mall portion has no natural light relying on overhead artificial light to brighten the concourse.  This was typical in the 70's, but since the 1980's natural light is preferred.

It is unknown what this last operated as, but it was a very large tenant.  The portion on the left was rebuilt after a 1977 fire.

Apparently this empty store was used as a Republican campaign headquarters in 2012.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Former Newberry's mall entrance head on from the main mall with the mystery steps to the right (no public access, of course).  First photo taken May 3, 2014.  Second photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

An interesting note about the Hess's is that it is identical in design to a store built at South Mall closer to Allentown.  However, the enclosure of the mall was not handled in a typical fashion.  Since the mall included both a strip and enclosed portion, ultimately the strip portion was enclosed, too!  However, unlike most efforts to enclose a strip, it simply became an enclosed hallway with the original tenants on one side and the parking lot on the other with glass windows separating it.  Only a portion of the enclosed strip actually has tenants on both sides.  In addition, Hess's anchored the mall in a strange fashion with the store staggered like a discount store with the store set back away from the front of the mall.  While it still does have a mall entrance, it includes a tiring set of steps and an odd diagonal door to the right going directly outside.  In addition, Bon-Ton today takes up space of an inline tenant on the opposite side of the single door.

Looking back from Newberry's to Bon-Ton with these odd railings posted as a means to give some sort of definition to the mall.  The mall has continuous slopes from Newberry's to Bon-Ton.  First photo is by Digital Sky from August 26, 2012 and second is from May 3, 2014.

These photos show the mall a little less cheery between 2012 and 2014 with the colorful banners removed overhead.  First photo by Digital Sky.

Kay Jewelers sporting this vintage logo has since left the building.  Only in Pennsylvania would a store like this last this long in a basically dead mall.  I guess they drew enough traffic from Bon-Ton.  Second photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Westgate Optical clearly appears to be one of the mall's oldest tenants.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Tragedy struck the mall when in 1977 a fire erupted that destroyed 18 stores.  The fire happened along the front portion of the mall next to Hess's.  That portion today includes is where Bon-Ton operates a second store in the mall.  Aside from this obvious major setback, the mall appeared to be modestly successful throughout the 70's and 80's, but by the 1990's the mall began to struggle as Lehigh Valley continued to draw customers away.  Like most early malls, the mall had a tough time competing with only one department store anchor and a major five and dime store as its principal anchor tenants.  JJ Newberry closed with most of the chain in 1997 leaving a huge vacancy in the center of the mall that has never been filled.  However, the owners also lucked out with A&P eventually being replaced by Weis and Hess's was replaced by Bon-Ton.  Rite-Aid also maintains a location in the mall along with Weis in the enclosed strip portion.

The two entrances to Bon-Ton.  The latter replaced an unknown store inline and was part of the portion rebuilt after the 1977 fire.  Note the door on the right of Bon-Ton to the outside.  The wall directory ties the two images together.

The two Bon-Ton stores side by side with the "escape door".  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Beginning of the enclosed strip portion includes what appears to be a second former entrance of Newberry's to the right.

More of the corridor headed to Weis with a bend in the corridor approaching the Weis store entrance.

A curiosity with the mall was the size of front-facing inline tenants, most of which looked to be junior anchors.  An empty store with a wood front is the most noticeable sat next to a former front mall entrance that is today part of Subway.  This store had both outside and mall entrance access and took up a large section of the road-facing side of mall.  It looks like today it periodically opens as a temporary store/office, but most everything in the main mall portion is empty.  Kay Jewelry and Payless Shoes are two of the remaining tenants in that section as of 2012 with Kay since departed.

Weis entrance on the right; outside entrance on the left.  Judging from the scene ahead this looks like a bit of a tight squeeze for that cart full.

Another bend in the enclosed strip beyond Weis includes some narrow stores on the left that create a breif (and more legitimate) mall.  Something tells me that door on the right is fake.

Twisting and turning on a climate controlled urban hike that ends at Rite-Aid

Rite-Aid on the right with the end of the mall in sight.

The east end of the mall is...a single glass door.  The possibilities are endless just across that parking lot!

Looking back from the door to the beginning of the long and twisting journey back to Bon-Ton.

Despite this, today Westgate Mall is significantly vacant.  Most of the active tenants are located in the front of the mall with parking lot access while the back of the enclosed mall is mostly empty.  Bon-Ton also likely only holds on due to inability to obtain anchor space at Lehigh Valley Mall nearby.  Otherwise, they would probably close.  The mall has also not had any renovation in at least 30 years making it one of the most vintage malls still in operation in the state, but that is supposed to change when it was announced in 2015 that the mall would receive a $5 million dollar overhaul.  Much of that is to support the addition of Sky Zone Trampoline Park in the main mall corridor.  How the mall hangs on is anybody's guess considering that the vast majority of shoppers drive a little further up the road to go to Lehigh Valley Mall.

View of the upper level offices from the bend in the enclosed strip portion.  The Weis is visible in the background.

Near the turn back to the legitimate (double-sided) mall.  Not that this is illegitimate.  It's still a mall, and these days you take what you can get.

Outside view of the mall from the Bon-Ton side.  The stores in the foreground were wiped out in the 1977 fire.

Bon-Ton's second store outside with the funky mall entrance in the right corner.

Exterior shots of the Bon-Ton (former Hess's) with the mall name on the NW corner.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

The most probably future for Westgate Mall is a redevelopment into a regular strip mall when Bon-Ton finally leaves, but for right now the owners seem to be committed to keeping an enclosed mall: very unusual in 2016!  Regardless, Bon-Ton is probably exploring options currently including taking over the current Sears store in the partially demalled Whitehall Mall.  It is curious that after Leh's department store closed at Whitehall that they didn't decide to relocate then, but most likely at the time they felt they couldn't effectively compete so close to the larger, better mall.  Whitehall was also trying to shake off their own reputation as a mall favored by elderly shoppers when it was redeveloped.  Whatever the outcome, it is absolutely remarkable that this mall has made it over 50 years.  As the first regional shopping mall in Lehigh Valley, it has endured quite a bit of competition to survive this long even in its anemic form.  

Westgate Mall main entrance.  Only the logo was changed.  The original entrance used an Old English-style font.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

A secondary mall entrance to the main mall was unceremoniously downgraded to an entrance for Subway.  To the untrained eye, it looks demalled!  Photo taken by Digital Sky August 26, 2012.

Westgate Mall's original logo was found on this sign.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Weis, originally Harold's IGA Foodline.  To all appearances it was an A&P, and it may have very well been one originally.  Photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.

Describing the mall corridor is difficult, so hopefully these directories shed some light.  What is not shown is the walled off upper level area at the bottom of the L next to the old Newberry's mall entrance.   Second photo by Digital Sky taken August 26, 2012.