The obituary of dead malls is written in neon “final sale” signs slapped on windows at Sears, which is the sole remaining retailer at the Burlington Center Mall. The mall’s 100 retail stores and restaurants closed, victims of changing times and tastes.
“It’s all empty. It’s a shame,” said mall shopper Jean Johnson.
Johnson fondly recalls the mall’s heyday 36 years ago.
“It was great,” she said. “All the stores were open. The place was crowded. I used to meet my brother and his wife at the food court and have something to eat.”
“You know, you have the change in the economy, where everybody is buying stuff online. And if you believe all the developers who want to come in here and talk to us about it, that type of mall and that type of retail is dead,” said Burlington Township Mayor Brian Carlin.
Twenty-eight so-called enclosed malls dot New Jersey, and except for high-end enclaves like The Mall at Short Hills, many struggle to stay profitable.
“That’s the other dimension of retooling malldom in New Jersey, shifting activities to experience, health, wellness and a whole range of other functions that weren’t even anticipated 20 years ago,” said James Hughes, dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
“The mayor calls this the heartbeat of Voorhees, so we’re trying to make it a true downtown, which we never had,” said Mario DiNatale, director of community and economic development for Voorhees Township in Camden County.
DiNatale works at Voorhees Town Hall, inside what used to be the Echelon Mall six years ago. They moved here, partly to help revive the 48-year-old complex. He says critics carped.
“‘You attached our town hall to a dead mall?’ They would use the analogy of a Siamese twin being attached to a dead Siamese twin,” he said. “So this is our largest taxpayer in Voorhees, so we had to do something to try to help it.”
That’s not easy. The mall’s about 50 percent occupied. Retailers didn’t rush to fill multiple vacancies, even as rents rose.
“Which had a domino effect, and I guess they were too short-sighted to understand that people aren’t going to stay when the rents get raised,” said mall patron Bill Haines.
So DiNatale refocused on finding a developer who’d buy the 665,000-square-foot property from owner Namdar Realty Group and build an entertainment and community centered reboot. A downtown, maybe with a microbrewery.
“A walkable, sustainable, enjoyable entertainment kind of an area with additional restaurants, with bars. A fun place to go,” DiNatale said.
The township will decide between two finalist developers in August and hopes to see construction start by Labor Day without having to resort to mechanisms like eminent domain. Meanwhile, it’s encouraging small shops, like artist galleries, to keep the public engaged.
“The transition is becoming more and more this is a place to come to participate in community things,” said Suzy Sherbine, a resident artist.
It’s a transition that Burlington’s hired an analyst to help design, even as it resists pressure to build warehouses.
“One of the great questions in this town is, what are you doing with the mall? And the best and most honest answer I can say is, nothing. We don’t know yet. We just don’t know,” Carlin said.
At Burlington Center, Sears will close in September and the mall’s death spiral will be complete. But every ending creates an opportunity for a new beginning.