When I was a kid and teenager, my favorite mall was the Echelon Mall in Voorhees, NJ. What was it that made this mall special? Perhaps the biggest draw for me was that I could get there completely on my own. I simply hopped on the PATCO High-Speed Line, got off at Ashland Station, then either walked the rest of the way or took the free shuttle bus. So simple, even I could do it!
That little bit of freedom meant the world to me back then. It gave me the ability to see a movie (Corvette Summer, Thank God It's Friday, The Buddy Holly Story and Starman come to mind), pick up the latest Guitar Player magazine, browse the LP racks at The Record Museum, ogle the blacklight posters in the back of Spencer Gifts, play the newest video games at either of the Funway Freeway arcades, and even grab a burger at MacDonalds inside the mall, which was still a novelty (that’s right, food courts hadn’t yet come into existence). And I could do all of these things without any parental intervention. It was great!
In recent years, despite the interior renovation and the building of the food court that preceded it, the mall has been dying a slow death. It seemed like every time I went there another store was gone. To their credit, Sears swooped in a while back, built a whole new store next to JC Penney and made a real go of it, but even they bugged out after a couple of years. Sears left, the movie theater closed, and so many of the mall’s smaller stores closed that today it looks like a ghost town. It’s not that Sears brought on the change; they merely reflected it. Last summer I was shocked to find that even JC Penney, the store where I bought so many plastic model kits in junior high, had closed.
Dark times indeed.
A few months ago I did a quick Google search for information on the mall’s fate, fully expecting to read about its imminent demise. What I found instead was Tucker’s World, a blog by a twenty-some guy who, like me, loved the mall as a kid and, unlike me, keeps up with the news about the mall. It was there that I learned of Wal-Mart’s plan to raze the old JC Penney and build a new store on its site. It was there that I also learned of the mall’s new management (PREIT) and some of their plans for the place.
In thinking about the mall’s situation, I came to realize that the biggest challenge it faces is simple geography. All the other shopping centers and malls I can think of sit directly beside a major thorofare. The Cherry Hill and Moorestown malls are right beside Rt. 38. The Deptford Mall is next to Rt. 42. Eastgate Plaza is next to Rt. 295. What’s the Echelon Mall next to? Burnt Mill Rd, Somerdale Rd. and some condos. You can’t see it from anywhere else—not even the White Horse Pike! With neither visibility nor accessability in its favor, the place seems destined to die on the vine (and, in fact, as of this writing the mall is 74% vacant).
What can be done to save the mall? Obviously it cannot be moved, nor can any major roads be redirected past it, but there are some other things that I think should be considered:
- Put up a bunch of large, colorful signs on Haddonfield-Berlin Rd, Rt. 295, the White Horse Pike, Springdale Road and White Horse Road showing exactly how to get to the mall. Put them up at every possible intersection which could get folks to the mall.
- Once those signs are in place, put up some more on Rts. 73, 70, 42 and Blackwood-Clementon Road to drive people to the next sign.
- Change the intersection at Somerdale & the Pike so that there’s a dedicated left turn only lane on the eastbound side, along with its own light.
- If there’s no longer a shuttle bus running between PATCO and the mall, get one back! Make it free or really cheap.
- Create a wide access road straight to the mall from White Horse Road.
There is one other idea I have, but it’s probably even more unrealistic than that access road: relocate the Cinemark 16 theater from the Lion’s Head Plaza (which is also swirling around the drain) to the Echelon Mall. The old Sears building would be a great place to center it.
It’s clear to me that without some kind of change outside the mall itself, the place is gonna die within two years. Count on it. The Echelon Mall was my favorite mall as a kid, but that mall is already long gone. I’d still hate to see it razed, but it seems inevitable from where I sit.
That posting was a little more prescient than I thought! I said that "without some kind of change outside the mall itself, the place is gonna die within two years". Changes were indeed made, but to the mall itself. By the end of 2007--just over two years after my post--PREIT had revamped the whole complex, lopping off about 40% of it and transforming it into Voorhees Town Center. Sadly there is still no increase in signage outside the place. And from what I have heard, the place is still largely unrented.
I also mentioned that the Lion's Head Plaza was "swirling down the drain". That place is now in the midst of its own transformation into Cooper Towne Plaza. Most interestingly, the town of Voorhees had resoundingly voted down the notion of having a Wal-Mart built on the site of the old Echelon Mall. Where is the new Wal-Mart being built now? Cooper Towne Plaza. It'll be interesting to see how the two shopping centers fare in the coming years.