At the once-bustling Burlington Center mall, extinct department stores perch on the edge of a bleak asphalt sea, spiky weeds bob in the summer breeze, and some trees are dying as if from a plague.
Only a Sears store plastered with blaring “all sales final” signs remains in business. And by early September, it too will be closed.
“It was a nice mall,” sighed Shonda Jackson, who grew up in nearby Willingboro and now lives in Irvington, Essex County, with her husband, James. The two stopped by the Sears over the weekend while in town to visit family.
“There’s a vacant, haunting feeling, because there’s nothing here,” said Jessica Bongiovanni, a Sears customer who lives in Westampton.
Said her husband, Derek: “It’s a shame.”
In hopes of finding last-gasp bargains, shoppers arrived Saturday morning and found what resembles a set for a movie about a suburban apocalypse. Which is sort of what happened to this onetime destination mall on Route 541 in Burlington Township.
The newest, smallest, and frailest of what once were five regional malls in South Jersey, Burlington Center opened in 1982, at a time when enclosed, climate-controlled shopping was one of America’s favorite pastimes.
South Jersey was synonymous with malls, and vice versa: Cherry Hill’s was among the first in the nation and became something of a regional tourist attraction when it debuted, complete with palm trees and tropical birds, in 1961.
But in recent years, department stores, once a staple (and stable) tenant at nearly every mall, have faded or folded, and many shoppers have migrated to websites or embraced traditional downtowns.
“There are multiple forces conspiring against the 1970s and ’80s-era malls,” said Tim Evans, director of research for NJ Future, a smart-growth advocacy organization. Evans also is the author of a research paper, published by NJ Future last September, about the preferences of younger Garden State residents.
“Millennials want to be back in towns where they can live, work, play, and walk” more than drive, he said. “The old, car-dependent mall doesn’t fit in that model. Some malls in New Jersey are still big draws, but the [preferences of] millennials are another nail in the coffin of the weaker malls.”
Malls are closing or struggling not only in New Jersey but nationwide, as the cheeky but fully committed website deadmalls.com reports.
A microwbrewery and entertainment attractions are among the potential developments at the former mall portion of the Voorhees Town Center, where the remaining anchor, Boscov’s, “is doing well and has committed to be part of any redevelopment plan,” Mayor Michael Mignogna said
At Moorestown Mall, the vacant Macy’s is becoming home to the off-price store HomeSense, opening this year, and Sierra Trading Post, set to debut in early 2019. “We’re also at lease with a new-to-market restaurant to replace Distrito,” said Heather Crowell, a senior vice president at PREIT, which owns the mall.
Burlington Center, on the other hand, has been in a death spiral for nearly a decade.
Macy’s departed in 2010, JCPenney closed in 2014, much-ballyhooed plans for a $230 million makeover were delayed in 2016 and the last sad handful of surviving businesses and nonprofit service providers either were kicked out by management in December, or packed up after pipes froze and burst, interrupting electrical service in January.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The owner, a capital investment firm called Moonbeam, didn’t answer my email or voicemail messages. Sears owns its building, and a company spokesperson was not immediately available to answer questions about its future.
But when I wrote about the mall’s travails in 2013, a Moonbeam executive was more than happy to describe optimistic, if vague, plans for “repositioning” the property, with new tenants, including restaurants.
Later, Moonbeam also purportedly rebranded the mall as the Marketplace at Burlington, but its website still calls it the Burlington Center Mall. The marquee signs on Route 541 that now announce Sears’ leaving simply say Burlington Center.
“We’re trying to be patient [with the owner], but we are also trying to find out for ourselves what the best uses for the property are,” township Mayor Brian Carlin said.
“We’re talking about commissioning a study to give us some ideas. We have pushed to have retail and restaurants on the site. The township has four liquor licenses available.”
Burlington Township also has had overtures from developers interested in building warehouses on the mall property — which lies between the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295 interchanges.
“We do not see it as the best use of the property at this point in time,” said Carlin, who pointed out that construction of a $1 billion Virtua hospital complex on Route 541 “may change the uses” along the busy highway.
“While we understand we are going to have a building sitting there fallow that is going to present policing issues and issues with property maintenance, there are opportunities coming down the road,” he said.
Whatever the opportunities are, I hope Burlington Township ends up with a mixed-use (residential, retail, public space) development on this 67-acre piece of ground.
The withering away of Burlington Center may be painful, but it’s also an opportunity.