A sky-high crane dangles over a corner of Franklin Mills Mall these days, but it is more than a towering construction tool: It is a symbol of how necessity is the mother of reinvention at this once-legendary shopping mall.
A Walmart Supercenter is taking shape at the once-pioneering complex, which opened nearly 25 years ago with theme-park anticipation as among the first outlet malls, and the outright largest, ever built. The splashy development, unveiled in 1989, was a gamble befitting its locale, a onetime Northeast Philadelphia racetrack. And early on, its unmatched offerings paid off with packed corridors.
The mall flaunted a 1.2-mile-long, zigzag-shaped concourse, and more than 200 stores hawking discount designer goods, at a time when such wares were available only at out-of-the-way old-factory outlets. Its 1.7 million square feet of bargain buys, right off I-95, was a tourist draw and local sensation.
But the megamall's early monopoly on outlet shopping has come to an end, forcing Franklin Mills to alter its once-irresistible identity. The Walmart is one of many tenants that now make the monolith, well, a bit more ordinary. And this is by design.
Dubbed "The Mall to End Them All" when it opened, Franklin Mills is refashioning itself as more conventional these days. The 180,000-square-foot Walmart opening next year is but one example.
"We consider ourselves the largest outlet and value destination in Philadelphia," said John Ahle, who became Franklin Mills' general manager a year ago, before Walmart broke ground on a long-dormant anchor site. "Some of the stores are outlets, some are factory outlets, some of the stores are traditional mall vendors. So you get the best of both worlds."
The new Walmart will replace a smaller one across the street and have a full-size supermarket, as is found in suburban shopping centers. Such expansions are common where shopper demand is high and a large tract of land is available, Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said.
"Walmart meets our value proposition," Ahle added. "They offer budget-conscious shoppers more selection for less."
Such language is a far cry from the Disney-like promise of unbeatable shopping and entertainment when Franklin Mills opened in 1989, with downright imperial ambitions.
Franklin Mills hit the stage as a bigger version of the Woodbridge, Va., outlet mall Potomac Mills, a 1.2 million-square-foot mall that opened in September 1985 and served as prototype for the Philadelphia behemoth. Both were built by the same partnership group that introduced outlet malls to America.
It opened with a JCPenney Outlet, the Boscov's-owned Ports of the World, a Phar-Mor discount drugstore, Reading China & Glass, and a Sears Outlet store, plus an entertainment wing. Almost all have since vanished, except for the Sears Outlet. Penneys a few years ago was converted to a regular department store.
Higher-end attractions included the Saks Fifth Avenue outlet store Saks Off Fifth, and Last Call by Neiman Marcus, which remain centerpiece attractions today.
"It was very pioneering, and it was a huge regional draw," said Steven Gartner, president of retail brokerage Metro Commercial Real Estate Inc., whose company books tenants at an adjacent shopping center, Franklin Marketplace. "I believe at one time it was one of the largest tourist attractions in the state of Pennsylvania."
Franklin Mills is the region's second-largest mall, behind King of Prussia. Both are owned by Indianapolis-based real estate investment trust Simon Property Group.
For years, it was a force to be reckoned with. Even with King of Prussia nearby, the well-heeled of the western suburbs would trek toward rowhouse Northeast Philadelphia in search of designer steals.
"I went from the Main Line to Franklin Mills, and lots of people did, to shop," Gartner said. "That is not happening today."
Outlet-style shopping has become commonplace. Outdoor complexes such as Simon-owned Philadelphia Premium Outlets in Limerick have been built in many communities. And many retailers now manufacture lines intended for sale only at their own outlet stores.
Franklin Mills, when it opened, was a clearinghouse for unsold or damaged inventory.
The extent of the change is captured also by a backstory to the soon-to-close Walmart at Liberty Plaza Shopping Center across from Franklin Mills.
That 131,000-square-foot Walmart is in a shopping center built in 1988 for another big-bang attraction: European hypermarket chain Carrefour. But even that closed, quickly, in 1993.
Simon Property bought Franklin Mills and Liberty Plaza from Mills Corp. in 2007 in a joint venture called the Mills Limited Partnership, and it sold Liberty Plaza in July, said investor relations manager Kristin Ely.
A year ago, Simon moved Franklin Mills and several other former Mills properties into a separate balance sheet category called "other operating properties," for reasons Ely did not explain. And it bought out its partner in several Mills assets, but still jointly owns Franklin Mills, Ely said.
General manager Ahle said more changes were planned in the next year at the mall, which is 89 percent occupied, 97 percent when counting tenants with short-term leases.
"I don't think we're tearing anything down," he said, "but we're going to be doing a lot of refurbishing and renovations."
The original Phar-Mor anchor, at 80,000 square feet, remains vacant and owned by a non-Simon entity. The Walmart will replace a 130,000-square-foot anchor space dormant for about four years. Marshalls, Burlington Coat Factory, and Bed, Bath & Beyond are among today's anchor tenants.
Given the mix of tenants, mall officials hope Franklin Mills' size can remain a draw. It is twice as big as Simon's premium outlet complex in Limerick, and offers all-weather shopping. The Walmart, when it opens by early fall, should boost business, if mostly among locals.
"Our shoppers and our merchants are both very excited about it," Ahle said.