What do you have when you mix tons of kids and 50,000 Lego pieces outside a mall?
A groundbreaking for a new attraction designed to generate traffic at a time when the American mall is reinventing itself as a shopping and entertainment venue.
That was the scene at Plymouth Meeting Mall on Tuesday as a truck unloaded Lego pieces to helmet-wearing, shovel-holding tykes who were eager to get construction underway for what promises to be their new play area by spring: a 33,000-square-foot Legoland Discovery Center.
"Our business has evolved and the mall has evolved," said Joseph Coradino, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns Plymouth Meeting, Cherry Hill, Moorestown, among other malls in the region. "This [Legoland] is what I call 'retailtainment.' "
Across PREIT's expansive portfolio, Coradino said, about 15 percent of mall space was now dedicated to dining and entertainment attractions.
"It really speaks to the evolution that's occurred that we are at the forefront of," he said.
Coincidentally, Legoland comes as PREIT is actively looking for a replacement tenant for its Macy's anchor at Plymouth Meeting Mall. It joins Macy's stores at Moorestown and Altoona malls that the company has put on the endangered list.
Macy's Corp. announced in August that it was reducing its footprint by 100 stores in early 2017 as it concentrates on building up online sales. The closures come on top of the 38 Macy's that closed earlier this year.
The company said the full list of where the 100 Macy's stores will close will be announced after Christmas - though PREIT has taken a proactive approach to start looking now for replacements.
Although Coradino declined to comment whether there was anything new to report on PREIT's search to replace the Plymouth Meeting Macy's, he said back in August that he was leaning toward a restaurant.
"Ten years ago, malls had a food court and a restaurant and it was an exception," he said this week. "To move from that to virtually 15 percent dining and entertainment in our malls today clearly reflects this revisioning and repurposing of malls to become something more than places to shop.
"Now, they are creating experiential retail, and Legoland, Round 1 [a bowling alley], and Dave & Buster's fit in with that."
The Legoland Discovery Center will be the first in Pennsylvania, fourth on the East Coast, ninth in the country, and only the 17th in the world. Among other U.S. areas that have it are Atlanta, Boston, and Westchester County, N.Y.
"We are selective," said Michael Taylor, general manager of Legoland Discovery Center Philadelphia. "Obviously, we want to be a good tenant and have a good partnership with our landlord, and we definitely have that with PREIT, and that's why we chose this area."
Merlin Entertainment Inc., the second-largest visitor-attraction company in the world, operates the Legoland Discovery Centers under a partnership with Denmark-based Lego Group.
"We promote playful learning. That's what we look for," Taylor said. "This is a market with good drive time, a huge population, and ideal demographics."
When it opens in the spring, Taylor said, the center will feature 10 play zones, a 4-D cinema, two birthday-party rooms, some retail, and a café. There also will be a mini-Philadelphia section that will display the city's most iconic attractions in full Lego glory.
Dan Brickner, executive vice president and principal at Mount Laurel-based Metro Commercial, who represents the entertainment and dining firm Dave & Buster's, said such venues were proven traffic generators.
"Enclosed malls are increasingly seeking new entertainment concepts to differentiate themselves from the competition, expand their trade areas, and attract more shoppers," he said. "Movie theaters have traditionally been the extent of the entertainment offering in or around malls, but now we are seeing tenants such as Dave & Buster's, Top Golf, and Pinstripes opening within the mall or on an out parcel. These uses attract a clientele that will travel farther and stay longer for a unique experience."
Said Jeff Green of the retail consulting firm Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix: "Entertainment uses have been added to the mall for a few reasons: One, it is a way to get folks to the mall during the evening hours; two, it expands the mall's trade area if the use is unique enough; and three, it brings in customers it might not otherwise capture."
Plymouth Meeting Mall has "an unbelievable location in the sense there is something like 90 million cars a year on that road network that includes the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-76, and Germantown Pike. It's one of the top three from a car-count perspective in our portfolio," Coradino said.
"Legoland Discovery Center will significantly expand our draw in spite of the competitive forces at work," he said. "When we looked at the opportunity, we found there are a million children, ages 2 to 12, within 60 minutes of Plymouth Meeting Mall. They all have to get Mom and Dad to drive them here - that's called a customer."
Coradino, who visited a Legoland in Fort Worth, Texas, last year, called landing the attraction "a grand slam."
He ticked off three bright spots for the mall: Red Stone Grill there is one of the top performers in the Red Stone chain; the Whole Foods does "unbelievable business," as does the J.Crew Mercantile shop.
He said occupancy was relatively strong at 95 percent, though his goal is to bring sales per square foot north of $400. The mall is generating $336 per square foot as of Sept. 30.
"Since Legoland can be accessed from the mall, we will hopefully drive all of that traffic to other retailers in the mall," Coradino said.