In 1977, Gallery I opened at Market East, bookended by Strawbridge and Clothier to the east and Gimbels to the west. This urban mall was an effort to compete with the suburban shopping experience, which had grown considerably in the years prior. While the Strawbridge’s building had been in use for decades, Gimbels occupied a (remarkably unattractive) newly constructed space, moving from their original location across the street.

Original Gimbels from the Department Store Museum

Opening of the new Gimbels, photo by Jack Byrne1

Initially, the Gallery achieved quite a bit of success, which led to the construction of Gallery II in 1984. In recent decades, however, the Gallery is considered an architectural failure, creating an unwelcome experience for pedestrians with its inward looking design. With virtually no street presence, the Gallery creates a desert-like environment for people walking between Philadelphia’s historic district and many of its downtown hotels.

It seems like conversations have been going on for quite some time about reimagining the Gallery and taking steps to improve the streetscape surrounding the building. Yet to this point, the exterior of the mall has remained more or less the same for years. But long awaited changes may finally be coming soon.

Former Gimbels, now Kmart

According to an article in this week’s Philadelphia Business Journal, PREIT will soon be purchasing 901 Market St., the building pictured above. It was home to Gimbels, then Sterns, then Clover, before turning into a Kmart. With this purchase, PREIT will become the primary property owner of the north side of two blocks of Market Street that encompass a large portion of the Gallery. As such, the article goes on to say that PREIT expects to announce the launch of a plan to turn the mall inside out, with stores opening onto Market Street, by the end of the year.

What this will mean for current mall tenants is unclear, but what it will mean for Market East can only be positive. New stores on the street means a friendlier pedestrian and tourist experience, which could create a self-perpetuating economic boom. For years, we’ve waited for the big thing that will change Market East and turn it into an appropriate bridge between Old City and City Hall, and this project should be that big thing.

Will it mean a movie theater? Residential towers above the mall? A shift to a more upscale shopping experience? Those are all questions to be answered another time. For now, we can just look forward to the future with a little more hope for this area than we had yesterday.

Unrealized plans for towers above the Gallery, from BLT Architects