Lehigh Valley shopping centers finally fill up
Airport Center and other centers near capacity, focus now shifts to Sands luxury outlet mall
Tyrone Richardson / The Morning Call
Airport Center opened in 2009 to tepid fanfare, its prospects dampened by a sea of empty storefronts and broken commitments from merchants.
Now, years later, it’s like a retail Cinderella story. The 500,000-square-foot Hanover Township, Lehigh County, shopping center — popular for being the exclusive Lehigh Valley location for merchants like DSW, Christmas Tree Shops and On The Border — is approaching full capacity.
The turnaround theme is shared by other recession-born shopping centers, including Lower Nazareth Commons on Route 248 in Lower Nazareth Township and Richland Marketplace on Route 309 in Richland Township, both of which opened with a sea of empty spaces.
One reason for the vacancy rate about-face is cheaper rents, said Jeff Green, president and CEO of Phoenix-based retail consultant Jeff Green Partners.
“Rents went down when the economy went down,” Green said. “For many retailers it became a way to get into a market cheaply.”
Many new faces have appeared in the centers in the last year or so. Among them are So Fun! Yogurt, which opened its inaugural store in the Lower Nazareth Commons and The Gyro Co., which opened in Airport Center.
As for Airport Center, available space has been in such demand that construction crews have added more brick and mortar.
That includes the 6,500-square-foot Logan’s Roadhouse recently constructed in the parking lot near Panera Bread. Officials at Logan’s Tennessee headquarters didn’t give an exact opening date, but said sometime in February.
Construction crews also are busy building an Old Navy clothing store next to DSW.
Airport Center was a bitter topic when I took over the Retail Watch column in 2008. Many merchants, including Macaroni Grill, Petsmart, Starbucks and FedEx Kinkos, pulled back on development plans at the height of The Great Recession, upsetting some readers.
Today, Airport Center is popular. Anchored by Target and Sam’s Club, the property houses roughly two dozen merchants like Golf Galaxy, A.C. Moore and Zoup!
In addition to full storefronts, the center’s popularity can be measured by its traffic woes. Several readers contacted Retail Watch in recent months to lament about the traffic tie-ups when trying to get out of the center’s main exit off Airport Road.
I witnessed this firsthand when I had to sit in traffic during the holiday shopping season. Maybe Airport Center could benefit from a longer traffic light on Airport Road?
Now, eyes are turning to one of the Valley’s latest shopping destinations: The Shoppes at the Sands.
The much-ballyhooed addition to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem was supposed to be near its 31-merchant capacity for its grand opening next month, but leases apparently have slowed.
The 200,000-square-foot luxury outlet mall has nine stores and plans to add a mere five next month: Coach, Corning, Chico’s Peeps & Co. and Hartstrings.
The leases haven’t been signed as quickly as planned, but Sands officials remain optimistic.
“The leasing process is ongoing with potential deals for 25 of the 31 stores,” said Sands spokeswoman Julia Corwin. “We expect the Shoppes at Sands to be fully occupied by the fall of this year.”
Green cautioned that the Sands mall’s small size could be a problem since many outlet malls are larger, housing as many as 100 stores or more. Merchants also can afford to be selective, he said.
“There are so many outlet malls being developed throughout the country that merchants have the choice of places they want to go,” Green said.
Now, let’s step away from shopping centers.
Ella May Southern Cuisine has closed in Easton’s West Ward. The soul-food restaurant at 1029 Butler St. lasted roughly six months.
Soul-food restaurants have not fared well in the Lehigh Valley as of late. Easton has had Soullicious and Jaffy’s Soul Food, both of which have occupied the same storefront at 77 N. Fourth St., and closed.
Ella May was a sit-down and takeout eatery owned by Wanda Alleyne and daughters Tyiesha and Yedaiah.
The restaurant’s fare — such as fried chicken, pork chops and fish — was lauded earlier this year by Morning Call restaurant critic Susan Gottshall, who ranked it as one of the “Top 10 memorable meals of 2011.”
Ever since the abrupt closure of the Burger King on Hamilton Boulevard in South Whitehall Township last month, there are still more questions than answers about the place.
Why did it close? Will it reopen?
Those questions remain largely unanswered since my ongoing efforts for comment from the chain’s independent owner, RVD Inc., have been unsuccessful.
The restaurant has been removed from Burger King’s website, which is obviously never a good sign.
The property remains peppered with “closed” signs taped to the restaurant’s window. Other pieces of paper taped to the doors and windows said “Temporarily closed. Will reopen ASAP.”
Burger King has at least 15 restaurants in the Valley. The Morning Call’s records show the Hamilton Boulevard restaurant is at least three decades old.
The property adjacent to the Burger King has been listed for sale for quite some time.
The former Carmine’s Italian restaurant on Allentown’s Union Boulevard is shaping into an Afghan eatery planned to open soon.
The new restaurant at 1052 Union Blvd. is called Aria, described as an Afghan kabob and pizzeria venture, according to its sign. Immediate efforts to get a few details from the restaurant’s owner were unsuccessful.
I reported in 2010 that longtime Carmine’s owner Sal Venezia closed the eatery that year due to retirement. Venezia said he sold the building to a group that would turn the space into an Afghan deli and include some of Carmines signature Italian dishes as well.
The building will also house Valley Fruit and Vegetable Market, according to a sign at the property.