How the King of Prussia Mall is Still Thriving
As malls across the country expire in bunches, King of Prussia Mall continues to divide and conquer. Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it. Here’s why.
A rendering of King of Prussia Mall's upcoming addition.
In her bestselling memoir, The Middle Place, Radnor-bred Kelly Corrigan devotes an entire chapter to a teenage fight she had with her mother over a certain pair of Guess jeans. It was 1984, and Guess was the “it” brand. And if you were living in our area in the 1980s, the “it” place to buy Guess jeans—and just about everything else, except maybe groceries—was the King of Prussia Mall.
Corrigan even mulls getting an after-school job to fund her high-end denim aspirations, but Mom wasn’t going for it. The chapter closes with Corrigan headed to the mall for an early Christmas present, anyway.
More than 30 years later, similar scenes play out between mothers and daughters all over the Main Line. Simply replace the Guess jeans with Tory Burch flats or a Rebecca Minkoff crossbody bag. The destination, however, remains the same.
If you grew up here, chances are you have a few choice memories that involved the King of Prussia Mall. For some of you, they date back to the ’60s, when a row of flags representing countries from around the world lined the walkway outside of the Plaza. Or perhaps it was lunch at Wanamaker’s in
the early 1970s, or landing your dream prom gown at Jessica McClintock a decade later.
“My mom and I would hit B. Altman’s in St. Davids, and then head directly to King of Prussia,” says Sarah Doheny, a local public relations specialist who grew up in Newtown Square. “King of Prussia was the place to go and shop.”
Fast-forward to today, and King of Prussia Mall remains the preeminent shopping destination on the East Coast, with about 20 million shoppers visiting its climate-controlled environs annually.
The mall began quite humbly in 1963 with an Acme and a Korvette department store, bastions of convenience filled with everyday necessities for residents of then-rural King of Prussia. In its 52 years, KOP has gone through eight major renovations, including its most recent, which is ongoing. In 1980, the Court was built—a stand-alone structure separated from the Plaza by a covered outdoor crosswalk.
“[But] the biggest change, in my opinion, is when we went to luxury,” says Bob Hart, the mall’s general manager for the past 11 years.
That 1994 expansion brought in three big-name anchors—Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor—along with the likes of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermés. High-end, brand-conscious consumers descended in droves—many from ever-increasing distances.
It’s no secret that KOP is also a major economic force in the area. Upper Merion Township has some of the lowest taxes in the five-county region. “The mall plays a big role in that,” says township supervisor Greg Waks. “Eighty percent of all the real-estate taxes at the mall goes to the Upper Merion School District, and the township receives a dollar for every $1,000 in tax revenue.”
According to its owners, the King of Prussia Mall generates $60 million annually in sales-tax revenue for the local government. It also pays $8 million per year in real-estate taxes.
So while smaller malls throughout the country are closing—or doing anything they can to stay open—KOP continues to thrive. Leased space reportedly commands an average of $700 per square foot. (Anything over $400 is considered healthy for a mall.)
Elsewhere, Delaware County’s Granite Run Mall closed its doors this past July. Plans for the Granite Run site include an upscale, walkable outdoor town center with retail, dining and residential options. Think Main Street at Exton or the Shoppes at Brinton Lake.
In Montgomery County, Plymouth Meeting Mall has resorted to building outside its footprint to attract shoppers. Inside, it’s leased space to the likes of Dave & Buster’s and Mercy Health System. And in Chester County, Exton Square Mall continues to struggle, though it may soon get a PR boost now that movie director Kevin Smith has officially made it the setting for his sequel to the 1995 comedy hit, Mallrats.
It’s always helped that KOP is so near to the turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway, and Routes 202 and 422. Prime location or not, Hart credits the luxury angle more than anything. “These were retailers not found in the Philadelphia market at the time,” he says. “We call them ‘points of difference’ stores. They sell the mall. People simply want to come and shop where there’s a good selection of stores and good merchandise.”
But aren’t both of those things now a simple click away online? So it has to be more than that—and it is. King of Prussia is unlike any other mall in the country, perhaps even the world. Its size alone is astounding. Mall owner Simon Property Group notes that if you walked every one of its corridors and aisles, it would be the equivalent of hoofing it across Manhattan. Two Superdomes would fit on the acreage it occupies. It’s got 40 restaurants of all types, plus more than 400 retailers split between the Court and the Plaza. And that’s another thing that sets it apart: two distinct malls in one. Most shoppers distinguish between the two by way of its anchor stores—“the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s side” vs. “the Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor side.”
Right now, of course, the only way to get from one side to other is to head outdoors, prompting the question, “Why was it ever designed this way?”
Rest assured, SPG CEO David Simon was thinking the same thing when his company was putting together the deal to gain ownership of the mall. “He said to me, ‘No one has ever figured out a way to link these two malls,’” recalls David Contis, SPG’s senior executive vice president and president of its malls platform. “‘There has to be a way to do it, and we have to figure it out.’”
What the new wing will look like inside.
CEOs have some serious pull, so it’s no wonder that plans for joining the two structures began soon after SPG acquired the sprawling property. Construction on an enclosed connector wing has been ongoing for more than 20 months, with a targeted completion in August 2016. It will span 170,000 square feet, offering enough space to accommodate more than 50 new retailers and restaurants. Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s will all have access points in the wing. There will also be a high-tech parking deck attached, with counters on each level displaying how many spaces are available. Shoppers can expect free Wi-Fi and charging stations in the new addition—and everywhere else in the mall, for that matter. In keeping with the spirit of a union, “Court” and “Plaza” will be retired. “We want [it to be] one seamless property,” says Contis.
The expected high-end retailers are being courted for the new space. The first round of leases includes Carolina Herrera, Clarins, Stuart Weitzman, Vince and Robert Graham. The connection will also have a central café area with a variety of options, including a wine bar. “We may be working with a local celebrity chef on doing a restaurant there,” says Contis, hinting that KOP may follow the lead of Moorestown Mall in New Jersey, which landed Marc Vetri and Jose Garces.
As for the total cost of the project: “We never give those numbers,” Contis says. “Although I do appreciate that everybody [wants to know].”
Contis will say that Simon Property Group—which owns more than 150 shopping malls throughout the country, along with various international centers—spends more than $1 billion annually on expansions and renovations. So a rough estimate of $150 million for the KOP Mall connection is probably about right. “We anticipate this expansion alone to add $100 million in retail sales or more,” says Contis. “There will also be several hundred new retail jobs brought into the mall.”
And in case you’re wondering if a mall qualifies as a legit tourist attraction, the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board promotes it alongside Valley Forge National Historical Park, Wharton Esherick Museum, Valley Forge Casino Resort, and Norristown’s Elmwood Park Zoo. “From our international market experience, the mall is generally the most iconic image and attraction that the region is known for,” says John Golden, the board’s director of communications.
Not surprisingly, Contis isn’t buying the idea that malls will one day be obsolete. “Catalog shopping was going to affect malls, then big box was going to affect malls, then the Internet was going to affect malls. The truth is that retail is always evolving,” he says. “The bigger malls are getting better. Some malls have gone away, but there are also some car companies that have gone away. Things change.”
KOP: A Timeline
The Plaza at King of Prussia opens.
The Plaza expands to include both open and enclosed areas.
The Court at King of Prussia opens.
Sears opens at the Plaza, replacing Korvette, which closed in 1982. A 140,000-square-foot expansion includes new shops and a food court.
The Plaza and the Court undergo an extensive $180 million renovation and expansion.
Abraham & Straus at the Court is converted into the Pavilion at King of Prussia.
The former Macy’s building is transformed to house 11 specialty shops.
A new wing connecting the Plaza and the Court is scheduled to open in August.
KOP at a Glance
Total square footage
Total growth in square footage since opening
Estimated guests on an average Saturday from Black Friday to New Year’s Day