The new signs for Philadelphia Vision Center at Cheltenham Mall have arrows pointing customers to the entrance: It's open for business.
That's all shop owner David Boisselle cares about. Never mind about the vacant, boarded storefronts around him. He talks about the new space he moved into last month almost as if he landed at the Ritz Carlton instead of a tight, 1,200-square-foot narrow box.
That's because from March 2016 through January, Boisselle and his staff, including two optometrists, went without heat or hot water as the new mall owner, Sun Equity Partners, gutted the indoor mall to create an outdoor center that truly lets the sun shine in.
All that's left inside the mall are mounds of dirt.
Sun Equity, a private equity firm from New York, gave Boisselle the option to break his lease during the renovation and return when it was done by mid-2018, or stay put.
Boisselle decided to stay. He signed a new 10-year lease with two five-year options. He is getting 235 feet more than his old spot between Burlington Coat Factory and Value City when the mall was bustling.
The mall, which opened in 1959, was enclosed in 1981 and has had many incarnations. Clover came to the mall in 1982; The multistory Gimbels store was shuttered in 1986; Value City came in 1997, replacing the Clover, and it lasted until 2008 when it was replaced by Conway and later American Signature Furniture.
In December 2005, Thor Equities acquired Cheltenham Mall for $71.5 million from Simon Property Group.
In 2009, Target moved in as an anchor, replacing the six-screen United Artists Theatre. Several people say that depressed the mall's traffic and led to the departure of several tenants that couldn't afford the rent amid decreasing sales.
DSW Shoes, the Children's Place, Ben's Jewelers, and Bath & Body Works all closed shop.
Less than a decade after Thor bought the mall, it went through foreclosure, and the banks took it over. The bankruptcy court appointed a receiver in 2014, and CBRE Inc.'s Peter Stevens marketed the property for the court.
Sun Equity arrived in December 2014, buying the mall in bankruptcy court for $30 million. The firm, which focuses on turning around distressed malls, is plunking down an additional $40 million to create an outdoor shopping plaza called Greenleaf at Cheltenham.
By early 2016, only 10 small retailers remained, and by last month, only four: Philadelphia Vision Center, MetroPCS, a Wells Fargo bank, and T-Mobile.
Abe Tress, Sun's director of operations, said the firm has a similar project ongoing at an old shopping center at 5011 Route 130 in Delran.
"It's a lot of headache, but at the same time it's rewarding to take an eyesore or underutilized properties and turn them into assets for the community," Tress said.
Sun is part of the surge of private-equity firms that have stepped up since the great recession of 2008 to salvage broken malls. As mall traffic fell, more owners have walked away, as Thor did in Cheltenham.
Granite Run in Middletown Township, Delaware County, took a similar path, and is being redeveloped into a mixed-use property with an outdoor shopping center by BET Investments of Horsham.
In Cheltenham, the mall's bones "have always been strong" with the anchor tenants and the freestanding parcels out front, said managing director Dan Brickner of Metro Commercial, the mall's leasing agency. "The problem is that an enclosed mall is very expensive to operate, and that's why that's being taken out and turned inside out with a shopping center with more parking."
The mall property is about 775,000 square feet of retail space. When the redevelopment is complete, it will be around 650,000 square feet of retail space with far more parking. Brickner said part of the interior of the mall is being knocked down and replaced with surface parking.
"We are ready to go full force in the next two months," Tress said, "with demolition and outfitting the big boxes with new designs."
About 70,000 cars pass daily along Cheltenham Avenue, which divides Montgomery County and Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley Planning Commission reports.
Brickner said he could not yet announce specific tenants. "We are working with multiple national apparel brands, a national fitness chain, multiple national fast-casual food concepts, and a number of regional soft goods and service concepts," he said.
Boisselle, who has invested 24 years in the mall, said business is down 30 percent to 40 percent since the renovation began, forcing him to cut night hours.
"This is retirement," said Boisselle, 57, as nightfall made his store shine beside the dark storefronts. "Even when I'm gone, the idea is to keep this shop going. The community needs it.
"I'm optimistic this is going to work. I wouldn't have stayed if I wasn't."
Among his customers last week was Kassee Clowney, a second grader at DePaul Catholic School, who came in for the first time with his grandmother Doris, a regular like her daughter-in-law and another grandchild. Kassee didn't know why pages in books were turning colors when he tried to read them.
Clowney, 7, of North Philadelphia, was brought in to get his eyes examined by an optometrist.
About 20 minutes later, the boy returned with his grandmother.
"He's going to need glasses," she said. "We'll be back."
Tiffany Matthews, 45, will also be back. "It feels more personal than the chains," said Matthews, a health-care advocate from Elkins Park who came with daughter Arianne Wilson, 12, for two new pairs of glasses. Matthews has been a customer for five years.