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Malls are facing an existential crisis.

That's nothing new. Large retail shopping complexes have been dying for decades, to the point that there are books of photographs taken in abandoned malls. 

The owners of the York Galleria in Springettsbury Township are trying to keep their property from joining that list, with interesting results.

Since 2015, the mall has seen three of its four anchor stores, JCPenney, Sears and finally The Bon-Ton, close. Boscov's remains, and the former Penney site is now home to Gold's Gym and Marshall's. The other anchors sit empty, as do many shop fronts.

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Owners CBL & Associates have plans for the spaces. A mini-casino is slated to go into the former Sears site at the west end of the building, which required some wrangling, including getting Springettsbury Township to backtrack on an ordinance saying the municipality didn't want to even be considered for the Penn National casino.

And now CBL is taking another step away from the Galleria's retail roots by bringing a mini-storage unit to the former Bon-Ton site.

After much discussion and hand-wringing, and against the wishes of the York County Planning Commission, the township board of supervisors last week voted 3-2 to approve a zoning change to allow the storage area use.

"I think when we look to the future of the mall, the best we can do at this point in this era of retail transformation is stabilize the occupancy and activity in the mall," said Charles Wurster, a supervisor who voted in favor of changing the ordinance.

The Galleria is included in a "town center" overlay on the township's zoning map, a designation intended to develop a walkable retail area. A town center overlay specifically prohibited mini-storage — until now. 

Alex Snyder, the attorney representing storage unit company W.P. Carey, said the retail market doesn't support "big box" stores anymore and that the next logical step to maintaining the mall would be mini-storage. 

"We think this is a way to take a building where there's nothing wrong with it, and put a use in that there really is a need for in the township," Snyder said. "From the outside, no one will know any different other than the building will be fixed up and repaired."

Though one supervisor suggested turning the space into office units, the idea was dismissed by Blaze Cambruzzi, a True Commercial Real Estate managing partner, who said the adjacent casino coming to the mall squandered any chance of professional use.

So it boils down to this: This mall, like so many others, is on the verge of becoming obsolete as a purely retail space. The property owners, like so many others, are reaching out to other industries to fill these spaces that were once lively centers for communities and have become empty shells.

Is it pretty? No. Could there be a better use for the space? Maybe, but what would that be? 

The York Galleria could follow the path of the former West Manchester Mall, which was turned inside out in a massive construction project in 2014-15 and now seems to be doing well as the West Manchester Town Center, anchored by Walmart, Regal Cinemas and Kohl's and featuring a number of pad site restaurants as well as other stores.

But that renovation cost $49 million, and the Galleria is only assessed at $39 million, according to tax records.

The township is allowing the owners to turn the mall into more of a mixed use space, with stores giving way to gyms, casinos and now a storage unit space. 

Which makes us think, despite the food court and the remaining retail, at what point will the York Galleria no longer be a mall?

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