Westfield World Trade Center had its soft opening last week; it’s the latest masterpiece of rebirth of lower Manhattan since the 9/11 tragedy. It has been a painful 15 years of unrequited completion filled with heart-wrenching conflicts. For the many New Yorkers who lived downtown and had a direct connection to the trauma, they still want life to return to normal. They view the fact that Ground Zero has turned into a tourist attraction as a macabre honor for a mass murder site. The ongoing fascination with the tragedy frightens their children and discolors their day-to-day lives.
Downtown planners and even the 9/11 Memorial organizers have been caught by surprise by the high level of interest in the site and the profile of visitors, which skews heavily toward the offshore tourist rather than domestic visitors. To add to the complexity of a creating a monument of institutionalized memory is the emotional legacy of the friends and families of the people that lost their lives in the tragedy. For them, a public memorial site and official annual remembrance service are the least the city can do to honor all those who passed.
For so many of us who watched in horror as 9/11 unfolded, and lived with the resulting mess with its chaos and the unforgettable smell, the 15-year rebirth of lower Manhattan has been painfully slow.
For the people who live and work downtown, the 18-month disruption of access to public transportation during the construction of the new hub has been punishing. For those commuters on the West Side IRT and PATH to New Jersey, it has been difficult and slow.
A Downtown Story
For better or worse, Lower Manhattan has changed. What used to be one of the densest, packed places in North America during the work week and a wasteland at night and on weekends has moved in reverse and become one the fastest growing residential communities in New York City. Aging Class-B office buildings have been transformed into luxury high-rise living. Battery Park City, largely built on landfill, is a testament to a progressive modern urban planning effort. It is changing the basic gravity of New York City, making the tip of the island habitable with a beautifully landscaped sanctuary.
Too Monumental a Mall?
Why is it that many of us have reservations about the new World Trade Center mall? It may be that it is trying to be too many things to too many people at same time; transportation hub, monument and mall. By my count over a two-day observation period, less than one person in 20 moved through the mall carrying a shopping bag. While the public concourses, Apple store and Eataly were packed, everything else was empty. Is the retail portion of the mall out of sync with its market?
Downtown has three distinctly different constituents: the people who have chosen to live there; the people who work there, and the tourists and visitors who come to pay homage. All three have distinct needs.
Battery Park and the new Financial District luxury housing residences may be the greatest concentration of digitally literate consumers outside Google’s headquarters. Most of them are tied to the market and work the brutal hours that financial services demands. Are they going to the mall to buy their Tumi luggage? Probably not. These residents tend to buy their luxuries online or on vacation. What they could use is a good Super Target where they can get dishwasher soap at 11:00 PM. The Drybar in the Barfield Center, the shopping mall at Battery Park City which is connected to Westfield via an underground concourse, seems to be doing a land office business. We are reminded that convenience is the driving force in modern shopping. The residential community as a reflection of the financial markets is both affluent and ethnically mixed. Now I’m not suggesting the Westfield Mall lacks a sari store, but the retail tenant mix is so high-end white bread that it needs some global spice. Westfield is a progressive operator of malls; San Francisco Centre and Garden State Plaza are my personal favorites. We’d like them to get this one right. The most important customers for Westfield World Trade Center are the locals.
When I did my first research work on Financial District retail in the 1970s and ‘80s, part of what we documented is how hour-by-hour so much of retail is driven by the opening and closing bells of the Stock Exchange. There was a painful need to allocate space for additional registers in retail stores so that the opening, rushed lunch and the closing bell traffic could be accommodated. Stand at the corner of “Wall Street and Vine” and you can pick out the workers from the tourists just by the tempo of their walking speeds. The clock that ticks inside a customer’s head is very loud south of Chambers Street. To an outside eye, correlating the accumulated wealth of the financial community and a potential appetite for luxury goods would seem to be obvious. And while the few high-end restaurants do well, the prevailing attitude is not about playing where you work. At the end of a long, tough working day, the impulse is to go home. Can Westfield change that? The integration of shopping and transportation is a trend everywhere, but Gucci bags and the PATH Train? Is that a winning formula?
New York has always been strong in tourism and many parts of the city thrive on that traffic: Madison Avenue, Museum Mile, Times Square. Downtown has its historical attraction based on the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Battery Park. The esplanade along the Hudson River is as close to the Seine’s Left Bank as we’ve got. On an early summer evening, the parade of runners and bicyclists is impressive. New York is just discovering the Hudson River as an attraction rather than the remnants of an aging port. Up and down the banks of the Hudson are new high-rise residential buildings and clusters of outdoor restaurants and shops. The High Line has been for New York City planners a shockingly pleasant surprise and the success of the new Whitney Downtown has added to the shift of New York City’s balance from Up and East to Down and West.
Making Mall History
Ground Zero, however, has become a pilgrimage site. The monument and infrastructure services have been unprepared for the reverent, curious and yet clueless horde of visitors. Until this summer, the epicenter was still a big hole and construction site. The curious crowds circled the site and left puzzled.
Today, it is better. More buildings have opened, you can even get to the observatory to view the outside of the memorial. And you can go to the mall. The pathway from the Westfield Center is a feast of massive digital images. Stationed along the way are Westfield Guides with iPads in hand ready to help. Yet the building structure overwhelms the retail. For the first-time visitor, what you see is soaring space and endless white marble. Imagine the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial in Washington, only bordered along the perimeter by discrete, luxury retail.
Will this imposing interior design encourage visitors to shop?
My answer is probably not. Tourists are far away from their hotels in the middle of a day of sightseeing. Do they want to spend the rest of their day hauling bags around? Luxury retail works when a shopper arrives with the express purpose of shopping: it doesn’t happen by accident. Will Westfield World Trade Center become a tourist shopping destination? We can easily ask the same question of the Hudson Yards development.
The visitor arrives, takes a whole bunch of selfies, is desperate for a place to sit down, have a coffee and take it all in. Transforming that visitor into a shopper will be the key challenge.
To be fair, Westfield WTC is not yet complete. It is architecturally breathtaking, but the retail strategy needs to be examined over time to see if it works. We need to reserve judgment on the tenant mix for now as well. I am constantly reminded that in retail we have to be very careful about who the hero is. If we are all looking up at the soaring architectural wonder of a mall, we are not looking at each other. And luxury shopping has always been a social sport, admiring and focusing on each other, not the environs.