PARAMUS, N.J. — With the economy in the doldrums, the repositioning of Bergen Towne Center as a value-oriented mall comes not a moment too soon.
The mall, which bowed here in 1957 as open-air property with Stern’s as its anchor, is capturing the attention of consumers jaded by the profusion of stores in the area. Bergen Towne Center sits along Route 4, a retail mecca that intersects with the equally shopping-dense Route 17.
Known as Bergen Mall until 2003, the center was enclosed in 1973 when Orbach’s opened. The center has had a revolving door of anchors since then. Orbach’s was converted to a Steinbach, which became a Value City in 1999 when Steinbach went out of business. Bergen’s other anchor, Stern’s, was converted to Macy’s in 2001 following Federated Department Stores Inc.’s decision to fold the Stern’s brand into Macy’s. With two other Macy’s locations nearby, Federated closed the Bergen Towne Center store in 2005.
By the time Vornado bought the center in 2003 for $160 million from Simon Property Group, the mall was run down and had multiple vacancies. Vornado invested $150 million into renovating and expanding the center to 1.5 million square feet. Target and Whole Foods were installed at opposite ends of a long corridor with in-line stores and eateries in between.
Northern New Jersey has never lacked for retail options. Garden State Plaza, a 2 million-square-foot regional behemoth, sits at the intersection of routes 4 and 17. There are four other malls within a few miles, plus strip centers and big-box retailers.
Saks Off 5th and Marshalls joined the mall in the Nineties. When Century 21 took over the former Macy’s site in 2007, the direction of the center became clearer.
“We believed in the real estate,” said Sandeep Mathrani, executive vice president of Vornado’s retail division. “We own the Ikea site [across from Garden State Plaza] too. We bought out Value City and bought out Macy’s. Then we asked ourselves, ‘How do we tenant this and differentiate it from Garden State Plaza and [the upscale] Riverside Square Mall [in nearby River Edge, N.J.]”
Value seemed to be the answer. Despite a median household income of $80,063 in 2007, well above the $67,142 for the entire state, Bergen County residents have displayed a penchant for value.
“We didn’t know five years ago that value would be the flavor of the year,” said Mathrani. “I’d be disappointed if sales were not comparable to Garden State Plaza, which does $700 per square foot. This is one of the bright spots in retail development.”
Earlier this month, a Nike Factory Store and Nordstrom Rack opened. Century 21 is interested in adding another level. Sources said a Tommy Hilfiger outlet store is in the works and Manhattan restaurateur Bobby Flay is opening Bobby’s Burger Palace across from Whole Foods.
Mathrani insisted on raising the mall’s aesthetics. He didn’t want Bergen Towne Center to look like a value center with industrial fixtures and cheap construction materials and finishes. On a recent tour, Mathrani said the ceilings in the common areas were raised to accommodate skylights. The entire center has stone floors throughout and the restrooms look like those in luxury hotels, with details such as sconces and black and white marble. “We built the most expensive garage,” Mathrani said, referring to the 5,000-parking-space structure with high-end lighting that blends seamlessly into the mall’s design. “Even the kiosks we brought in are architecturally wonderful,” he added.
Walking by a series of black faux leather chairs, Mathrani stops the mall’s general manager, Bassam Mhich, to ask, “When are you going to get rid of those massage chairs?” The chairs, he explained, are a tacky holdover from the center’s previous incarnation.
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