Art meets commerce at the increasingly upscale shopping hub.

Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., is sitting prettier after the recent completion of the second and last phase of a $100 million capital improvement project that touched every surface of the 2.1 million-square-foot shopping center’s interior and made significant improvements to its exterior.

A permanent art collection was acquired for Garden State Plaza to position the mall at the intersection of community, culture and commerce, an approach Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield has been implementing at the most valuable properties in its portfolio. Garden State Plaza, which reportedly does $950 in sales per square foot, is consistently ranked among the 10 most productive shopping centers in the U.S.

Art meets commerce at the increasingly upscale shopping hub.

Art meets commerce at the increasingly upscale shopping hub.  BJORG MAGNEA

“We finished a pretty major transformation of the center,” said Peter Huddle, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s chief operating officer. “We started four years ago. We felt the center was quite dated, but had a good retailer mix. We realized it was very important to further invest in our key centers to make sure they’re very contemporary and the retail mix is right.”

Garden State Plaza, which straddles Routes 4 and 17 in affluent Bergen County, N.J., has been moving in an upscale direction. A luxury district is anchored by Neiman Marcus and includes brands such as Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and Burberry. There’s a dedicated valet and lounge with concierge for the wing.

That left the center’s 200,000-square-foot, three-level J.C. Penney looking like an unfashionable dinner guest. “Westfield purchased J.C. Penney’s leasehold,” Huddle said. “We have a very high-performing Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus that provide a higher-end luxury offer that’s suited to the demographic. We also have Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, which provide a mid- to high-level market offer.”

Penney’s, which is now covered in hoarding, will be divided into spaces for 15 tenants, Huddle said. “We’ll extend our fashion category, youth and leisure,” he added. “The majority of tenants will definitely be new to the center, but this also provides us with the opportunity to right-size tenants that are performing well.”

Construction will start in the first half of 2019. “It’s a three story J.C. Penney store for a two-story mall,” Huddle said. “Stores on the second level will have double-height ceilings, which will allow tenants to project their brands in a big way.”

Displaying art in shopping environments isn’t new, however, it’s becoming more popular, almost mandatory in upscale centers. Works by important artists such as the Haas Brothers, Louise Bourgeois and Gary Hume have been shown at Aventura Mall in Miami, where Jackie Soffer, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Turnberry Associates, the mall’s owner, travels in prominent art circles and is married to the Miami Design District’s Craig Robins.

Westfield said its World Trade Center project in Manhattan “opened a number of opportunities and allowed us to reenvision the traditional mall concept  to include lifestyle, culture and the arts.” Partnerships for displaying contemporary art throughout the portfolio have included the Art Production Fund at the World Trade Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art at Westfield Century City and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego at Westfield UTC.

“We have a relationship with art institutes on the West Coast where we can rotate pieces in and out,” said Huddle. “Some are on loan to us. It allows the institution to reach a broader audience.”

The Garden State Plaza art collection features works by cutting-edge New York and global artists including Hugo McCloud, Los Carpinteros, Jose Dávila, Mariko Mori and Timothy Paul Myers.

Many of the works are sculptures, including Mori’s “Cyclic II,” a large-scale aluminum sculpture that appears to have no beginning or end, suggesting that nature and the universe are continually evolving in an eternal cycle of existence.

Lush landscaping has been placed at intervals between the installations. Surrounding each piece are eight or 10 stools where shoppers can sit and admire the work. It remains to be seen whether consumers will take the time. Westfield plans to add plaques with titles of the pieces and artists’ names, along with a sign that says, “Look Up!” beneath a work hanging from the second level.

Myers’ “Adrift” was originally shown at galleries in New York and Los Angeles. The work was later destroyed. The artist rebuilt “Adrift II” specifically for Garden State Plaza incorporating 1,300 35mm slides, which are illuminated from within, on the ribs of a full-size row boat.

“Based on my exposure as a child to my uncle’s trips around the world, I became obsessed with photos that capture a moment in time,” Myers said. “I’d go to flea markets, and felt bad that family photos were exposed, so I’d buy them. It’s called ‘Adrift’ because I found them drifting from flea market to flea market.”

Along with the physical upgrades, more than a dozen new retailers have signed leases at Garden State Plaza. Warby Parker, South Korean beauty brand Innisfree and Morphe cosmetics have opened stores. Later in the fall, Riley Rose, Rituals, Nature Collection, Untuckit and MCM will unveil units.

Overall, Huddle said, “We’d like to extend luxury” at Garden State Plaza. “We’ve got a good luxury collection. Digital brands are a key focus of ours throughout Westfield, generally. There’s opportunity within our youth fashion area, and luxury and fashion brands that want to expand their footprint.”

Once the redevelopment of the J.C. Penney box is complete, Westfield plans to embark on a mixed-use project with residential to be built on the existing parking lot outside of Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. “There will be an integration of landscaping and external artwork,” Huddle said.

While Garden State’s fashion offering is robust, Huddle said he sees apparel receding somewhat in the future. “As retail continually evolves, what we’re seeing is the area dedicated to fashion has moved toward health and beauty, dining and fitness. Life Time fitness is very active at the moment in terms of taking positions inside shopping centers. It creates a further opportunity for people to come to the center, and people typically stay for long periods of time. There are cross-shopping opportunities and a lot of benefits.

“In terms of new [retail] developments we’re building today, food and dining, fitness and health and upscale cinemas are the drivers of growth in the market at the moment,” Huddle said. “We’re looking to double the amount of space devoted to food and dining at our centers over the next couple of years. It’s a repositioning of our space from downsizing department stores and apparel specialty stores and converting that space into areas that are capable of accommodating alternative tenants.”

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