A rendering of a bird's eye view of Empire Outlets.

When Joseph Ferrara in 2013 began working on Empire Outlets, a 350,000-square-foot mall in the St. George section of Staten Island, some retailers saw the borough as a backwater to Manhattan’s established shopping neighborhoods, Brooklyn’s burgeoning high streets and Queen’s ethnic strongholds.

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Since then, the retail industry has seen store closures mount, with nearly every brick-and-mortar sector challenged, from big boxes to department stores to mall specialty chains. The one area that seems to be impacted least, is the value sector, including outlets and off-price stores.

“Today, it’s all about value,” Ferrara said. “The outlet sector is outperforming the general retail sector.” Empire Outlets, which was scheduled to open on Black Friday of 2017, has delayed the launch until spring 2018. When it opens, it will be New York’s first outlet mall, Ferrara said.

While the retail industry roils with change, Staten Island has been undergoing a transformation of its own. A billion dollar’s worth of improvements along Staten Island’s north shore is under way.

The $500 million 60-story New York Wheel, which claims to be the world’s tallest ferris wheel, has a dedicated terminal building with 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and exhibition space, along with a five-acre green roof, great lawn and pedestrian walkways that offer sweeping views of the waterfront.

Around the corner, the $200 million, multiphase Lighthouse Point development is rising along Bay Street. There are plans to turn Pier 1, St. George’s public space across from the terminal and the National Lighthouse Museum into a recreation area and marina.

It’s all part of the larger Destination St. George campaign, which includes The Snug Harbor Cultural Center, St. George Theatre and Richmond County Savings Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees.

“It’s not your typical outlet mall,” said Ferrara, who is chief executive officer of BFC Partners. “The view from the wheel is spectacular. NYC & Co. is behind all the things happening on Staten Island.”

Empire Outlets’ signed tenants include Nordstrom Rack, H&M, Saks Off Fifth, White House|Black Market, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic Factory Store, U.S. Polo, Gap Outlet, Guess Factory Store, Columbia Sportswear, Parfum Europa, Victoria’s Secret and Toys ‘R’ Us. The property is 70 percent leased, Ferrara said.

Ferrara said luxury brands so far include Jewelers on Fifth and Dennis Basso.

“The shift in industry couldn’t have come at more important time for us,” Ferrara added. “Some retailers are closing their doors on  Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Luxury retailers are addressing value for us. Luxury is the last step of our leasing.”

To bring high-end retailers to the project, Ferrara hired Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of retail at Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

Consolo said she’s looking for a mix of affordable luxury and legacy luxury brands for apparel and accessories; beauty brands, and ath-leisure — in short, a broad array of labels that will “satisfy the needs of all segments of shoppers,” she said.

The operator of the 190-room boutique hotel with a spa that’s part of Empire Outlets will be announced next month, Ferrara said.

Food is a key element of the Empire Outlets strategy. A lease earlier this month was signed with Wasabi Steak and Sushi, which Ferrara describes as “an upscale Japanese chef’s table.” Staten Island’s first Shake Shack will bow at the project, along with Ghirardelli, which is planning it’s first New York café. There will also be branches of Manhattan-based Two Boots Pizza and Mighty Quinn’s BBQ, and a 40,000-square-foot food hall, Mrktpl, which will feature artisan dishes.

“At the tip of Battery Park, the free Staten Island Ferry takes 75,000 people across the New York Harbor to Manhattan and back to St. George,” Consolo said. “An average of 6,000 tourists a day ride the ferry for the views of the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers of Manhattan.”

Empire Outlets is building its own private ferry pier. “We’ll provide fast ferry service to 39th Street,” Ferrara said. “There will be free shuttles once you get off the boat. We’ll have concierge desks and we’ve teamed up with a tour operator to run tour boats and hop-on, hop-off sightseeing service.”

An Empire Outlets loyalty program and app will capture customers as they embark on historic harbor tours. “We partnered with the company that provides WiFi to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal to extend onto our waterfront and across a three-quarter mile esplanade,” Ferrara said. “We’ll capture consumers’ data and demographics. Once they opt-in, they’ll have all the geo-sensors and we’ll give them a 10 percent discount.”

Ferrara hired an illustrator, Holly Nichols, to “capture the feel and vibe of what the project will look like when it’s completed,” he said. “It’s going up on 50 bus shelters throughout the city and there will be total ferry domination across the Staten Island ferry system. There will be more than 100 million impressions.”

Nichols, who sketches looks from fashion weeks around the world works for Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, also captures the Golden Globes, Met Gala and Oscars from the vantage of the red carpet.

“I love illustration,” Ferrara said. “There’s an air of elegance and also an air of whimsy that screams fun. The campaign is really elevated and New York-centric.”

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