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After more than a decade of construction delays and controversy, Westfield World Trade Center is finally set to open on August 16.

This story first appeared in the August 10, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The urban mall in the center of lower Manhattan will consist of 365,000 square feet of retail space spread over the equivalent of 10 city blocks when all is said and done; the majority is complete. With 13 subway lines and the PATH converging at the World Trade Center transportation hub, the project is guaranteed to be heavily trafficked. More than 300,000 daily commuters pass through the turnstiles and millions visit annually the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, 1 WTC Observatory and other local sites, while the number of downtown residents has been swelling.

Whether they stop to shop and eat remains to be seen, but Westfield is bullish about the prospects. The center is expected to do $1 billion in annual retail sales and $2,000 to $3,000 in sales per square foot when the shopping facilities are fully complete in the next few years. Westfield predicts it will be one of the most productive retail sites in the world.

“It’s like a natural spring,” said a worker, referring to the wave of commuters that began spilling out when the transit hub reopened in February. “They all come up in the morning and go out to the streets and then go back down in the evening.”

The project’s defining feature, the Oculus, sounds like it could be the nerve center of a comic book villain — both fascinating and foreboding. Designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus has a 330-foot skylight and white steel ribs that soar to 165 feet at their highest point. But the Oculus has generated its fair share of controversy and has been called everything from inspiring to a boondoggle. Calatrava’s $4 billion transportation hub came in at more than $2 billion over the original estimate. And while the architect has said the design was inspired by the image of a dove being released from a child’s hands, critics have disparaged it as resembling a prehistoric animal.

There’s no doubt that the miles of white Italian Lasa marble and steel imported from Spain and used for the Oculus’ ribs added to the astronomical price tag. The marble even extends to the long corridors that lead to the subway platforms and the tunnel beneath West Street that leads to its neighbor to the west, Brookfield Place.

A little over a week before the launch, Westfield Group co-chief executive officer Peter Lowy said the Calatrava design was chosen by the Port Authority. “If it had been us, we had a different design and we could have had a different retail structure than what we have now,” he explains. “We are in the retail business, after all.”

While it’s difficult for Westfield not to be dragged into the conversation about the transit hub and its excesses, Lowy is confident that the project will capture visitors’ imagination. “All the noise about the building, the cost, what retailers are opening and not opening — this will be such a fanstastic project — that all the noise will go away. People will go downtown and look at it and say, ‘Wow. This is really something.’”

Westfield, which operated the retail concourse beneath the World Trade Center prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, acquired 50 percent of the retail space in 2012 for $612.5 million in a joint venture with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the complex. The agency in 2014 sold its remaining 50 percent stake in the retail project to Westfield for $800 million, bringing the Australian real estate giant’s investment to $1.4 billion.

Much ink has been spilled about Westfield World Trade Center’s retail lineup. The project was often compared to its neighbor to the west, Brookfield Place, which was under construction and unveiled in 2015. Brookfield Place set its sights on designer and luxury brands from the beginning and assembled a retail roster that features Gucci, Hermès, Ferragamo, Diane von Furstenberg and Theory — although some sources have said traffic at the mall has been mixed. While Westfield reportedly spoke to brands such as Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, it decided to take a more populist approach partially because the size of the stores in the center are small, ranging from 800 square feet to 8,000 square feet. Another aspect of the retail spaces made them something of a hard sell: storefronts on the balcony were partly obscured by the white ribs of Calatrava’s design.

Downtown Manhattan’s demographics have changed as a result of  9/11. No longer simply a financial district — financial services dropped from 75 percent to below 40 percent, with publishing companies such as Condé Nast and Harper Collins and new technology, advertising and media firms moving in. Meanwhile, the growth in downtown residents has more than quadrupled in the last two decades to more than 60,000. Lower Manhattan’s spending power, including residents, employees and tourists, is $5.8 billion; the average household income for the area is $206,000 and the average salary, $122,000.

“We were going to remodel and expand and get a much wider set of retailers and services,” Lowy said, referring to the 2001 shopping concourse. “The retailers are more modern and service-oriented now. We treated it like a transportation hub. The thing we saw when we bought it was the change in the nature of retail from moderate to much more mainstream for the commuter.”

The two retail levels beneath the Oculus will house the likes of John Varvatos, Stuart Weitzman, Hugo Boss, Kate Spade and Kit & Ace. A two-story space covered by wooden boards will be an Apple store. With more than 100 retailers, restaurants and food purveyors, there’s a wide range of prices.

For every product category there’s a lower-priced and more expensive option. For example, Swatch and Breitling, Folli Follie and Roberto Coin, and Aldo and Stuart Weitzman. Luxury is handled with the entry-priced category of a brand such as Dior Cosmetics. Grab-and-go food offerings such as Joe Coffee and Pret a Manger advance to Eataly’s sit-down restaurant Osteria della Pace and London steakhouse Hawksmoor, which is slated for a future opening.

H&M will occupy one of the imposing two-level, street-facing flagships, while sister brands & Other Stories and COS will be located on the balcony. Daniel Kulle, the Swedish retail giant’s North American president, said, “H&M is proud to be opening its first location in lower Manhattan at Westfield World Trade Center. The neighborhood is evolving into a unique shopping destination, not only for Manhattanites, but also tourists who are drawn to the sites and architecture that make the financial district so special. Our strong fashion offerings and variety of styles are sure to make this an exciting location for everyone who visits the area.”

London Jewelers, with a flagship at the Americana Manhasset in Manhasset, N.Y., will offer Rolex, Bulgari, Chopard, Chanel and Baume & Mercier at Westfield World Trade Center, its first Manhattan location. “London has been interested in expanding to Manhattan for years,” said Tim Claire, chief operating officer. “The tricky thing is that we’re luxury branded, and luxury brands want to find their own opportunities. This is really a new and potentially vibrant part of town, another neighborhood, not just another store on Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue.”

Westfield World Trade Center’s Roberto Coin store is “a freestanding boutique and a partnership with the Italian jeweler,” said Claire. “We’re also bringing Shinola because of the big tourist trade. We want to have a wider range of price points.”

JJ Wilson, cofounder of Kit & Ace, said the decision to open a studio at Westfield World Trade Center came from a desire to expand the technical cashmere label’s New York footprint. “We already have two locations in Manhattan, one in NoLIta and one in SoHo, and have received really positive feedback from locals,” Wilson said. “We were keen to build on this success. The people living and working in downtown Manhattan embody the full-contact lives that we design for.”

Westfield hopes to capitalize on the momentum of the men’s category with a men’s district and retailers such as Thomas Sabo, Art of Shaving, Smythson, Varvatos, Charles Tyrwhitt and Turnbull & Asser, not to mention brands with strong men’s components such as Lacoste, Under Armour and Boss Hugo Boss.

For Varvatos, opening a store at Westfield World Trade Center is a statement about the strength of New York City. “Yes, there’s a business component, but it’s more about putting a flag down there,” he explained. “It’s not about the store, it’s hallowed ground.”

There was a delicate balance between commerce and showing respect for a site where so many lives were lost. Varvatos said he feels good about the final product. “It starts with the beautiful architecture of Calatrava,” he said. “A lot of thought went into the lives that were lost there. I do believe it’s a celebration for [those lost] and for New York City. The area’s come back stronger than ever. There’s a large community of people who live down there.”

The designer said he was emotional on a recent visit to the store. “I’m a New Yorker,” he said. “This is a huge thing. There’s a lot of pride. It’s about creating a life force down there.”

About 30 percent of the mall is devoted to food, and in deference to commuters and office workers, the sips and eats include Beer Table, Bread Bakery, Epicerie Boulud, Lobster Press and Kusmi Tea. Skin care and cosmetics is also well-represented with Caudalie, MAC, Sephora and Kiko. “In 1999, we opened a store in the World Trade Center, among one of the first stores we opened in North America,” said Celia Wang, senior vice president of real estate at Sephora Americas. “We’re glad to come back and be part of the lower Manhattan of the future.”

Eataly is out to win the taste buds and appetites of residents and office workers alike, who it hopes will become repeat customers “The investment community is alive and well, but there’s so much diversity,” said Fabrizio Germano, general manager of the new three-level, 41,143-square-foot food emporium. “We want to give the customer an experience — that’s the world I want to use. There are many places that you can eat, and eat well. This is a multisensory experience.”

Westfield has also put its imprimatur on another downtown Manhattan retail and transportation project, partnering with the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority in the management of the retail and dining options at the new Fulton Street transit center, one of the largest and most-connected subway stations. About 63,000 square feet of space is designated for commercial and retail uses. Since opening in 2014, most of the 20-odd business have bowed, including Moleskine, Perfume Station, Neuhaus and Shake Shack.

A weekly farmer’s market, which had been a staple in the lower Manhattan community prior to the 9/11 attacks, will return beginning next month and be held at the plaza. A new suite of digital services that was two years in the making and is being tested at Westfield London will be launched later in the year. Westfield said it will enable direct digital feeds from retailers and “wayfinding at a superior level,” food ordering and delivery of products. The developer is in the process of integrating retailer inventory into its app.

Within the overall World Trade Center complex, Tower 3, scheduled to be finished in late 2017 or early 2018, will provide space for additional retail, and 90,000 square feet of space will be delivered when Tower 2 is built. Another 30,000 square feet of space has been dedicated to events; but since the complex is publicly owned, Westfield said it won’t be given over to private functions such as weddings or corporate affairs. Outdoor areas such as Oculus Plaza may be used for cultural events, fashion shows and seasonable performances. “We’ve been in discussions with all the major partners of New York Fashion Week,” said a Westfield spokeswoman. “The space is very dramatic.”

Nothing about the project has been easy. Beyond the scale of the construction, Westfield had the added complication of September 11, working under city and state governments’ watchful eyes, respecting sacred ground and dealing with various advocacy groups. An edict that the 9/11 Memorial and Museum be completed by the 10th anniversary of the tragedy required the memorial’s plaza to be built before the station below it could be completed. There was the fact that the Port Authority insisted that a subway line remain in operation throughout the project’s duration. Westfield juggled the competing priorities of business and respect for the memorial site, deciding that stores wouldn’t face the reflecting pools. But there is a dining area on the third level looks out onto the pools.

“It was, what, where and how will it be built. Do the Twin Towers come back or do you do some other project? There were all sorts of design battles and environmental issues. There was the issue of financing on [site developer Larry] Silverstein’s side,” Lowy said, referring to the Port Authority’s failure to agree to a loan guarantee for Silverstein. “We always had the financing. Then you had the financial challenges and the banking challenges.” Westfield at the time, had access to $8 billion of liquidity.

“Had [the Port Authority] wanted to start with the retail portion first, we were always ready to go,” added Lowy. “Of course, we had some different ideas than the Port Authority, but it was never that testy.”

Westfield in 2001 bought the rights to the Mall at the World Trade Center, as the retail concourse was then called, completing its deal with the Port Authority a few months before the September 11 attacks. The Australian real estate giant was planning to expand and rename the space Westfield Shoppingtown World Trade Center.

The real estate company’s joint agreement with the Port Authority to manage the retail space mirrored Silverstein Properties’ deal with the agency to oversee the World Trade Center’s office space. Sam Goody, The Limited, Express, Structure, Warner Bros. Studio Store, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft and Duane Reade were among the tenants of the earlier incarnation. There are few retailers returning from the original group. One is Banana Republic, which has leased one of the imposing two-story street-facing, street-level flagships for a new concept with upscale finishes and fixtures and men’s on the first floor.

Westfield sold the retail rights back to Port Authority after the attacks, but retained a first right of refusal “to let them decide what they wanted to do,” Lowy said. “We stuck with them. We had the tacit agreement and we stuck with the Port Authority.”

The developer returned to the project in 2008 with a letter of intent that came to fruition in 2010.

Lowy said this is the longest project he’s worked on. “It’s been a 16-year journey, personally. We’re proud.”

Opening day events on Aug. 16 will begin  just before 11:30 a.m. with a flag commemoration ceremony at Oculus Plaza, presented in partnership with the Port Authority. Westfield said it has invited families and individuals with a special connection to the World Trade Center site to attend the opening; events were planned in collaboration with the 9/11 Tribute Center and HEART 9/11 and with support from the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

There will be family-friendly activities starting at noon at many of the center’s retailers, along with sampling by some of the restaurants and cafes, and hourly shows at the Oculus stage, including performances by the cast of Broadway’s “School of Rock,” Dr. Draw, the Harlem Gospel Choir, Jordan Smith and, at 6 p.m., an as-yet-unnamed “A-lister.”

 

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