New York might have always seemed like the ideal city for multi-level retail complexes—until you actually went into one.
By the turn of the century, such places in America’s densest city ranged from failed to mediocre examples of the genre. In the last decade, however, retail designers appear closer to figuring out the problem. Developers have brought a new attention to this retail paradox, now most dramatically in the form of Related Company’s forthcoming Shops at Hudson Yards, which, buoyed by recent lessons, is upending expectations about how multi-level retail works.
A preference for street-level retail in multi-story urban shopping complexes is often reflected in the rent and profits, which plunge with each ascending level. “First floor retail is golden, second floor retail struggles, third floor retail is a disaster,” says Nico Dando-Haenisch, project manager for Grimshaw’s Fulton Street Transit Center.
The Shops at Hudson Yards defies this concept by starting its interior retail on a plaza level one floor up and siting its signature draw, the city’s first and only Neiman Marcus, on the 5th through 7th floors. Such a plan would have likely seemed unhinged in the early 2000s, but in the last decade a number of surprising successes have sent retail skyward: the Shops at Columbus Circle (opened in 2003), the renovation of the former World Financial Center’s retail space into the Shops at Brookfield Place (opened in 2015), Westfield World Trade Center (2016), the Fulton Street Transit Center (2016), and additional developments at Pier 17 and elsewhere. These are part of a new generation of shopping center design, locating retail floors both above and below street level with a frequency not seen in decades.
The Shops at Columbus Circle in the Time Warner Center, also a Related project, is the pioneer in Manhattan’s shopping center revival, overcoming considerable initial skepticism. As Ken Himmel, president and CEO of Related Urban, says of their considerably larger shopping center under development at Hudson Yards, “There are people who are talking to me now who absolutely said ‘I never thought this could work at Time Warner.’”
The Shops at Columbus Circle required deliberate care in leasing and design, which derived inspiration both from venerable traditional retail avenues and from institutions as typologically alien to Manhattan as the suburban mall.
The experience of going up or down a floor is routine within street-level stores across the country, and laziness or lack of interest hasn’t shuttered the upper levels of shops on Fifth Avenue. The most iconic subterranean shop on earth, the Apple store on 5th Avenue, proves that you don’t have to offer even a single piece of merchandise on a ground level to entice shoppers downward.
Himmel says that the retail floors inside the Shops at Columbus Circle were inspired by shops on Madison Avenue, with internal stairways between shop levels providing additional fabric linking the floors together. This model is becoming routine in vertical shopping centers.
Several of the earliest examples of luring shoppers up six or seven floors are just a brief walk away inside the city’s department stores, which furnish over a century’s evidence of successful mutli-level retailing.
“You’d place certain departments in certain spaces to draw people through the typology of spaces,” explains Himmel. Restaurants are always found near the top of department stores: department stores would also make deliberate efforts to strategically intersperse high-profile drivers of traffic on upper floors. Lord and Taylor recently completed a renovation of its 5th floor “Dress Address.” Five floors to find a dress is clearly not too many.
But something went awry between the ‘70s and ‘90s, when New York became an index of retail design errors as new…