Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.
After building a few duds in the late 20th century, architects and developers are giving New Yorkers a better multi-level retail experience with a mix of new ideas and lessons from the past.
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 malls created an often isolating and confusing user experience.
The Manhattan Mall (opened in 1989) featured a shocking 13 retail floors with shopping aeries at a height that might have worked for falcons but not humans. The retail floors were eventually scaled back to only three levels, with the remainder converted to offices. Many arcades such as the World Financial Center (opened in 1988) featured winding and confusing circulation patterns with no obvious anchor draws, amended in that complex’s conversion into Brookfield Place—which now features clear circulation patterns and a Saks Fifth Avenue. The former Mall at the World Trade Center, located in the center’s underground concourse (opened in 1975) was a reliable leasing success but its aesthetics were those of a transit basement.
The salience of the department store as a draw is rigorously applied to new, vertical urban retail in ways that draw upon its success in suburban malls encouraging shoppers to go somewhere and its urban reliability at drawing them upwards. One of the country’s most successful older urban retail centers, 900 North Michigan Avenue* in Chicago, features a Bloomingdale’s spread over every floor of the complex while the Westfield San Francisco Center Nordstrom begins at the 4th floor. If a descent to the maelstrom is unappealing, ascent to the Nordstrom is not.
Non-retail uses are increasingly prized on upper floors of these new projects. On the 5th floor of the Shops at Columbus Circle, there’s Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall concert venue, reliably injecting patrons during evening hours and providing new customers for food and retail tenants.
There’s also an increasing realization that circulation from unrelated upper floor uses—whether residences, offices, or hotels—should be introduced into retail floors at the highest point possible to compel passage past shops. And as the traditional food court has stalled, places like Hudson Eats now bring trendy fast casual vendors and local flavors to Brookfield Place, while others malls have embraced sit-down restaurants in lieu of the traditional food court model. The Shops at Columbus Circle offers not one but four restaurants on its fourth floor.
New tenants aside, the architecture of these centers has taken a great leap forward, with a frequent emphasis on street accessibility, clear sight lines, and easy links between floors. Westfield World Trade Center features many retailers oriented towards the street. The aim of its two-story Oculus retail space was not to create a traditional arcade but to emulate exterior spaces. Santiago Calatrava tells CityLab via email that he “designed the Oculus as a sunken piazza in the long European tradition of central urban spaces, creating a wide space opened to all citizens.”
Designers are thinking about the simple but essential task of making upper floors visible. After all, if a visitor can’t see a destination they’re almost certain to ignore it. Even something as rudimentary as a handrail can be a problem: ubiquitous 1980s granite and metal have been supplanted by glass at Brookfield Place and multiple other centers.
Circulation is also crucial. Being able to easily reach an upper level attraction is as important as seeing it. Recent shopping centers have prioritized the frequent and highly visible placement of connections between levels. Norm Garden, a designer at Callison RTKL says “you can’t put enough [escalators] in.” He also says that they’re best introduced as a sequence. “The old department store model of stacking escalators doesn’t work that well,” adds Garden. “I prefer a terraced or a cascading approach, sometimes you can be seduced into going up and find yourself on the third or fourth floor before you think about it.”
Nothing will change the primacy of the street-level experience and yet recent work has revealed that enticement elsewhere is not nearly so hard as it was thought to be. Multilevel design principles have recently been tweaked into an effective formula that did not previously exist.
Today, there’s no telling what future innovations might produce or how they might undercut this model. The rise of online retail has proven a threat not merely to suburban malls but to the kind of retailers that we might have seen in urban centers. An Amazon Books location replaced a former upper floor Borders at the Shops at Columbus Circle, but most retailers lost in the 2000s haven't been replaced by anything of the kind. Who knows what the next decade's culling might bring.
Leasing in most New York centers also inclines clearly towards the higher end—-many of the more vibrant locations of urban shopping centers in Asia have retail sectors less desiccated by online pressures. American multi-level retail has increasingly reflected a turn towards community and unrelated uses that’s been common both in suburban centers and abroad. Garden notes that his multilevel design work across Southeast Asia includes a chapel, museum space, community halls, and university centers.
If the composition of retail complexes is inevitably fated to change, their location is likely to inch just a bit off of street level. With a recent generation of architects and developers having successfully built up, it's unlikely they're going to look back down anytime soon.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the address of a Bloomingdale’s in Chicago