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Inside the Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards, which opened in March.
Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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New York City is a mall

Experts claim retail is dead, but the “vertical centers” and “food halls” in America’s densest city just keep coming

I have been to the Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards six times—six times—and yet I’m still getting lost. Is Muji on the second or third floor? Is the Instagram-worthy Van Leeuwen ice cream shop down the hall? Forty Five Ten, the Dallas-born boutique that is the grandbaby of Barneys, is definitely up on the fifth floor, but how do you get from the first to the second floor without passing Blue Bottle Coffee? And what is the fastest route to William Greenberg rainbow cake to placate your kids who hate Vessel?

“It’s just stairs,” they say. “Can we get bubble tea?”

R. Webber Hudson, a Related Companies executive vice president, doesn’t have this problem. He and his team curated the “vertical retail center”—he winces each time I refer to it as a mall—and its configuration is as clear to him as the glass in the six-story atrium. International luxury brands are on the first floor; previously only-on-the-internet brands like M. Gemi shoes and Japanese normcore faves Uniqlo and Muji are on the second; high-volume draws Zara and H&M are stacked on three and four; and so on.

There’s a logic, but I am frustrated that I can’t see it. Whenever I’ve complained about this in conversation, acquaintances roll their eyes and tell me that’s mall logic; the developers want me to get lost and spend more money. But that isn’t my experience of “classic” indoor luxury retail: In March I visited Hines’s Houston Galleria, designed by HOK as an homage to Milan’s famous shopping arcade. It has sweeping interior views, a conservatory-like roof, and a completely logical pattern of alternating elevators and escalators.

Since a half dozen new retail hubs have opened in New York City over the past five years, it was time to survey the field, starting with the biggest fish, Hudson Yards, and proceeding south. SHoP Architects has three mall(ish) projects in the process of opening: Pier 17 at South Street Seaport, replacing a marketplace by the same architects as Boston’s Faneuil Hall; Essex Market and the Market Line, the food-forward retail spaces that are part of the giant Essex Crossing development on the Lower East Side; and Empire Outlets, the city’s first outlet mall, next to the ferry terminal on Staten Island. There’s also the Oculus (aka Westfield World Trade Center) and its neighbor, Brookfield Place.

As I strolled, escalatored, and snacked, I kept thinking of more malls to add to the list: after the supposed retail apocalypse, suddenly everyone’s shopping. But as I visited new and newish New York City malls, I realized I had to answer a bigger question: Why do we go to the mall?

Inside the Shops at Hudson Yards.
Caroline Spivack

There are two reasons. The first is efficiency; all those stores are in one place. I have cousins from Brazil and Israel who use New York City’s satellite outlet malls for a supersize version of this, stocking up on baby clothes for multiple grandchildren for the next year—Jersey Gardens has historically been their choice.

But this sort of quest shopping is occasional. More often, a trip to the mall is social, padding out getting food with a friend into a whole afternoon. As I wrote last year, Viennese architect Victor Gruen, creator of the suburban American shopping center, said “A mall is a public space … committed to intensive urban activity.” He thought the suburbs needed places of public life and human concentration, and he wasn’t wrong. What has gone wrong over the decades is the loss of the mix of uses his art-filled, small- to medium-size centers cultivated. The same stores began showing up everywhere, and the shopping centers became boring.

All malls aren’t dead—but the ones that are thriving are doing so because they are becoming more like the city. They offer a hybrid retail experience, now centered on food rather than fashion, born of the 21st century.

“At the end of the day, most humans still like human contact. Not all the time, perhaps,” says Brad M. Hutensky, a real estate investor and governing trustee at the Urban Land Institute. “Why do they ever go to the theater? Because it is a totally different experience, with a bigger screen, better seats, alcohol, food. It’s not that brick and mortar is out of fashion, but bad customer experience is out of fashion.”

He lists other experiences that can’t be replicated online as the pillars of reborn shopping centers: pet grooming, spa services, walk-in medical care, shopping for fresh meat and produce. This is the niche that, for New Yorkers, the new urban malls could fill. Sometimes, the intensive urban activity of the city is too intense. Crossing the street, opening doors, remembering which block that shop was on—these things take you out of the social space. The urban mall is an edit. The best ones I saw on my tour treated their visitors like they needed a spatio-visual break: palm trees, simple signage, one loop to rule them all.

When Hudson leads me through the shopping center at Hudson Yards, the path feels smooth as silk: Head up the escalators to the right of the Vessel-facing entrance, and from there, two more escalators beckon: one leading east toward stores, the other north toward the restaurants. We circle the second floor, where there’s cafe seating outside Citarella. We pass Milk & Honey Babies, a New Jersey children’s store that the Related team recruited, as well as Batch, a shop that refreshes its theme and inventory every couple of months; it’s one of a number of internet brands made brick-and-mortar. Another escalator, canted across the end of the mall’s northern atrium, appears as if by magic, along with Muji.

The 720,000-square-foot center, topped by a three-story Neiman Marcus, was designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects in tones of gray, white, and gold. Since the Shops opened in March, more than 3 million people have visited, according to Related. Early reports complained about the lack of restrooms (the developers are building more on the second floor, which they hope to complete for the holidays), lack of tables (they bring in additional seating for 175 visitors on the weekends, which reminds me never to go on a weekend), and lack of benches (Hudson says I should check back for lounge-style seating in the next few months and, in the meantime, try 3Den, which charges $6 for 30 minutes to “make the most of your time between places”).

The developer is adapting to meet demand, but I have to admit, I am still getting over my first impression of the Shops as a severe, high-end landscape. It is difficult to talk and keep track of your bearings, and despite the presence of start-up brands and boutiques, there isn’t much I can’t buy elsewhere. There are only two places where I felt delight: One was a flip sequin wall by artist Lara Schnitger, an international babel of sparkly graffiti and selfie-taking on the third floor that actually felt like fun. Here was a place that was actually playful —and free, to boot—in a way that Snark Park, the $18 Instagram experience, was not.

The other was Mercado Little Spain. When your friends from out of town ask to be taken to the brave new neighborhood, stroll up the High Line, gawk at the stairway to nowhere, and then take the stairs down to 30th Street where, under the High Line Spur, you can walk in to chef José Andrés’s gourmet food court. (Or, I’m sorry, food hall.) It is more fun to look at than most of the interiors upstairs, with patterned tiles and orange corrugated siding. They will get the press of humanity and feeling of disorientation at a much smaller scale. They can buy churros or drink cava. It is impossible to get lost.

Essex Market, on the corner of Delancey and Essex Streets, lacks retail in the classic sense: clothing shops, bookstores, ear-piercing kiosks. You can pick up a gift for a friend at Flower Power (an apothecary) or the Push Cart (foodie gifts), take in a movie at the Regal Cinemas in the Handel Architects-designed residential tower, or sit for a cup of coffee in the mezzanine along Broome Street, which cleverly tucks public seating into what would have been wasted space under the movie theaters upstairs. When the first section of the Market Line opens later this summer, there will be a beer hall and sit-down restaurants downstairs. Eventually, that underground promenade will stretch for three blocks, linking three residential buildings along Broome Street, and will have local fashion, art, and music vendors.

The new Essex Market, designed by SHoP Architects.
Alex Staniloff for Eater

The new space replaced the 79-year-old Essex Street Market, a Manhattan classic that was cramped and quirky, with limited seating. I am sad to see it go, but I was also charmed by the new, SHoP-designed market, which houses 21 legacy vendors (who moved from the old market into the new one through a concerted effort by the developers, city, and shop owners), 18 new stalls, and two full-service restaurants, along with the florist pop-up Saffron that seems engineered for Instagram. I most enjoy SHoP’s work when they lean in to a theme, as at the twin American Copper towers, and they have done that here. The materials are a little bit industrial, a little bit subway sublime, with dark steel, wood handrails, and simple black-and-white signage designed by Frere-Jones Type. Above your head, the scalloped surface of the slanting ceiling is made out of glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum, meant to recall the curves of Guastavino vaults at Grand Central. I thought of it as coffers on glitch, and it works, like coffers, to draw the eye upward and bring natural light down.

Dana Getman, the project architect for SHoP, took me on a tour of the space, but I didn’t really need her to hold my hand. It is two loops—one North-South, one East-West—and you can see the outside from almost every stall. The Market Line will have more underground confusion to face, but the architects have positioned two staircases down from the market adjacent to double-height expanses of glass. Shiny black tiles on the elevator cores should bounce additional light. When I ask Beth Lieberman, director of operations for the Market Line, whether it will resemble DeKalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn, she reacts with horror; this underground food court will not have dead ends, no natural light, and winding internal “streets” as that one does. I sigh, relieved.

The dark materials used at Essex Market frame and organize the cacophony of food, beverage, and brands better than most other materials. But I don’t think I can say the same for SHoP’s two other retail projects. Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport is primarily a frosted-glass box for restaurants, with a summer concert venue up top. I miss the playfulness of Benjamin Thompson and Associates’s ship-like building on the site, which looked like a party boat about to set sail, and was stocked with small shops and affordable restaurants. Yes, in its waning years, it smelled like fish from Fulton Market, but a market concept could have worked here, too, rather than the current rundown of famous chefs’ restaurants.

The public decks around the building are lovely, but I have stared at Pier 17 for too long from the Brooklyn side to be a fan. It always looks to me like a taxpayer building, a placeholder for the taller tower owner Howard Hughes wanted (and likely still wants) to build at the Seaport. The glass is stylish up close but inert from afar, and I can already see its tastefulness subsumed by brands. When you walk inside the box to access the escalators to the rooftop, you find yourself surrounded by so many screens pushing ads for Veuve Clicquot and title insurance, the architecture hardly matters.

A group of people sits on a pedestrian plaza with planters in between two buildings.
Empire Outlets on Staten Island’s North Shore.

I thought about branding versus architecture at Empire Outlets, too. While the official launch of this Staten Island outlet mall was on May 17, 50 percent of the 350,000 square feet of retail will not be ready until July 4, when Nordstrom Rack opens. The Shake Shack will open later in the summer. The escalators, not working when I visited in May, should be operational. After seven years, I wondered, why not wait until you are really ready to open? New Yorkers are harsh critics, and I can go to the Gap Outlet on Fulton Mall if I need $2.99 leggings now.

The design vocabulary here is what I would call generic contemporary: shiny light metal, monochrome graphics by Pentagram, hits of big color. As at Pier 17, I wonder if it can compete with brand cacophony. Already there are sandwich boards and not-architect-approved outdoor seating. The piped-in music is loud. It smells like waffles. The stores have floor-to-ceiling glass fronts, as well as a square vitrines on what would be dead walls, to fill with merchandise and 60-percent-off posters. Once those are all filled, it will probably be hard to see the buildings. I understand why suburban outlets often take on the cladding of Ye Olde Village: those solid “brick” and “stone” walls provide more cover.

If you do have bulk shopping to do, I would wait for Empire Outlets to fill in, but at least its bones look good. The site of the mall is a former municipal parking lot next door to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, which was a poor use of prime real estate. The cars had a killer view of lower Manhattan, and also blocked access to the waterfront. SHoP’s graceful design puts the stores in long fingers stretching from mainland Staten Island toward the water. A series of gentle staircases with planted boxes lines the outdoor areas between the stores, with parking (for both the shops and the ferry) stacked underneath. It won’t be hard to find the escalators here: They and the elevators are encased in orange glass. The landscape architect was Weintraub Diaz Landscape Architecture. The design also adds a continuous promenade from the ferry to the Staten Island Yankees stadium. These are real, well-designed public spaces amidst the shopping, and both will be open 24 hours a day. Even if you never buy anything, step off the ferry and look at the view.

The best mall in New York City is practically an elder statesman: Brookfield Place, once known as the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, designed by architect Cesar Pelli and landscape architect Diana Balmori in 1988. Severely damaged by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, the Winter Garden reopened in 2002 with 16 new 40-foot palms. (Those palms aged out and were replaced again in 2013; the food and retail were redone in 2014.)

Those palms are essential. They create a soft canopy under the glass arch high overhead and create a perimeter for the square of stainless steel benches under the trees. Despite destruction and updates, plus the removal of the bridge across the West Side Highway and the building of One World Trade, it still feels the way it did to Paul Goldberger in the New York Times in 1988:

Almost every new building these days has an atrium or an arcade or a mall or a plaza, and most of them are dreary devices inserted by their developers primarily for the zoning benefits the city offers their builders. The Winter Garden, however, can stand on its own: this is a triumphal public space that has something to say to an age that is, quite properly, cynical about the meaning of monumentality.

You only have to walk a few hundred steps down a Santiago Calatrava-designed hallway to see the alternative. While the atrium at Hudson Yards feels pinched, more vertical than horizontal, the Oculus has the opposite problem: a vast white marble floor that doesn’t work well for rushing commuters, gaping tourists, or people who just need to sit down. I stop on the balcony that rings the second floor and look down at the people scattered between a few blobular benches. The workers at the headphone kiosks chat among themselves.

The Winter Garden atrium at Brookfield Place.
Max Touhey

There is monumentality, in the sense of bigness, but no sense of triumph or arrival. No greenery. No comfort. And very little indication of where someone might find food. I hear two out-of-towners asking a guard where to buy coffee. He is standing one floor above the Epicerie Boulud, but sends them instead to the Starbucks down the long white corridor. Everything feels far away and not made for humans. I just want to escape.

At Brookfield Place, the restaurants are clustered into a proper 35,000-square-foot food court, Hudson Eats. It is accessible from a visible escalator off the Winter Garden. There is generous seating, including proper booths, up against the windows overlooking Battery Park and the water. It’s one of the nicest views in the city, and you can have it for the price of a Black Seed Bagel.

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