With so few retail destinations opening in the UK in recent years, we’ve started looking stateside for inspiration. Two weeks before its official launch last Friday our joint MD Alan Thornton was back-stage at Hudson Yards to check-out the final launch planning. Billed as an entirely new concept for city-living, it includes a million feet of retail and dining space surrounded by 4000 apartments and 14 acres of public space.
A collection of a dozen different buildings by as many different architects, Hudson Yards includes the highest observation deck in the western hemisphere. At the heart of the scheme is The Vessel – a multi-layered zig-zag viewing platform which clearly has ambitions to put Hudson Yards on the destination map as a tourist attraction in its own right. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick whose most recent mall creation is Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross, London, the gleaming copper staircase is based on the historic design of Indian stepwells. Fittingly these dramatic structures originally brought together different casts within Indian culture, drawing them down into a single meeting-point – ancient place-making being remodelled for twenty-first century Manhattan.
While you cannot fault the standard of design detail, the centre opened to mixed reviews. Despite the spectacular intent, the retail areas themselves could be anywhere from Dubai to Singapore, with a predictable line-up of luxury brands for anyone craving the likes of Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Dior and Coach.
Perhaps the most potential for innovation actually stems from the developer’s response to current market conditions. With the mid-level market struggling in the US as it is in the UK, a relatively last-minute shift to bring in innovative start-ups and non-traditional retail brands to an entire empty floor, now stands to be one of the more interesting aspects of the mix.
This cannot be said for Westfield’s World Trade Centre. Anchored by the awe-inspiring Calatrava-designed Oculus, the centre manages to combine retail and dining with a place-making pulse right at the heart of the scheme. The venue manages to strike just the right tone – a dynamic hub for New Yorkers, a must-see magnet for tourists, a jaw-dropping transport interchange and a sensitive memorial site too. For restaurant innovation the latest incarnation of cult dining superstore Eataly sits overlooking the plaza, while next door to the Oculus is Brookfield Place, home to Hudson Eats, a lesson in how to arrange a contemporary food-court with subtle innovations such as a dining app for office workers to bypass lunchtime queues.
With so much newness, it’s interesting to see what effect this has on the rest of the city. Disappearing from the scene are what used to be interesting, winding lanes like Bleeker St. where you used to find fresh one-off stores and fashion innovation. Soho is now under the strangle-hold of luxury brands, so while you can still enjoy classic food experiences from Dean & Deluca and Balthazar plus the thrill of the cast-iron district, I struggled to find any retail innovation other than in the quality of store fit-outs.
Heading further east, South Street Seaport was always more of a tourist magnet than a natural draw for New Yorkers. Relaunched by The Howard Hughes Corporation as Seaport District, the tired Pier 17 building has been totally rebuilt and promises to be a foodie haven, with celebrity chefs and a viewing deck overlooking the iconic Brooklyn Bridge when it’s fully open. A winter ice-rink morphs into a cinema screen in the summer. Particularly effective here, was the integration of technology with digital screens arranged at clashing angles to become ever-moving structural features combining signage, marketing information, art and commercialisation.
Finally, probably the biggest surprise for me was the new Starbucks concept store in the Meatpacking District. Again, benefiting from the foot flow from the nearby High Line park and Google’s spectacular office next door, Starbucks have taken experiential retail to a totally new level and reimagined what an experience based around coffee can be. Copper décor and every potential coffee angle from food through to cocktails is catered for, making this one of the best new places to hang out in Manhattan. If there was one development in New York that I’d want to see over in the UK, it would be this.