News
07.09.2009
Mall City
Does a new approach to malls that incorporates going vertical, adaptive reuse, and density make these mega-retail projects more attractive -- or at least palatable -- in urban settings like the Bronx, Queens, and along the East River? Alex Ulam wonders if this new generation of retail is for real.
East River Plaza in East Harlem subsumes its big box stores below grade with airy walkways and smaller shops above.
Courtesy GreenbergFarrow

The vacant storefronts in commercial districts throughout New York City are among the most striking signs of the economic downturn. However, on old industrial sites and in neighborhoods where national retail has never ventured before, developers are betting that a new generation of malls will bring in hordes of shoppers. One such mall is the $500 million Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market, which in May held a ribbon cutting for its first tenant, Home Depot.

Situated on a 16.5-acre site along the Harlem River near the new Yankee Stadium, this 950,000-square-foot project for the Related Companies represents a major departure from the traditional suburban mall. Instead of being enveloped in parking lots, this mall is pedestrian friendly. It has wide sidewalks, a small outdoor plaza with seating, and several street-level spaces for restaurants and retail. Sloped roofs and interior streets break up the massing of the enormous development.

Instead of big-box stores spread out laterally, here they are stacked on top of one another in two three-story retail blocks that flank a six-story garage for 2,341 cars. The two retail blocks are staggered by about 15 feet, allowing each big-box store to connect to its own dedicated parking deck by walkways that pass over interior streets. If a mall of this size were built in the suburbs, it would typically take up 100 acres.

The vertical design, with its relatively modest footprint, resolves many concerns that critics have about malls, said John Clifford, principal at GreenbergFarrow, which did the project’s master plan and retail design. A large share of shoppers, about 37 percent, are supposed to arrive by public transit and on foot. “There are a lot of urbanists who hate the suburbanization that these uses bring,” Clifford said, “but when you think about it, there couldn’t be a better use of land resources.”

Gateway is one of several vertical-style malls under construction in the city that GreenbergFarrow has helped design. East River Plaza, planned by the Blumenfeld Development Group on a three-block site between East 116th and 119th streets adjacent to the FDR Drive, is due to open this fall. Vornado Realty Trust’s Rego Park II in Queens will also open this year. And a GreenbergFarrow design for another Related project, the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, is in the midst of a contentious public review process.

The Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market incorporates a defunct La Guardia-era market into a larger modern mall complex.
Courtesy BBG-BBGM

These massive developments will undoubtedly change the way that many New Yorkers shop. Gateway, which is 90 percent leased, will provide the Bronx with its first Bed Bath & Beyond and its first wholesale club, BJ’s. East River Plaza will house the first Costco in Manhattan. The new malls also promise thousands of jobs for low-income neighborhoods that suffer from high unemployment.

Yet many community groups and local business advocates are not thrilled by the new designs or the shopping opportunities these developments promise. While some opponents are willing to accept new malls if they commit to paying a living wage, others ask whether the new malls, which receive generous tax abatements and subsidies, are coming at the expense of more sustainable and less inherently auto-dependent forms of development.

Irwin Cohen, a developer who specializes in adaptive reuse, had plans to redevelop old industrial buildings at the Bronx Terminal Market into a multipurpose facility that would rent to independent food vendors, much as he did when he turned a former Nabisco factory into the highly successful Chelsea Market. Local operations would have been better anchors for the Bronx site than big-box national retailers, he argued. “Why should we have what is being done in the rest of the United States foisted on us—shopping malls and cars?”

For his part, Clifford has long pondered such questions. He began designing malls out of GreenbergFarrow’s Atlanta office for Home Depot, and helped introduce the big-box concept in New York in 1993, designing the city’s first Home Depot in Ozone Park, Queens. Since then, Greenberg Farrow has designed more than 6.5 million square feet of big-box stores and malls in New York City alone. In recent years, as developers have looked to more urban neighborhoods, new design strategies were required: hence the vertical mall.

Take East River Plaza. Instead of existing as a monolith that eats up three city blocks, the 650,000-square-foot project is broken up by an open-air galleria, similar to the one at Gateway, that lines up with 117th Street, providing orientation to the neighborhood and to stores on four above-grade retail levels. Here, every other level of retail is accessible from the adjacent, eight-story parking garage by pedestrian bridges that connect over the galleria.

related companies plans to insert new retail uses into the Kingsbridge Armory's historic facade. the plans have run into opposition from local groups fighting for Fair wages.
Carlos E. Restrepo

The project also seeks to harmonize with its surroundings through a facade of masonry and brick, chosen to echo the texture of the neighborhood and to reference the 19th-century Washburn Wire factory, which occupied the site. While these are worthwhile tactics, one wonders if the factory might have been salvaged for reuse in the project, making a more than symbolic nod to neighborhood history.

A similar strategy has been used at Gateway Center, where remnants were incorporated from the art deco Bronx House of Detention, demolished to make way for the new mall. Eagles from the structure’s frieze, for instance, are perched on steel columns around the mall’s street-side plaza. The building also references heroic 1930s warehouse architecture through four 30-foot-tall glass towers, which conceal exit stairways and serve as beacons above the Deegan Expressway.

“We wanted to take a little bit of the history of the site and impart it onto the design of the building,” said Gregory Cranford, partner at BBG-BBGM, which served as design architects for the massing and exteriors of the buildings, and as overall architects for the project. “So we have done that with the massing and with the big forms. We wanted to have a little bit of the same scale, but in a modern vocabulary.”

Among the new malls, Rego Park II may best address its surroundings. First, the superblock is not out of place here—neighbors include tower-in-the-park residential developments, along with the original Rego Park mall. And instead of being primarily a retail zone dominated by big-box stores, the 1.675 million-square-foot development called for a more diverse mix of uses to animate the public spaces, including a 25-story residential tower atop a seven-story parking garage with ground-level retail. Currently, however, the tower is on hold.

Other elements of the project go well beyond window-dressing. A tensile fabric canopy covers a 50-foot-wide galleria along the central axis of the development. In contrast to the gallerias at Gateway Center and East River Plaza, which accommodate cars and pedestrians, the one at Rego Park is strictly a pedestrian mall that attempts to bring an urbanistic feel to the neighborhood. “We are trying to integrate open space into the community,” said Giovanni Valle, project architect for Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, which designed the facade for Rego Park II. (SLCE is the architect of record.)

The mixed-use Rego Park II in Queens includes connections on several levels: A pedestrian galleria links the retail building with surrounding streets, while a bridge connects pedestrians and vehicles to a neighbroring mall.
Courtesy EE&K Architects

Kingsbridge Armory, meanwhile, represents another approach. This project involves building a vertical mall inside the landmarked Kingsbridge Armory. Under the plan developed by GreenbergFarrow, the inside of the armory would be ripped out and a steel-truss-framed structure would be inserted inside the shell of the building.

The project, though, has been opposed by groups like the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which demands that Related commit to have tenants pay a living wage, as well as add recreation space for children. There is also outrage about plans for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, which residents say could drive out local grocery stores that pay union wages.

“We are not looking to create a poverty wage center in the middle of Kingsbridge,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a KARA spokesperson. (Glenn Goldstein, senior vice-president of the Related Companies, said that it was too early in the approval process to discuss plans for the armory.)

There is much to praise about New York’s newest vertical malls. They’ll revitalize old industrial areas, and relate more sanely to the city than earlier megaprojects did. But worries remain that these projects are still suburban—reliant on car and truck traffic, and a threat to local businesses.

That is a particular concern given the subsidies and tax abatements involved. Related, for example, received a $7.1 million city subsidy toward the expense of razing the original Bronx Terminal Market, as well as about $133 million in city tax abatements for Gateway. The company also received preliminary approval for subsidies and tax abatements on the mall it plans for Kingsbridge.

“These urban mall projects fit into a pattern of public dollars being used to fund the expansion of national chain retailers,” said Stacy Mitchell, the author of Big-Box Swindle, “while independent businesses never see a dime.” There is no reason why forward-thinking design couldn’t also serve a more balanced vision of community investment—and a still more sustainable wave of shopping in the city.

Alex Ulam

New York–based writer Alex Ulam is a frequent contributor to AN.