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ON THE LEVEL with Al Urbanski


When I moved to New York City as a budding journalist in 1977, the World Trade Center was new. I didn’t like it. I deemed it inelegant and sterile, a couple of over-exaggerated and elongated cubes that had supplanted the iconic Empire State Building as the world’s tallest structure. But when, a few years later, I went to work down on Wall Street, I came to appreciate it. The expansive plaza from which the towers rose on the western flank became a welcome lunchtime escape of open space from downtown’s crowded thicket of skyscrapers. The white marble lobbies were airy and emoted the inner elegance of the simple exteriors. My habit has long been to walk up and down escalators, but I always took the ride when I was on the one that gave you a slow top-to-bottom (or bottom-to-top) inspection of the shocking, massive, and marvelous Miro tapestry, now sadly lost to the world. And then there was the sheer, brash New York-ness of those two towers ascending skyward that said, “We are the center of the universe. We don’t just build one tallest building, we build two!”

What happened there happened. The lone Freedom Tower now reigns as Manhattan’s highest spire. But I believe that the $4 billion Oculus transit hub that opened in May will become the building that defines the World Trade Center. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the singular structure at first glance looks like a cross between a woman’s jaw hair clip and a brontosaurus skeleton. But walk around the Oculus, spend some time inside its grand hall lit by a slit of an aperture revealing sky, and you discover a World Wonder, a photographer’s playground. It is a sculpture more than a building. It will be immortalized in fashion shoots and movie backdrops for decades to come.

“Expensive? Yes. Controversial? Perhaps. But hasn’t that been true with the history of art always?” New York-New Jersey Port Authority chairman John Degnan said at its opening. Westfield was wise enough, following 9/11, to renew its option to operate the mall in this space, soon to be recognized the world over. As shopping center owners endeavor to make places that will draw people with either living spaces or parks or entertainment, Westfield’s WTC Mall inhabits a space that will beckon to the world all on its own. It will be interesting to see how the company takes advantage of that.

We recently toured the 365,000-sq.-ft. space with Westfield’s Zach Eichman and found features that will certainly be emulated by other mall owners, such as huge high-definition video billboards promoting sponsors and retailers. Its cavernous atrium, traversed by tens of thousands of commuters a day, is available to mall tenants for special events or consumer fairs, a feature that town center developers may want to position in their highest pedestrian traffic crossroads.

New store design concepts will most certainly wend their way from WTC to centers nationwide. Retailers are stepping up their brand statement games in this monumental space. The glass-fronted Victoria’s Secret shop pops out from the all-white corridors with a bold, solid-black interior accented with red and staffed by associates wearing the same colors. Breitling, whose history is in timepieces for pilots, uses wood and metal furnishings to fashion an aeronautical theme, including an art piece representing the turbine fans of a jet engine.

If you happen to be reading this while at the ICSC-New York show, do take a subway downtown and explore the Oculus. It’s a must-see for retailers and developers alike.

You can follow Al on Twitter at @AlUrbanski or email him at [email protected].

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