shopping 02.6.04

The Shops at Columbus Circle

There goes the neighborhood.

The shiny, but painfully bleak mall at the Time Warner Center (aka the Shops at Columbus Circle), has unwisely flung open its doors. Misguided and oppressive at every turn, filled with small outposts of retailers you see on every Main Street of every city, the Shops will only serve to confirm New Yorkers' views of malls as soulless, somnolent, and creepy.

You'd think the wall of windows fronting Columbus Circle would energize the main floor, but the center court is a bust: pedestrian traffic is cut in half by a large escalator bank down to Whole Foods below ground and right there, you've lost the room. It makes it feel much more like the D¸sseldorf train station than any kind of urban retail destination. The two wings of the ground floor, supposedly modeled on the grand arcades of Europe, have none of the elegance of betters like the Burlington Arcade in London nor the dramatic sweep of the Vittorio Emanuele in Milan.

For all the intent to impress vertically, there's really no generosity of space where it counts. The escalators to the other shops are set against the back; you practically slink up to the higher floors. Once you get to the wings off the center atrium above the ground floor, there's an inescapably inert fug: the ceilings are low, there's no natural light nearby, and little tricks like translucent panels underfoot on the bridges do nothing to help. On each of the landings, there is a railing over which you can look through the glass wall to Columbus Circle, see a bit of the park, and all the way across 59th Street. Not exactly a world-class view, granted, but it afforded us the only pleasure during our visit.

All of this might have become secondary if the retail choices had brought some leavening effect. New York derives a lot of its energy from fresh, absurd, or delightful juxtapositions. But what do you get when you juxtapose J. Crew and Sephora? Crabtree & Evelyn with Godiva? (For how to do it right, the planners should have spent some time in Grand Central.) You could name most of the retailers without knowing a thing about the place. Even the Whole Foods, undeniably impressive in terms of square footage, becomes enervating just getting through its miles of aisles.

We wanted to like this new addition to Manhattan. There's no reason, theoretically anyway, that we shouldn't shop vertically: we do everything else that way. But it's not enough to throw together some middle-to-fancy shops and expect New Yorkers to be interested. What makes it a compelling alternative to being down on the street? Perhaps Jazz at Lincoln Center and the glittery new restaurants will provide reasons to return. Until then, give us the slush, and trucks beeping as they back up, and the promise of something unlikely.
Yesterday's MUG: The New York Society Library


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