It is a little acknowledged truth that in New York City, there is a dearth of malls, and the ones that do exist (Kings Plaza, for example, are so far out on the edges of the city as to be almost inaccessible for many residents). Instead, we have seen the rise of massive, multi-use retail concepts with mall-like qualities—food vendors, perhaps a restaurant or movie theater if the square footage allows for it, shops upon shops upon shops, “pop-up” events, but above all, places to sit down and take it all in, to see and be seen. To hang out. How is this any more special than the average American mall? It isn’t. And yet, when word of Morgantown Center, a Bushwick mall, for all intents and purposes, came nearly two years ago, the phrasing used by developers was that a “grittier Chelsea Market” would be coming to the neighborhood. While no one’s quite sure what “gritty” would even look like in a Chelsea Market–style enterprise (hard-to-swallow food? physically menacing vendors?), one thing is certain: Everybody wants to be the one to build its next iteration.
And it’s no surprise why: The mall, like the amusement park, exists as a place for the most amount of people to spend the maximum amount of time, and Chelsea Market succeeds wildly on both fronts. Though it is, by definition, not much different than an average mall—there are places to buy food and gifts as well as a multinational retail chain—Chelsea Market is imbued with urban lore (its site is the former National Biscuit Company headquarters, and therefore the birthplace of the Oreo) and the glamour of New York mega-media—it is the home of the Food Network, and Google, YouTube, NBC and NY1 all have office space there. It appeals to tourists looking for a place to go post-High Line that’ll accommodate grandparents and 12-year-old cousins alike, surely, but it’s also a cornerstone of daily life for locals who live and work there, too. And unlike the image of the sprawling suburban swaths of poorly designed parking lots and Cheesecake Factories and Hot Topics, Chelsea Market is an example of what could be considered the carefully-curated mall—the only huge chain it houses is Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters’ higher quality, more expensive sister. The rest are exclusively New York–bred brands; some large (Hale ‘n Hearty Soups has shops all over the city and on Long Island), but mostly businesses with only one or two locations, like Bowery Kitchen Supplies or Posman Books, and small vendors without a separate brick-and-mortar flagship, such as Fat Witch Bakery and Eleni’s Cookies. A place to test out massage chairs at Brookstone, Chelsea Market is not.
Which is precisely why developers are wont to liken their mall-like projects to it as opposed to calling them what they are. Though their aim is entirely commercial, these new developments tend to focus heavily on finding specifically local businesses to occupy their storefronts, eschewing widely recognized names for the authenticity factor that a neighborhood-based startup brings. And that’s also why it’s entirely possible to envision a future in which every couple of subway stops boasts its own Chelsea Market—a central location to discover lesser known producers with ties to the neighborhood, a different kind of shopping center all operating under the same, tried-and-tested model.
Morgantown Center, which was proposed in 2012 as a nightlife, food and retail complex in Bushwick, is only one of such examples, and made news last week when Wyckoff Heights blog spotted major changes in two different renderings for the building, which was originally set to be completed in this summer (to date, no plans have been approved). One rendering involves a seven-story tower that appeared to be residential—whether it would house condos or a hotel isn’t clear—and the other consists of two stories set atop the existing one-story warehouse.
News came just two days after Bowery Boogie reported that Orchard Street’s legendary Pink Building was slated to turn into a Chelsea Market-esque complex for luxury shops, following its purchase last summer for $27 million, while noting that most of the street-level shops have been pushed out, likely to make way for pricier retail brands. And earlier this spring, realtors at Massey Knakal marketed 215 Moore Street in
Bushwick “Industrial Williamsburg,” a collection of five warehouses and one vacant lot, as an opportunity for retail developers. (It appears to still be for sale.)
But it is Sunset Park’s Industry City that has come closest to fulfilling the prophecy of the Brooklyn-ified Chelsea Market. Compromised of 30 acres and 16 buildings, Industry City’s tenants, which range from a vodka distillery, ice cream makers, the Mister Sunday dance parties and a vintage furniture company, will soon be joined by four more food vendors, including One Girl Cookies and Liddabit Sweets, as well as the Brooklyn Nets’ massive new training facility. And in the next few years, Industry City’s owners plan to build a food hall, as well as retail and dining options to lure visitors who don’t necessarily work there.
If there’s a clue that the carefully curated mall, or the Chelsea Market model, is a lucrative one, it’s in the success of their lower-risk pop-up style counterparts: The high-end flea market. Since its founding in 2003, Artists & Fleas has solidified itself as a weekly Williamsburg fixture as well as a permanent home with 30 of its own vendors inside Chelsea Market (how very meta), while the Brooklyn Flea, founded in 2008, has since expanded into a twice-weekly food and flea market at multiple locations throughout Brooklyn, as well as satellite operations at Jones Beach, Central Park’s SummerStage, PS 321 and, for a time, anyway, Washington DC. The founder of both, Jonathan Butler, is also the brains behind 1000 Dean, the newly renovated commercial offices in Crown Heights that include Berg’n, the long-awaited food and beer hall that opens August 27, a sort of Chelsea Market–style complex in its own right, with “creative office lofts” sitting atop it. These successes have spawned a number of imitators, including the Brooklyn Night Bazaar, Flea Market Betty, a new Williamsburg flea market, and the very strange trend of Manhattan condo developers hoping to attract hip tenants by creating Brooklyn-style markets.
The Chelsea Market model can’t be considered truly successful, however, if it hasn’t benefitted the very tenants which give it the authentic flavor it’s striving for, and to date, both Chelsea Market and high-end flea markets have played major roles in launching the growth of many startups from small-time vendors to either brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants (Smorgasburg vendors Butter & Scotch plan to open a dessert bar in Crown Heights this fall) or large-scale operations, such as the Brooklyn Flea’s role in helping the soap and lotion company Apotheke expand production and distribution.
Elements of this mass-produced yet idiosyncratic model can be found even in businesses who’ve been schilling the same idea for years: Namely, in Urban Outfitter’s Space Ninety 8 and the forthcoming Brooklyn J Crew. Both have made a point of collaborating with artists living and working in Brooklyn, who are able to give these international brands some semblance of having ties to the community, however fabricated. And it’s no coincidence that both are located in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that, according to common myth, is or was once home to a population of artists who actually cared where their stuff came from and who produced it. But as Williamsburg hipster culture permeates itself into the mainstream, perhaps Space Ninety 8 and the new J Crew are simply tests to see whether working with lesser-known local artists is mutually beneficial (and more importantly, profitable), and if it is, whether or not a similar model could work somewhere that isn’t Williamsburg or Downtown Los Angeles. It’s still an unanswered question at this point, but if the Chelsea Market model has proven anything, it’s that the American mall could use an upgrade.
Follow Rebecca Jennings on Twitter @rebexxxxa.