empty empire

NYC’s First Outlet Mall Starved for Food Court and Stores

The ghostly Empire Outlets in Staten Island, as seen on Dec. 19, 2019.
The ghostly Empire Outlets in Staten Island, as seen on Dec. 19, 2019. Photo: Clifford Michel/THE CITY

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Seven months after its grand opening, New York City’s first outlet mall is still less than half full and its promised “food deck” is mired in delays.

In August, when about one-third of the shops at the outlet mall were occupied, Staten Island’s taxpayer-aided Empire Outlets announced a 40,000-square-foot food-and-beverage area “with dozens of food concepts” — and Manhattan views — would open in the fall.

But autumn has come and gone as the waterfront food court remains unbuilt — along with the rest of the fourth floor, which is closed off.

The shopping center, connected to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, has inked deals with Nordstrom Rack, H&M, Brooks Brothers, and other retailers and restaurants. A spokesperson said that leases have been signed for 75% of Empire Outlets, which is slightly down from the 80% figure the mall had touted in previous months.

As of Thursday, 32 of its 75 storefronts were open, based on a spot check by THE CITY.

Sarah Power, a corresponding secretary at the St. George Civic Association, said that the unopened storefronts have made local residents skeptical.

“There are a lot of people who hope that it’s successful, but equal if not more vocal are people who are dismayed about the long process in the openings,” said Power. “They worry that they won’t actually become occupied and that it’ll result in the failure of the project.”

‘A Game Changer’

Shin-Jung Hong, a spokesperson for Empire Outlets, said that the food court — with its signature tenants Mamoun’s Falafel and Wasabi — is now slated to open in spring.

BFC Partners brought in MRKTPL, the creative team behind the Meatpacking District’s Gansevoort Market, to assemble a mix of local and international tenants. The Empire Outlets food hall is expected to include a 600-seat beer garden, as well as indoor and outdoor seating.

“As it has been the trend in shopping destinations, Empire Outlets has always planned to introduce a phased rollout of openings,” said Hong, who called the mall “a game changer for Staten Island’s North Shore.”

The outlet mall, from developer Donald Capoccia’s BFC Partners, had been in the works for about seven years before opening in May. The 340,000-square-foot complex features sweeping views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

That vista cost $350 million — with nearly $100 million coming from state and city subsidies.   The new mall is seen by local officials as a key part of the borough’s “North Shore renaissance.”

Shoppers currently have the choice of sitting down at Shake Shack, which opened in December, Wetzel’s Pretzels, Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs. Developers also have brought in a rotation of food trucks, including Cousins Maine Lobster, Mac Truck, Pastry Lovers Choice and Blaze Jamaican.

The food court under construction at Empire Outlets, on Dec. 19, 2019.
The food court under construction at Empire Outlets, on Dec. 19, 2019. Photo: Clifford Michel/THE CITY

“We’re going to go to Shake Shack,” said tourist Jamal Henderson of Pennsylvania, who hopped off the Staten Island Ferry with his family. “But they should build that fourth-floor section. If it has views of the city, that’s where I’d want to go eat.”

Tim Savage, of NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, said that providing an experience beyond shopping is critical to the long-term survival of malls — especially when the city’s retail vacancy rate is rising.

“Brick and mortar retail isn’t dead, but uninteresting, uninventive, non-experiential retail is on life support,” Savage told THE CITY.”  And frankly, the American consumer is sitting next to the plug.”

Savage said the food and beverage deck “are the type of innovative ideas when we talk about saving retail.”

Frustration and Resignation

Local elected officials keeping tabs on the project told THE CITY that they remain optimistic about the outlet mall’s outlook, despite delays.

Councilmember Debi Rose (D-Staten Island)
Councilmember Debi Rose (D-Staten Island) Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“While I would love for the food and beverage hall to be already open, I understand that construction delays are an unfortunate reality,” Councilmember Debi Rose (D-Staten Island) said in a statement. “I am pleased to see a constant flow of shoppers at the stores that are in business, and I look forward to seeing more stores and the food hall opening this spring.”

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, whose predecessor contributed contributed more than $1 million to the project, said in a statement that he now understands that the Outlets has to open in phases.

“I readily conceded I have been frustrated by some of the delays and perceived delays in bringing more of Empire Outlets online. But we continue to have an open dialogue with EO,” said Oddo.

“So despite the fits and starts we have endured, we remain optimistic about this entire corridor,” he added.

Members of Staten Island’s business community also stood firmly behind the mall.

‘I See a Green Roof’

Leticia Remauro, a Staten Island Downtown Alliance board member, told THE CITY that the outlet complex is starting to bring more tourists off the ferry and into the borough.

“The foot traffic is there, would I have liked to have the whole thing opened? I think everyone would have, said Remauro. “But I’m not concerned that the entire space is not leased — that takes time.”

In his statement to THE CITY, Oddo also suggested that some locals didn’t want to see the outlet mall succeed.

“What I don’t understand is that some folks seemingly appear to be rooting for the failure of this or other projects along the waterfront,” Oddo said. “I will never get rooting against Staten Island and your home borough.”

Power, a longtime St. George resident, said that residents don’t want the mall to flop, but are concerned because they’ve seen multiple projects over the last two decades fail to come to fruition.

She added that even a half-empty mall is better than the municipal lot it replaced.

“I actually live up the hill and I now don’t see just a parking lot, I see a green roof,” Power said. “And my son and his  friends have been hanging out there after school and his friends don’t even live in the neighborhood — they’ve been coming here by bus.”

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