No one is saying the space is not beautiful. Ok, maybe SOME people are, but in my mind, architect Santiago Calatrava added something very special to downtown Manhattan in his stunning, and stunningly overbudget, Oculus. Shopping there, however, is another thing entirely.

The Oculus doubles as a transportation hub for New Jersey PATH trains and as a Westfield shopping center and while it serves it’s purpose, I was shocked at how poorly thought out the retail components of the project are. Getting urban retail right – particularly vertical retail – can be a challenge as a new Citylab article on the historic trials and tribulations of urban shopping malls makes clear.  Yet the article speaks to solutions that were clearly not put in place at Westfield World Trade Center. The aesthetics may be beautiful (though the leaky roof and wet marble fall are likely keeping attorney’s busy), my experience as a shopper left me confused and frustrated. A few things I noted…

Challenging Circulation Patterns. This picture was taken from the central “piazza”. My first question was…how do you get from where I’m standing up to that overlook? The elevator doesn’t go to the first floor and neither do the stairs. Hmm…

Yet another image, this time from the second floor. It’s nice that the stairs float, but again, how do I get down to the first level of shopping? I couldn’t find a single sign directing me to the escalators (which I did eventually find, but they were of course hidden from plain view in deference to the architecture, because really, it is hard to dress up a functional escalator). Finding ways to get from one floor to another was confusing and frustrating. Is this how a retailer wants their customers to remember the shopping experience?And what about those commuters who are in a rush? If the elevator doesn’t go down to the PATH level, those customers have to double back to the middle of the piazza to find an escalator. When a few minutes may mean missing a commuter train, the answer for many will be “no way”.

Poor Directional Signage. Here I am, finally, at the escalator and elevator on the second floor trying to get down to the first floor. It is nice that there is a sign directing me UP and OUT to a variety of things – the 9/11 Memorial, One World Trade Center, One World Observatory, and Greenwich Street – but not a single sign for where to go DOWN for more shopping.

Seemingly Non-Existent Store signage. Can you even tell what that store is selling? I had a very difficult time figuring out it out until I walked right up to the window (hint. Apple products. Ok, that was more than a hint). Perhaps the designers thought signage would distract from the design (they were probably right), but it also undermines retailers ability to raise awareness and drive foot traffic.

It also strikes me that there is a mismatch between the most frequent potential customers (those going to PATH trains) and the retailers who occupy the stores, particularly on the piazza. While having an Apple store there makes sense, Hugo Boss and John Varvatos a little less so. To be fair, more accessible retailers can be found hidden, and I mean hidden (again, no signage directing you there) in the South Concourse.
While I don’t know for sure, my sense is that high end brands were convinced to locate here for the vanity of it, but in the end, sales won’t quite cover costs. The few times I’ve been there so far I have not seen many people shopping in any of the higher end clothing stores or boutiques. I’d be curious to see what happens at the end of some of the lease terms. I imagine turnover is likely.