retail feelings

Is It Any Fun to Shop at New York’s New Mega-Mall?

Photo: Francis Dzikowski/Courtesy of Related

On March 15, Hudson Yards opened with the glitzy fanfare of a 5th Avenue flagship. To clarify, this is a neighborhood we’re talking about — one located on the far west side of Manhattan, around 34th Street. Its appeal is a one-stop–shop fantasy: You can live, work, and spend all in the same place. The area itself is a shiny new product.

It makes sense, then, that at the center of Hudson Yards sits a 720,000-square-foot retail complex. Developers, who spent $25 billion on the neighborhood, avoid calling it a “mall.” That sounds both plebeian and passé — two things that Hudson Yards is decidedly not. But the space is a mall in every sense of the word. It’s got luxury retailers, fast fashion, and a range of different restaurants all under one roof. On my last visit, I even saw two teenagers making out over Shake Shack, confirming that if you build it, they will come.

So far, reactions to Hudson Yards have skewed negative. It’s been described as a “billionaire’s dystopia,” or a “gated community” for the one percent. But the presence of a mall (plus a climbable, shawarma-shaped sculpture called the Vessel), brings a whiff of democracy to the area — and a reason for outsiders to visit. Hudson Yards may not be good for New York, but it still begs the question: Is Hudson Yards good … at being a mall? I’ve gone multiple times in an attempt to answer this. But, much like the Vessel itself, I kept leaving feeling empty on the inside.

Why shop at Hudson Yards and not New York’s other mall-like spaces? For starters, it’s bigger. The odds that you’ll find something you’re looking for are higher, simply because there’s more on display. Also, you can’t shop at a department store like Neiman Marcus or its neighbor, Forty Five Ten, anywhere else in the five boroughs — and both are a draw. (There is, however, a Neiman Marcus outlet in Brooklyn.) Forty Five Ten in particular provides a well-curated sprinkling of items you have to dig for in Soho, like Sandy Liang fleece jackets, Rodarte gowns, and vintage Versace.

Hudson Yards also promises a glamorous, hypermodern experience, like shopping in Dubai as opposed to Rockefeller Center. There’s no “food court,” Claire’s, or Hot Topic. The mix of stores aims both high and low, offering names like Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo on top of Chanel, Dior, and Fendi, but notably lacks “middle” retailers other than Banana Republic and Madewell — which perhaps speaks to a more general lack of desire to cater to New York’s shrinking middle class.

Even if you’re just browsing, is moving through Hudson Yards actually enjoyable? Its size and open plan can feel overwhelming. During opening weekend, I almost had a meltdown from the lines and crowds. (And cruel lack of benches.) After a few visits, though, I’ve become more familiar with the layout. One Wednesday evening was calm, and I had the energy to actually explore. Who knew Stance had Grateful Dead socks? (And who knew that Stance was a store?)

Photo: Courtesy of Related

Still, the physical experience has its flaws. The “fluid” layout hinders customers from fully immersing themselves in each store. At Forty Five Ten, for example, it’s impossible to escape the mind-numbing elevator music of the shopping center outside, which detracts from the feeling of intimacy and specialness required to convince yourself to drop thousands of dollars on a cashmere vest. (And this is all despite Forty Five Ten’s tasteful decorating.) Neiman Marcus is perhaps the only place where you can really escape, but I quickly lost track of my day there trying on every single pair of sunglasses.

There’s a temptation to judge Hudson Yards against more organic neighborhoods like Soho and the Lower East Side, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Plus it feels delusional, as both areas have become outdoor malls of their own. Department stores like Bergdorf’s and Barneys are also self-contained organisms, and a fraction of the size. As experiences, though, these places give off a frenetic, palpable energy that Hudson Yards does not. I think it’s because they’re all so thoroughly enmeshed in the city’s grid, whereas Hudson Yards seems to exist in the iCloud.

Is Hudson Yards actually what New Yorkers want? It’s impossible to sum up, or thoroughly judge, the retail complex after only a few visits, and so early into its development. All I know is that if you’re shopping IRL and not online, you want to feel fully present when you stick your credit card into that chip reader. You want the thrill of discovery combined with the rush of self-indulgence. A sense of time and place helps triangulate that experience, but when I’m at Hudson Yards, I feel like I could be anywhere.

Is It Any Fun to Shop at New York’s New Mega-Mall?