Crowds thin within the interior of the Oculus as the sun sets, Westfield World Trade Center, Thursday, September 22, 2016. (James Thorne/UpstartCity)

At the World Trade Center, a Mall on a Mission

The opening of Westfield World Trade Center marks one of the first major tests of lower Manhattan’s ongoing renaissance.

In mid-August, Westfield World Trade Center opened the doors to 60-odd luxury shopping stores within the Santiago Calatrava–designed Oculus. The spaceship-like structure is difficult to ignore — impossible for the New Jersey commuters who pass through it every day, and nearly impossible for visitors of downtown Manhattan who find themselves drawn to the spindly white structure like moths to a flame.

With only six months in operation under its belt, the 12-year, $4 billion dollar Oculus structure has already faced years of taxpayer criticism.

The retail shops at Westfield therefore offer an important proof point, a chance to answer the question: Was it worth it? Of the quarter-million commuters who pass through the Oculus each day, most will give little more than a passing glance to the shops. Even still, daily foot traffic that numbers in the hundreds of thousands presents a major opportunity for brands.

Tourists spent $45 billion in the city in 2015, according to a report by Tourism Economics and NYC & Company. The hope is that many of the shopping dollars — traditionally concentrated in areas such as Times Square and Fifth Avenue — will start to migrate downtown. Westfield Corporation hopes sales in the new shopping center will reach $1 billion annually, according to a company press release.

On a recent Thursday evening the mall is subdued, and little evidence remains of the rush hour masses. Of the shops in the main hall, the Apple store seems to be getting all of the attention. Nearly sixty people stand in line, and some poor sales representative is charged with explaining to a horde of mostly foreign shoppers why they can’t buy the new iPhone 7.

Shoppers handle the new iPhone 7, which has sold out for the day, Westfield World Trade Center, Thursday, September 22, 2016. (James Thorne/UpstartCity)

“We’re sold out for tonight,” he says. Nobody budges. The rep turns to meet the desperate eyes of a woman waving an credit card. They don’t share a language, so waving is all they have. “I’m sorry miss,” he says. “Not tonight. Good night.” He motions her away and posts a security guard at the end of the line like a human bookend.

Over by the iWatches, a family of four speak in hushed tones. They’re from Alicante, Spain, and admit to taking advantage of the Euro’s strength relative to the dollar, putting them among the lucky few. The dollar’s value has risen in recent years, making visits to cities such as New York an expensive prospect for holders of most foreign currencies.

The Spanish family’s eldest son bought an iPhone 7 Plus two days prior, but he can’t decide on a strap. A half hour of indecision passes until he lands on a black-on-black version. His mother, who’s been chewing her nails throughout the ordeal, jets off in search of earrings.

Another shopper, Jia Lin, is fiddling with two iPhones: a silver iPhone 7 that she bought the day prior and the larger iPhone 7 Plus. She opted to purchase the device on her visit to the U.S. rather than back home in China, where she’d have to wait two weeks. Lin returned today because her traveling partner wanted the iWatch.

Timepieces aren’t doing as well elsewhere. Across the hall from the Apple store, a row of three luxury watch stores sit entirely empty. This doesn’t worry Montblanc sales ambassador Stephanie Ly. She gives the vacant store a thoughtful once-over.

“You tend to get better sales on the slow days,” she says.