With artisanal food halls, affordable outlets and Instagram-worthy views, the upcoming opening of Empire Outlets could drastically change Staten Island, or at least that’s what Joseph Ferrara, principal partner of BFC Partners, the development group behind Empire, is hoping.
“We want to make sure that people stay engaged and we want that engagement to change because we don’t want anybody to be bored with what it is we have to offer at Empire,” said Ferrara. “Millennials, currently they’re like the biggest spending population right now on the planet. So what engages millennials is things like adventure and excitement type stuff.”
Building Empire Outlets is the most important project Ferrara has worked on, yet the scope and magnitude is exactly what he’s been building up for all of his years at BFC. The $580 million project navigated the tough real estate terrain to become a reality. Ferrara had to convince the community to move their much needed commuter parking lot during the process of construction. He also brokered a deal with the city council to use the more expensive union labor. Ferrara’s idea makes sense: millions of commuters and tourists walk by this area everyday. The question is whether they really will stop and spend money, and maybe they will if it’s a cool place to go.
Ferrara, 48, grew up on Staten Island and development and construction were a family business for him. His father worked at BFC and right after Ferrara graduated college he began working for his dad.
“I developed a passion for building things, trying to change areas that we targeted that were in need of some sort of change.” he said. “I would say that the project that I’m most passionate about right now would have to be Empire Outlets. Primarily so because, first and foremost, we’re actually developing it in a borough where I call home.”
Empire Outlets is expected to be finished in spring of 2017. It will include 100 retail outlets, food and beverage options, and will be 1,000 feet from the world’s tallest ferris wheel. It will be located on an unused portion of waterfront right next to St. George Ferry Terminal, giving it access to the 23 million people who use the ferry every year.
The targeting of millennials is valid and risky. Millennials really are the highest spending group, spending $600 billion each year according to a study by Accenture. But Staten Island does lack in them, with 19 percent of their population in the millennial age rage of 20-34, compared to 29 percent in Manhattan and 25 percent in Brooklyn, according to census date from 2015. What attracts millennials is being able to have a unique experience and Ferrara is doing everything he can to hone that in at Empire Outlets.
That’s why he hired Michael Brais, real estate broker at Douglas Elliman, as the head of food and beverage at Empire Outlets. He’s working with the creative group behind Gansevoort Market to create an artisanal food hall. He’s signed on restaurants like Mighty Quinns BBQ and Two Boots Pizza and is also working on a 6,0000-square-foot beer garden. Though they haven’t finished signing on vendors, Brais says each one will be the first on Staten Island. They’re targeting best-in-class and boutique restaurants. He says they won’t be signing on any Applebee’s.
“In retail we always talk about how the emphasis isn’t on the transaction anymore, it’s on the experience,” said Brais. “It’s gone from a transactional to an experiential perspective and that is the thinking about millennials. Specifically, when you think about experiential, you think about two things: authentic, and unique.”
Yet the food isn’t anything you can’t find in Manhattan. Mighty Quinn’s and Two Boots are both easily accessible in the West Village. Brais says the real draw will be the view.
“Those people take that ferry just for the views,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of people coming for the view. In order to come and enjoy this amazing view of New York City harbor and get something to eat, that unto itself is a little bit different than just going to Greenwich Avenue and having a BBQ sandwich at the Mighty Quinn’s.”
Using the view as a selling point might seem extreme, but photo-sharing habits of millennials point to this being an important aspect of experiences. According to a Pew Research study, 55 percent of millennials have shared a selfie on social media, compared to 26 percent of Americans overall. Millennials use photos to tell their personal story and 79 percent share photos online.
BFC is not the only developer hoping to cash in on Staten Island. In 2011, New Jersey-based Ironstate Development closed a deal with the New York City Economic Development Corporation to build mixed-use housing and retail space Urby Staten Island. A few blocks away is Lighthouse Point, a $208 million project with residential and retail space is being developed by Queens-based Triangle Equities. Whether this will be complementary or competition to Empire Outlets is unclear.
The rest of the borough is mostly on board for this hoped-for millennial influx. They want to get rid of the label as “the forgotten borough” and trust Ferrara to make that happen.
“What the perfect formula is as far as Joe, I wish we could put it down on paper,” said Nicholas Siclari, commissioner of Staten Island community board 1. “It’s just a matter of changing the dynamic of the neighborhood. What attracts a millennial? Williamsburg was a bad neighborhood until somebody decided we need the real estate.”
Ferrara is more than hopeful, which is to be expected for someone promoting a risky and new project. Ferrara wants to make a lasting and positive impact on the borough he calls home.
“I want to build a significant project that’s high in design, which our project is, which the borough lacks of historically,” said Ferrara. “I just want to be able to be involved in a game-changing, pioneering project and for us Empire Outlets is it for the borough.”