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The World Trade Center retail complex is finally opening, but will they come?

World Trade Center site in the Manhattan borough of New York
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
World Trade Center site in the Manhattan borough of New York

The opening of the World Trade Center retail complex comes at an important moment for downtown New York: 15 years after 9/11 the downtown has completely transformed, but is there enough demand for a huge retail complex?

The Westfield World Trade Center, as it is being called, consists of 125 stores, plus Eataly, a 41,000 square-foot food emporium where shoppers can buy 300 types of cheeses, 150 brands of olive oil, 300 types of dried pastas, and dine and drink their way through restaurants, coffee and pastry and prosciutto bars, and take cooking classes.

It all sounds wonderful, but who are the customers? Downtown players I've spoken with identify three key constituents.

Westfield, which is in charge of the retail complex, says it anticipates 15 million global travelers to visit downtown by 2017 to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, 1 WTC Observatory and other local points of interest.

1. Tourists


This should be achievable. Lower Manhattan had a record year for tourism in 2015. There were 14.2 million unique visitors in 2015, up almost 50 percent from 2013, according to the Downtown Alliance.

2. Commuters

About 250,000 people a day commute through the main transportation hub at the newly opened Oculus, according to the Port Authority. Wall Street is now a small part of the employment picture downtown. Education and health care are now major employers, as is the hotel industry. Professional services and media companies are also more heavily represented (TIME relocated downtown in 2015).

The employment picture is certainly brighter than a decade ago. About 232,000 people now work below Canal Street in the private sector. That number has grown every year since bottoming in 2009, and it went up by 5,100 workers last year.

"Downtown is much better insulated from economic downturns because we are a much more diverse neighborhood than we used to be," said Jessica Lappin, head of the Downtown Alliance.

But the sheer volume of space on the market is making it difficult to absorb. One World Trade Center is still only 70 percent leased, with Conde Naste as the lead. 4 World Trade Center is also 70 percent leased.

That's a lot of space to absorb, but the downtown office vacancy rate, at 9.8 percent, is slightly higher than Midtown's 9.2 percent rate.

That's not bad, considering the size of the space available.

3. Locals

More than 60,000 residents are now living in the blocks around the Trade Center, according to the Downtown Alliance. Another 4,400 units are under construction. Families are packing the World Financial Center across the street, and millennials are buying apartments in the old office buildings around Wall Street.

There's no doubt that a huge crowd of potential shoppers is downtown. You don't even need the statistics. On any given day, you can see hordes of people wandering up and down Broadway and Church — the two major north-south arteries downtown.

But is it enough to make the project a success? On the surface, there's plenty of competition. Saks Fifth Avenue is slated to open in early September 2016, and Brookfield Place in the World Financial Center is continuing to roll out new stores, including Joie and Jo Malone London adding to the upscale shops and restaurants.

But there may be room for everyone. Brookfield is a higher-end project. It has Burberry, Gucci, Hermes, Tory Burch, Ferragamo, while Westfield, with an H&M, a Banana Republic, an Under Armour and a Lacoste has more mixed price points.

"The hope is that more breeds more. People who work here have a lot of disposable income, so there's plenty of demand to go around," Lappin told me.

Westfield says that a "majority" of the stores will be open on August 16th. In a May update to investors, Westfield also said that the $1.4 billion project was fully leased. However, The Real Deal reported three weeks ago that Westfield had sued Bebe for failing to take possession of the space. Bebe claims the store was not delivered on time or in a "ready condition" for it to occupy.

Westfield has not commented on the report, but it wouldn't be a big surprise to find that out of 125 companies there were a few who had changed their plans.

Note: After this story was published, Westfield responded via email: "The space is fully leased, including the four spots discussed in that story."