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Famed Manhattan Nightclub Becomes a Mall

Formerly a house of worship turned den of debauchery, Limelight is back with a retail mission.

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A famed symbol of 1980s nightlife, the Manhattan dance club Limelight has reopened—this time, as an upscale mall.

An unassuming, 163-year-old gothic-revival church located in New York's Flatiron retail corridor, the Limelight has a past layered in both the sacred and the sacrilegious.  For a century, Episcopal congregations worshipped there. Then, beginning in 1983, the building became a haven for club kids. Cages for dancers were suspended from the rafters, a DJ booth was added to the organ loft, and sheet rock was installed to cover the stained-glass windows. Check out a slideshow of the transformation from chapel to club to mall.

Today, after another transformation, the space houses an experiment in high-end retail, a mall with more than 40 small shops, a wine bar, sweets shop, and epicurean market.

"We were shooting for a new retail paradigm," says Limelight Marketplace CEO Jack Menashe. "We want traffic, we want to be a walking destination. It's made for a lot of people to come and sit and eat and enjoy – and the shopping can be secondary."

Styled after London's Covent Garden and Dover Street Market, the 25,000-square-foot space feels at once intimate and sprawling. Shops of varying designs spill into narrow walkways, occupying spaces of unconventional dimensions: a gelato stand juts out from a corner; a pet-accessories store occupies a hallway wall; a menswear and leather-accessory purveyor is perched in a skybox; and an unmarked corridor opens into an outdoor greenmarket.

The goal is to create a space that's a fascination in itself, with winding stairwells and new shops around every bend. In other words, Limelight Marketplace is hoping to be an anti-mall, said designer and architect James Mansour. "The maze-like stairwells and meandering design is about discovery, so you can't take it all in on the first visit," Mansour says.

Though all of the sweets purveyors are lumped into a sort of sugar-rush thoroughfare, otherwise, the distinctly un-mall-like mash-up of shops – say, Booksmart being next to a caviar shop adjacent to a perfumery – is intentional.

"We're trying to throw out the convention of malls and space limits of vendors," Mansour says. "It's called juxtaposition – it's a driving factor to get the consumer to have that wow factor. If you do it like a department store or a mall, they don't have that perspective-changing experience in shopping."

To succeed, the Limelight faces long odds. In Manhattan, malls aren't exactly the norm. And with a low living-population density, the Flatiron-Chelsea neighborhood isn't prime retail geography. Retail analyst Paco Underhill, who authored the best-selling Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, says the stretch of Sixth Avenue that Limelight occupies is actually decreasing in retail value.

"In the best of possible worlds, we can call it a noble experiment," Underhill says. "With all the vacant storefronts around Manhattan, what we have a fundamental question of what is the role of retail in the modern city. The role of selling milk and kitty litter just doesn't work, but maybe gifts and niche retail could."

Of course, creating buzz is a lot easier when a place has a controversial history. Almost anyone who lived in Manhattan in the 1980s or '90s remembers the church-turned-nightclub as "Slimelight," a place where actress Chloë Sevigny partied through the night, designer Richie Rich made his name, and notorious clubster Michael Alig rose in prominence in the underground club scene. In 1995, Limelight was shut down by federal agents on suspicion of drug trafficking. Employee Angel Melendez then moved in with Alig, who was later convicted of his murder. The Macaulay Culkin movie Party Monster was based on the story.

At the mall's opening gala recently, some of the former club kids were back, mingling with shop-owners and reality-TV stars. Rich posed for a photo with Jill Zarin of the Real Housewives of New York City, and told Inc. that though the new marketplace's design "looks beautiful," it's bittersweet to be back inside its walls.

"Its like going back to a high school reunion for me. I feel bad in that I miss my friends I loved," Rich says. "The memories are great. I had so much fun here, back when we were like kids in a candy store. We all had our lives turn into something, for good or bad, and I wouldn't change it for the world."

Whether this new incarnation of Limelight will succeed has a lot to do with whether small retailers are able to afford to set up shop and thrive, according to Underwood.

"We are in need of real estate where we give the small-scale entrepreneur the opportunity to succeed without taking their first-bor n child along with all their profits," he says. That will take time to gauge, as it appears retailers have gotten different space-rental deals based on location, size of shop, as well as other factors.

Limelight is billing its marketplace as a "turn-key solution" for entrepreneurs and innovative retailers, which can rent a location for a fraction of the cost of a full Manhattan storefront. Indeed, plenty of the retail spaces are occupied by first- or second-locations – and many of the food and sweets purveyors are debut locations.

Mari's New York is the new "one-bite brownie" shop by the former backer from the restaurant Balthazar, who previously had only sold her brownies through other retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman.

Butterfly Bakeshop is the first terrestrial location for a New York-based online bakery, and online gourmet market Jezalin's is also opening its first storefront on Limelight's first floor.

Menache's retail experiment also persuaded Hunter Boots and Havaianas sandals to open their first U.S. storefronts in Limelight.

Olatz Lopez Garmendia, the founder of linen and luxury sleepwear shop Olatz, and the wife of the artist Julien Schnabel, said the location drew her to sign a lease with Limelight. "It's a great building, and they did a great job with it," she says. "My other store is a little out of the way and we just barely survived the recession, so this has potential."

If nothing else, the project certainly has the potential to inspire future retail projects that playfully draw on the appeal of architectural reinvention.

For a look at Limelight's Retail Makeover, check out this gallery of images.

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Last updated: Jun 14, 2010

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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