The lure is food - to eat or to carry home - in a dozen ethnic guises in the 20 shops and restaurants opening this week in Citicorp Center's "Market" complex.
Arthur Driscoll recently showed a visitor around the massive new center, a project of Citibank, which occupies most of the square block bordered by Third and Lexington Avenues and 53d and 54th Streets. Driscoll is the Citibank vice president who has been booking agent and referee in charge of space allotment for the project.
"This thing is dynamite," he said several times during a tour of the three levels and two plazas in the super complex of buildings intended to revitalize what, only four years ago, was an area of shabby shops, bars and clubs.
It was unfinished, of course. Such construction always is up to the last moment. Lacking were the people, sights and smells that may produce the vibrant urban living the planners envision seven days and nights a week. But even while looking over a vista of rough cement, one believed Driscoll when he said, "We'll be ready." Very close to a yar ago Driscoll conducted the same tour for the same visitor, using blueprints. What was imagined then is very close to what is emerging now.
The Original Alfredo's and its famous fettuccini has been brought from Rome. The kitchens of one restaurant and a pastry shop are to be manned by chefs imported from Hungary. There will be spit-roasting French-style and a Greek "gourmet" carryout. On one level, a full-fledged Italian grocery will function. In the plaza, pushcarts will offer ready-to-eat items.
The tour went from one storefront to another. First a chocolate shop, then the Greek eatery, a bakery and a coffee, tea and spice shop from Canada.
"Isn't there going to be competition for customers?" he was asked. "Sure," he responded, smiling in anticipation as he moved Charles Chevillot's French rotissery (seating about 80) and pointed to the Alfredo's location across a seven-story, indoor courtyard. The courtyard (the Atrium), barren at that moment, will contain tables, chairs, 30-foot trees and live entertainment.
Elsewhere space has been allotted to sell natural foods and seafood. Scandinavian and Swiss cuisine each are represented. An English restaurant, Richoux of London, is already operating 24 hours a day.
The concept of building a food center to enliven or revive static downtown areas isn't new. Boston's Quincy Market has been a resounding success. The versatile market and eating complex Joseph Baum created for Lower Manhattan's World Trade Center has won plaudits and throngs of customers. Furthermore, in this city both street food and things ethnic are part of the way of life.
So when Citibank's executives talk of their new center as "a living, positive part of the neighborhood it stands in," emphasizing "human values," they are beating a familiar drum.
If the symbol of what they like to call "the New New York" continues to draw after initial curiosity is satisfied, it will be due to execution as well as concept. Here the bank appears to be on fairly solid ground. There seems to be little question that it has every intention of being an enlighted and concerned landlord. Examples range from an insistence that the area be spotlessly clean to a decision to change the escalator pattern to offer Conran's, the English home-furnishings store, better in-store security.
A yar ago Driscoll said, "This is going to be a compressed Rockefeller Center with lots to look at. Nothing will be very large. We want a tenant mix to build strength by variety and we have the resources to wait and look. The last thing we want (as landlords) is just to make money. What we can't afford is to let this fall on its face."
Citibank has played a major role in the design of the spaces it has leased. It insisted the stores be open seven days a week during the first year so bank officials can study traffic patterns. Conran's agreed to emphasize food in the furniture displays throughout its multilevel space. The Doubleday bookstore will feature international cookbooks.
Citibank ruled out selling "hot dogs or hamburgers" in two prime locations between the retooled subway exit (the modernization paid for by the bank) and St. Peter's Church. Instead, at least at first, the storefronts will be used by permanent tenants on a rotating basis. The rebuilt subway exit now leads onto a sunken plaza where a waterfall helps shut out street noise.
"I've spent more time on this 60,000 square feet than on the million-plus of office space," Driscoll said. "It's my first retail venture, which may have been an advantage. Our people looked at other places, of course, but we kept out options open."
It wasn't just a question of bigness dealing with bigness. Some of the tenants won their places with old-fashioned enterprise, being gutsy or clever or both, as Driscoll tells it. The deal with Terence Conran was made on a handshake in his London flat after a single meeting. The bakery man arrived unbidden one day, dumped samples of his wares on Driscoll's desk and challenged him to find better. The seafood specialist badgered Driscoll until he reluctantly (and unannounced) visisted his Queens restaurant.
The international theme came naturally. Intended to subtly underline the sweep of Citibank's overseas investment activities, it was developed by Halcyon, Ltd., a group of bright, young New Haven planners, with assistance from restaurant entrepreneur George Land. Lang's own company did the Hungarian restaurant and the pastry shop called Small Pleasures. It is not complete, however. A deal with Japanese Air Lines, mentioned last year, evidently fell through, so Oriental food is nowhere represented. There was talk, too, of an "American gourmet restaurant." Evidently that term was never fully defined, because there isn't one.
But what there is should be more than enough to attract New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors in large numbers to this modern, handsome showcase.
Why did Citibank decide that food was the attraction that could make this venture take wing? A bank official provided an answer:
"Did you know," he said, "that last year cookbooks outsold the Bible?"