Nothing lasts forever. Not even West Edmonton Mall’s reign as the world’s biggest shopping center, which is expected to end next year with the completion of South China Mall, a roughly 6.5 million-square-foot shopping and amusement project in Dongguan City, just north of Hong Kong.
Las Vegas meets Disneyland — that is the way Ian Thomas, chairman of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Thomas Consultants, describes South China Mall, which is going up in the booming factory-belt province of Guangdong. His company provided advice on leasing and pedestrian circulation at the giant center. The developer is Dongguan San Yuan Ying Hui Investment and Development Co., and the owner is Alex Wu, whom Thomas describes as a local billionaire.
South China Mall has seven “zones” modeled on international cities, nations and regions: Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Paris, Rome, Venice, Italy; Egypt; the Caribbean; and California.
“It’s done with such authenticity, with such great attention to detail, that you really think you’re in the real thing,” Thomas said. “It’s that well executed.” Security guards in the Parisian section will dress as gendarmes, for example.
The first phase of the $1 billion development is scheduled to open by year-end, with space for 600 shops.
The second and third phases, slated to open next year, will bring the mall to 5.2 million square feet of gross leasable area, with 1,500 stores and 11 anchors. At a total 6.5 million square feet of leasable and nonleasable space, it beats out West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta, which houses 3.8 million square feet of retail and covers 5.3 million square feet, counting its amusement parks.
South China Mall is an indoor and outdoor center spread over about 100 acres, with some stores facing sidewalks along streets. Most of the space is on two or three levels, but department store anchors rise to five stories says James Wang, a principal at San Diego-based Joseph Wong Design Associates, one among several firms from China, Europe, and North America that have contributed to the design.
The look would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a Western-style shopping center, according to Thomas. “They’ve taken the principles of the best malls of North America — the way they flow, the way the parking is laid out, the position of the anchors and how the spines work — and they’ve put it into a local context,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just an American idea any more. It’s more the international mall that’s now evolved.”
But much is unusual at South China Mall. Shoppers can circumnavigate the perimeter by boat in a Venetian-inspired canal that stretches more than a mile, Wang says. Replete with gondolas and water taxis, it will “create enormous charm and a point of difference,” Thomas said.
Efforts to charm visitors extend to the rides in the project’s amusement component, including roller coasters and water slides. There are also an Imax cinema and some Warner Bros. movie theaters.
Two mid-rise apartment towers of about 20 stories each are in the works for the center’s edges but have not yet been designed, according to Wang.
Retail is what the center is about, however, and shoppers will be enticed by stores from chains based in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Europe. But with few North American retailers aside from Wal-Mart currently operating in China, none had signed on at press time.
Details are sketchy, but among the names being mentioned are Causeway Bay, a department store from Hong Kong; Sundan, a Chinese appliances retailer; and Trust Mart, a Taiwan-based supermarket chain.
“In time, we think we’ll have a lot more international tenants coming in,” said Thomas. “A lot are looking over their shoulders, but they never want to be the leader, with all the attendant risk. They’d rather be the follower.”
OBI, a German home center chain, is among the anchors. Another German store, however, a Metro hypermarket, backed out at the last minute, a setback not unusual in China, says Thomas.
“They’ll go right to the wire, and then something will happen and they will pull out,” he said. “In North America this would be catastrophic, but it’s almost par for the course in China.”
Parking spaces are expected to number about 8,000. That is far short of the more than 20,000 spots that earned West Edmonton Mall a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, but car ownership in China is far below Western levels. Many shoppers will arrive at South China Mall on public transportation or on foot. Motor traffic is expected to increase, though, because of the growing infatuation with the automobile and favorable loan terms from U.S. carmakers, Thomas says.
However they choose to arrive, the area’s burgeoning population will provide a huge audience. About 4 million people live within six miles, 9 million within 12 miles and 40 million within 60.
Those millions have money to spend, too, says Thomas. The center lies in the Pearl River Delta, one of the wealthiest areas in China, where 90 percent of the world’s computers are assembled, and where phone maker Nokia employs 90,000 workers, he says.
“It’s where the shoe business is located, and there’s lots of electronics production,” said Merrill Weingrod, CEO of China Strategies, an affiliate of consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. “This is adjacent to Shenzhen, the first city across the border from Hong Kong, which got developed in the new reform period. Shenzhen has the highest disposable income statistically in China.”
Annual income is expected to reach $3,980 per capita there by next year, according to the News Guangdong Web site. Gross domestic product for the province rose 15.1 percent in the first half of this year, while disposable income among the urban and rural residents increased by 9.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively, according to the Statistics Bureau of Guangdong Province, as reported by News Guangdong.
The diverse population includes many well-to-do Hong Kong Chinese, foreigners associated with the consumer goods industry, and migrants and locals who have made money there, Weingrod says. Together, they form a sophisticated audience for a shopping center.
“Think of it as a megalopolis, like Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia all clustered reasonably close together,” Weingrod said. “A big mall like this will attract people from a wide area, many of whom have lots of money to spend.”
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