Why a giant new slide is so important to Aventura Mall — and what it’s like to ride it

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That giant 93-foot glass-and-steel slide that’s been tantalizing shoppers at Aventura Mall for months is finally ready to ride.

The “Aventura Slide Tower,” which was designed by German sculptor Carsten Höller and the Miami firm Permuy Architecture, opened to the public Dec. 15 — the crowning touch in the first phase of Aventura Mall’s ambitious, $214 million expansion. Additions include a luxurious food hall, a covered parking garage, art installations and several new, world-famous tenants.

Expanding a mall in an era when the retail industry is struggling seems counter-intuitive — if not downright wacky. But Aventura’s new 315,000-square-foot wing follows the success of other brick-and-mortar shopping centers that are seeking to provide entertainment beyond shopping. The idea is to make the word “mall” synonymous with a social outing — much as it was when malls themselves were a novelty.

“The bulk of the repositioning of malls is happening to [secondary] malls, where they’re taking dead anchors and turning them into multifamily [apartment rentals] and gyms and medical centers,” said Steven Henenfeld, senior vice-president and director of retail leasing for the Miami real estate firm CREC.

“But Aventura Mall is one of the top malls in the country,” Henenfeld said. “This is a mall that is moving with the times. Today’s consumer is looking for an experience — if you just want to buy a shirt, you can do that online. For people to leave the house and go out shopping, the mall has to offer something unique. That’s what Aventura is doing.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, department store sales have plummeted by 40 percent since 2000, from $100 billion to $60 billion. National chains such as Sears, Kmart, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes and HH Gregg have either shuttered locations or gone out of business altogether.

But overall retail sales in the U.S. in November (including e-commerce) were actually up 4.7 percent year over year, and in-store sales in brick-and-mortar retailers also grew 4 percent year over year — the biggest jump since 2014.

And malls located in high-density, tourist-friendly markets such as South Florida are actually thriving. In a 2016 ranking of the top 10 malls in the U.S. conducted for CNBC by the research firm Green Street Advisors, Bal Harbour Shops came in first with sales of $3,185 per square foot — and Aventura Mall tied for sixth (with Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, N.H.) at $1,595 in sales per square foot.

In a September 2017 report titled “The Mall Is In Need of Transformation,” Fung Global Retail & Technology managing director Deborah Weinswig claims that shopping malls are transitioning from a focus on apparel to an emphasis on experiences. The report states that nonretail and nonrestaurant tenants occupy 13.3 percent of regional mall space today, up from 10.5 percent in 2012.

“Despite the doomsayers, we believe that the mall format is still relevant and that it can continue to thrive,” Weinswig wrote.

The mammoth Aventura Mall, located at 19501 Biscayne Blvd., has grown from its original 1.2 million square feet when it opened in 1983 to its current 2.7 million square feet, making it the third-largest in the U.S. (Sawgrass Mills is 10th in the country, with 2.4 million square feet). Over the years, stores such as Kaybee Toys have been replaced by more upscale tenants such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton and trendy, hip chains such as Apple, H&M and Anthropologie.

Aventura Mall’s new expansion adds more art and sculptures to the mix — some of which happen to be rides. The free slide — open to those at least 44-inches tall — is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Evening hours will be added later.) The nine-story stair-climb to the top is a bit of a workout. Once there, you lie on your back atop a slide mat for the 15-second, high-speed plummet, which delivers the hoped-for stomach drop. Four mall employees, two at the top and two at the bottom of the structure, make sure things proceed smoothly.

The slide also marks the entrance to the new wing. The three-level structure is fronted by an 84-foot by 50-foot glass wall and topped by a 350-foot skylight that allows sunlight to shine down to the ground floor.

Among the tenants in the new wing: A Tesla automobile store, the first Florida location of the British clothier Topshop Topman, a flagship Burberry’s and a two-level, 34,000-square-foot store for Zara, the Spanish fashion retailer.

The luxurious new Treats Food Hall, which occupies the third floor of the new wing, will eventually feature a dozen eateries. Luke’s Lobster is already open: coming soon are My Ceviche, Shake Shack, Zuuk Mediterranean Kitchen, Figs by Todd English, Hank & Harry’s, Poke 305, GOGO Fresh, Sliderz, The Bol and Haagen-Dazs.

Three other restaurants are already open in the wing’s outdoor plaza: Genuine Pizza, CVI.CHE 105 and Blue Bottle Coffee. Tap 42, Pubbelly Sushi, Serafina and Rosetta Bakery will join them by spring of 2018, when all the eateries are expected to be up and running. Other additions, such as a rooftop garden and a 7,000-square-foot VIP lounge available for private events, will also be completed next year.

Scattered throughout the new expansion are artworks by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone and art-furniture godhead Wendell Castle. An outdoor splash fountain at the wing’s main entrance features bronze sculptures by The Haas Brothers.

Adding theme-park attractions to malls to increase foot traffic is not a new tactic. When it opened in 1977, the Omni International Mall had a “Treasure Island” entertainment area that featured a carousel, a video arcade and other carnival attractions. The Monroeville Mall was made famous in George A. Romero’s 1979 gory, consumerist horror-satire “Dawn of the Dead,” which showed zombies shambling around the mall’s indoor ice-skating rink.

And the mammoth American Dream mega-mall proposed near Miami Lakes will span 200 acres and include a ski slope, submarine rides and a Legoland.

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