Tour Recap: Le District

Posted Ben Pardee Post

New Yorkers have a remarkable ability to manage the anxiety that naturally stems from sharing public space with the other eight million people who call this city home. We have become accustomed to packing in like sardines on our morning subway commutes and exercise considerable grit to stock up at Trader Joe’s on Sunday afternoons.

When work began on a new food hall at Brookfield Place, across from the World Trade Center, HPH Hospitality selected ICRAVE precisely for its skill in designing for these realities. Founded in 2002 by Lionel Ohayon, ICRAVE is an experience design firm with a deep portfolio of work in hospitality design. As Ohayon put it, many of the projects the firm works on are about “managing anxiety” in spaces that often precipitate it, such as airports and hospitals. HPH brought ICRAVE onto the project for the express purpose of making what would be a highly trafficked site into a vibrant and functional market.

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The tour started off with glasses of champagne, courtesy of our guides from HPH and ICRAVE. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

For the third installment of a series of food hall tours organized as part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, Open House New York hosted a tour with Ohayon and HPH Hospitality owner Peter Poulakakos at Le District on March 3rd. The two men behind the concept and design of the French-themed, 30,000 sq ft food hall began the tour by providing some context for the space’s development.

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Lionel Ohayon, center, describes much of his firm ICRAVE’s work—which includes airport terminals and hospitals in addition to commercial spaces like Le District—as the art of “managing anxiety.” (Photo: Ben Helmer)

While HPH looked to ICRAVE for its expertise in hospitality design, neither firm had worked on a food hall before Le District; the result is an “ever-evolving, living market,” Poulakakos explained. Although the fare is French, originally the partners did not know what kind of food they would highlight, so more of Le District’s initial inspiration came from its neighborhood context.

As Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan were redeveloped in the years following September 11, with more and more residents moving in, the neighborhood still lacked a vibrant streetscape. Ohayon and Poulakakos saw their food hall as an opportunity to “extend the sidewalk” and create a streetscape that was otherwise noticeably absent outside its doors. In addition to carving an inviting passageway through Brookfield Place, the Le District team also needed to bring the streetscape to life within the space itself, which they accomplished through design.

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Maps in the space help visitors to navigate between the food hall’s four ‘districts,’ where they can do everything from grab a cup of coffee, to take care of grocery shopping for the week, to sit down for dinner with friends. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

ICRAVE’s design and material selection for each District disrupts uniformity in the venue, and replicates the expansion and contraction of New York’s diverse built environment. That is not to say the food hall feels disjointed; Poulakakos explained there is “a slick industrial tone throughout, but each area has a unique feel.”

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HPH Hospitality’s Peter Poulakakos, left, noted that Le District’s design has “a slick industrial tone throughout, but each area has a unique feel.” (Photo: Ben Helmer)

Le District is about a 50-50 split between shopping and dining. The hall is made up of the Café District, with coffee, ice cream, a bakery, and a crepe and waffle stand; the Garden District, with a grocery store selling prepared foods, gifts, and other staples; the Market District, the central hub with a wine bar and gourmet food stations; and the Restaurant District, including a French brasserie and bar as well as the informal but high end dining room L’Appart.

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HPH Hospitality decided to try something new and develop a food hall at the site, in order to help create a stronger sense of place within the relatively new neighborhood of Battery Park City. HPH is the company behind a host of well-known restaurants around the city, including the recently restored Pier A, just a few blocks away. (Photo: Ben Helmer)

Another component of Le District’s success since it opened last year has been the ability to adapt and modify the space on the fly, in response to user feedback. For example, the flower shop was originally located in the Café District, but the team realized that it did not fit into the flow of the market, so they are in the process of moving it into the Garden District which will allow the ice cream shop to expand into the former flower area. They have also greatly expanded the Biergarten on the marina outside the Restaurant District after the premium views of the Hudson River and beyond proved to be exceedingly popular during warmer months.

All of this flexibility exemplifies ICRAVE’s design process: “the project never really ends,” says Ohayon. Just as the surrounding neighborhood continues to grow and change, so will Le District. The adaptable nature of the project, both on the part of the market purveyor as well as the designer, illustrates the intention for food to create a strong sense of place, a thread that defines food halls in New York.

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Much of the action during the tour, held on a cold February night, was indoors—but come warmer weather, Le District will spill out onto the adjacent plaza with an expansive Biergarten. (Photo: Ben Helmer)