The opening of a major mall in Jordan in this post-financial-crisis era is certainly an event to watch. We live in very different times compared to, say, 2005, when we were awash in Gulf money and grand real estate dreams. Can developers and retailers pull off another mall in a market were people are under financial pressure and the political climate is uncertain.
Furthermore, I am always interested to see if major projects in Jordan can be delivered at a high level of quality and perfection or if we still are stuck in mediocrity.
Now, I honestly do not want to come across as a whining armchair critic here. As someone involved in designing and delivering projects of all sorts, I know how hard it is, anywhere, to deliver a perfect building, service or product. I also know how hard it is to deliver anything perfect particularly here in Jordan. One’s best intentions get compromised and compromised and compromised by a variety of factors, small budgets, sub-par craftsmanship and a work ethic that, frankly, sucks.
Developing a big mall like this one is not easy, especially given the climate of financial crunch.
Another thing: I am not a fan of the proliferation of malls in Jordan. I think we should stop building them and come up with other, more organic, more authentic, more sustainable and more outdoor urban experiences. But hey, who am I to tell people what to like. Jordanians still seem to love shopping in malls and so it seems we will keep building them.
To its credit, Taj Mall will introduce some novel concepts like outdoor spaces that will differentiate it from other closed-box malls. I think this is a great idea and I am pretty sure they will work nicely with the mild Amman weather. Once all the shops are open, Taj Mall will set a new milestone in Amman’s shopping scene.
But what kind of first impression does it make today?
So, yesterday, 9 days after its soft opening, I went to Taj Mall with my wife.
A visit to a new, big mall always is an experience of anticipation. And I had quite a bit of expectations, even though I knew that the mall was not fully open yet.
But the “we-just-can’t-get-it-right” feeling started creeping in as soon as we approached the building. Against the advice of my wife who wanted us to “just park in one of the near streets and walk to the mall” I insisted we use the underground parking.
It is a well known fact by now that the huge Taj Mall already sits uncomfortably close to the Blue Fig bridge in Abdoun and that the street corner adjacent to it is narrow. “No Parking” signs have been installed on the street, but, you guessed it, the entire length of the street corner was occupied by parked cars.
I took the entrance road preparing to descend into the underground parking. Now remember, this was a Saturday morning, so there was no huge onslaught of shoppers, and things were moving along reasonably fast.
Of course, this being Jordan’s most important new mall, it has “security measures” to match. Get this: someone comes with the “mirror on wheels thing” to look under the car (for car bombs). Is this really necessary? It actually makes me sick because it is just a show. We could have hidden a bomb elsewhere in the car and I could have had guns in my pockets (more about that in a bit). This security check just slows down the process of entering and I don’t want to be there on a weekend!
I am no security expert: but what kind of message about the country do these mall security checks send? A constant reminder that we are unsafe? I don’t know.
Anyway, we made our way past the security check after they made sure we have no car bomb, and down into the parking we went. On the big ramp down the first signs of littering were visible. Yes.. on the ramp! That combination of “grandeur” and “imperfection” proved to be a constant theme of the visit.
Every few minutes during our visit we saw or experienced something odd.
The underground parking signs, which unlike the directional signs outside the mall, looked rather well designed, where covered by weird pieces of paper with additional information (see photo above). A week into operation and the first thing you use in the mall already feels cluttered.
We proceeded to the escalators. I went through the metal detector with pockets full of keys and mobile phones. I beeped like hell but the security man (and woman) just waved me through (seriously, what kind of employment “solution” is that and what kind of fake security does this provide?).
We saw construction workers with a big metal construction cart using the super slick panoramic glass elevators. That elevator was totally very. All its visible structures were covered in dust and its glass-mounted control panels smeared with silicon gel.
The elevators not only allow you to go to the still unfinished food court area (!) but also to the unfinished and potentially dangerous cinema floor (!!)
I won’t comment much on the level of architectural finishing. It is not horrible, but certainly not Dubai standards. And yes we had to see some unfinished wiring coming out here and there.
Our main destination was the H&M clothing store. It’s cool that we have that in Amman now. The prices are reasonable and the selection is good. But even H&M seems to have trouble keeping standards in Jordan. The store was crammed with too much merchandise, placed on racks that were randomly placed on the shop floor. There was something wrong with the sound system and certainly something wrong with the ventilation.
Oh yes, it so happened to be Spinneys opening day in Jordan. Spinneys is bringing its showy retailing practices to Jordan. I’ve seen their stores in the Gulf and Beirut. They are designed like temples dedicated to shampoo, milk and vegetables (and a million other consumer items on the shelves). It’s quite impressive. But even here, problems with craftsmanship and even floor cleanliness where evident.
A strange exit
The grand finale was when we made our way out of the mall. The exit signage consisted of pieces of A4 paper stuck on the walls with the word “exit” or the letter “E” scrawled on them with a marker. We found ourselves going up a tightly winding ramp up, then left, then right, then left again and out of what I SWEAR is something like a hole in the wall, opening onto a back street behind the mall. That experience was closer to leaving a military camp and certainly not an upscale retail temple.
Ironically, that back street puts you right into that area of Abdoun that is not posh. An enclave of humble concrete houses that stand in stark contrast with the imposing luxury of the Abdoun that has grown around them. Quite a surreal Ammani experience.
I always ask myself after such experiences: aren’t we living beyond our means in Jordan. I mean, this is the affluent, high end of our economy. And even there it is obvious that we have quite a long way to go to perfect the craft and management skills that are necessary to deliver Dubai-style shopping experiences.
Once it is finished, Taj Mall will be quite something (not withstanding the traffic jams it will create due to its cramped location). But today it is clearly a place that was opened to the public too soon, probably under the pressure of the big retailers who needed to open.
I am sure that the operators of the mall l will fix a lot of the problems over time. But why not deal with some of the avoidable stuff right from the start, especially when it comes to safety?
I declared above that I am not a mall fan. But you know what? I secretly wanted Taj Mall to be an example of perfection. Some proof that we in Amman can do something that reaches the best global standards.
But this conspiracy of rushed work, lack of tight management, unnecessary “security” practices and lack of maintenance was a sad reminder that we still end up occupying that strange middle ground between good and bad, that we are able to “do OK” but not achieve “amazing”.