By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Bargain hunters at Century 21 are about to get some breathing room.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the famed discount department store is planning a major expansion of its lower Manhattan flagship, executives announced Wednesday night.
Century 21 will add about 76,000 square feet of new retail space at 22 Cortlandt St., including a cafe and additional dressing rooms and bathrooms, said Betty Cohen, director of corporate relations at Century 21. The store will then renovate its adjacent 120,000-square-foot current space, widening the aisles and spreading out the merchandise.
"What we want to do is make it a better shopping experience," Cohen said. "Everything can be much more enjoyable. We want you to stay longer."
Pending city approval, Century 21 hopes to start work on the three new floors, which were previously office space, later this summer and finish them by the middle to end of 2012.
Cohen acknowledged that the store has become too crowded, with so many people and goods that it is all but impossible to navigate with a shopping cart or baby stroller.
"You walk through the aisles, trying to get to the merchandise," Cohen said, "and you're knocking things off the rack, [saying] 'Excuse me, excuse me.'"
Despite the addition of over 60 percent more space, Century 21 only plans to add about 10 to 20 percent more merchandise and will not bring in any new departments, so as not to clog the new floors.
"It is not about expanding the product line," said David D'Amico, Century 21's director of store development and construction. "It is going to make it a better customer experience."
Once the addition is complete, workers will begin renovating the existing floors one at a time, all without interrupting the flow of shoppers through the store.
"The entire store is going to have a new look, fashion forward," Cohen said.
Century 21 executives presented the plans to Community Board 1's Financial District Committee Wednesday night, because they needed the board's support to amend a zoning regulation related to their loading dock.
As part of the renovation, Century 21 plans to add two high-speed elevators and more staging space within their building, to streamline the store's many daily deliveries, Cohen said.
The Financial District Committee unanimously supported the proposal, and several members said they appreciated that the "claustrophobic" store was getting a facelift.
"It's terrific," said Catherine McVay Hughes, a Financial District resident and CB1 member. "I like seeing a key neighbor in the community committing to stay down here."
Century 21 sits across the street from the World Trade Center site and was heavily damaged on 9/11. The store reopened less than six months later, in February 2002.
The expanded Century 21 will create at least 300 new jobs for lower Manhattan, Cohen said.
Cohen added that she is particularly looking forward to the department store's new cafe, which she expects to be popular among Century 21's male visitors.
"It would be nice, especially when the men get tired and fed up with shopping," she said with a smile.